Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Old Man and His Sons by Heðin Brú

The Old Man and His SonsThe Old Man and His Sons by Heðin Brú
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Around the World: 9 of 52

This book was too short, and over too soon! It took a long time to track down a book written in the Faroe Islands that had actually been translated into English. This was written in the 1940s, depicting a quickly fading "old way" of living as a Faroese Islander. Brutal whale hunt, brutal living, but debt-free!

This is a simple story with memorable characters, but tends to drive home the message of the old ways having value and being disregarded a little too forcefully.

Because the Faroe Islands are at the top of places I dream about visiting, I stopped every time a specific spot was mentioned and looked at pictures of it before moving on in the story. It became easy to picture, and easy to place, when you consider that the main characters think of Tórshavn as "the city," and haven't been since children. The Faroe Islands are not that big to begin with!

This book is significant to its own country because the Faroese chose it as their 'Book of the Twentieth Century," according to the book cover.  

The Book On Fire by Keith Miller

The Book on FireThe Book on Fire by Keith Miller
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

A book thief lands in a fantastical version of the legendary Alexandria to steal from his ultimate library, and falls in love with a librarian working there. I'm not sure if the author loves libraries or librarians more, considering that his previous book, The Book of Flying, was along similar lines, but I have to admit it works for me. I almost feel embarrassed to say how much I enjoyed reading this book, but I can't really explain why. I was already enamored with Alexandria after reading the Durrell quartet, and this made it so much worse!

The writing is very descriptive, and I'm tempted to say overly so, except I don't feel it is. Most of the time if I pick up a book that spends half its time describing smells and food, it reads like filler, but here it serves to place the reader into his vision of Alexandria. I found myself drawn in and living in the world as I read, which doesn't happen often as an adult. (I also ended up hungry!)

There are elements of the writing and of the storytelling that are the same elements I love in Catherynne Valente's writing, and anyone knows me knows that is high praise indeed. After reading a little more about the author himself, I feel like you can see glimpses of his real life experiences tucked into this book, as far from reality as it seems.

"This is the true heart of the city, this street of cubbyholes of stacked paper. The library is of course its soul, but it is hidden."

"That's the difference between heroin and literature... The drugs you take are lonely voyages. I can share your needle but I can't share your trip. Each reading is separate, to be sure, but I can come much closer to another person's experience."

"You fall deeper into a book. The others flip through the pages, their eyes are always floating up, but you drown."

"First readings are like first kisses - you can't remember the taste, the shape of the other's lips, you have only a heady sensation of stained glass shattering."

"To read a cherished book aloud to someone who also knows the book by heart is an experience closer than any other conversation, closer than making love; the same reefs and swells crossed at the same time, the chuckles rising in tandem. You feel you're speaking into her blood."

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Millennium People by J.G. Ballard

Millennium PeopleMillennium People by J.G. Ballard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

First published in the UK in 2003, Millennium People was not even released in the USA until 2011. I thought I'd complained about publisher antics before! I'm not sure if they thought a story set in England wasn't universal enough, but the book would have been disturbingly prophetic read in 2003.

Ballard discusses what happens when people reach a place of complacency, and the danger of the middle class. One of the major characters tries to prove that it is only random violence that helps us understand our place in the universe, which of course was uncomfortable. I don't like to think of myself as even marginally close to terrorism.

"No middle-class revolutionary can defend the barricades without a shower and a large cappuccino."

"People will set off bombs for the sake of free parking. Or for no reason at all. We're all bored, desperately bored. We're like children left for too long in a playroom. After a while we have to start breaking up the toys, even the ones we like. There's nothing we believe in...."

"We think we believe in God but we're terrified by the mysteries of life and death. We're deeply self-centered but can't cope with the idea of our finite selves. We believe in progress and the power of reason, but are haunted by the darker sides of human nature. We're obsessed with sex, but fear the sexual imagination and have to be protected by huge taboos. We believe in equality but hate the underclass... We're an accident of nature, but we think we're at the centre of the universe. We're a few steps from oblivion, but we hope we're somehow immortal...."

Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto

KitchenKitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Country: Japan (8 of 52)

Two beautifully written novellas about people dealing with grief - Kitchen No. 1 and Kitchen No. 2, also known as "Moonlight Shadow." Something that stuck out to me is the lack of internal dialogue; you never know what is going on until a character tells you, and so a lot of little details are left to be discovered.

In Kitchen, Mikage's grandmother (and last living relative) dies, and she goes to live with Yiuchi and his transgendered parent.  There are lovely bits about how Mikage understands people through their kitchens, and the preparation of food is a major theme throughout.  In Kitchen No. 2 (Moonlight Shadow), Satsuki is dealing with the loss of her boyfriend, by talking more with his brother and a mysterious stranger she met on the bridge.   All these little details, like the way her boyfriend saved a bell she gave him, make these really special.

As far as the Japanese setting goes, it comes through in every detail, from the descriptions of the homes to the schooling to the food, to the frozen landscape.  I will definitely read more of this author.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

My Picks for the Philip K. Dick Award

The nominees for this year's Philip K. Dick Award are:
For my process, I requested everything from interlibrary loan, except The Postmortal, which appeared at the public library before I had seen the nominees list.  I will fully admit here that I did not read all the books in their entirety.  This is largely because a few of them are so far from my tastes that I couldn't force myself past the first 50 pages.

My favorite is easily After the Apocalypse: Stories by Maureen F. McHugh.  I had run across the title story in the Strahan I got to review earlier this year, and was excited to read the rest.  McHugh is an author I am eager to read more of - she has some unique perspectives, and throws some sarcasm and humor in there, which I always appreciate.

My second tier would go to The Samuil Petrovitch Trilogy (which I read only the first book of), and The Postmortal.  Both of these take place in somewhat dystopian futures, and had interesting concepts driving them forward.  Both had a lot of science and math, and even just as a setting, this will rate more highly for me.

A Soldier's Duty had an interesting concept of a young female precog but it was so pro-military and full of dutyspeak that I was unwilling to overlook it to get through it.  The Other is third in a trilogy, and this volume didn't make me very interested in the main character.  The world seems to be an interesting blend of fantasy and science fiction - imagine characters from Rothfuss combined with interstellar travel.  I'd read the first Mira Grant and liked it better than the second, and I had a hard time sticking to this one.  Plus, zombies.  I'm just not a big zombie fan.  The Company Man is more of a detective novel, and is full of noir cliche.  This is someone's thing, just not mine!

Some authors have had careers defined by the Philip K. Dick Award, and if I wanted to grant that distinction to one of these authors, I'd go with Maureen McHugh or DOCTOR Simon Morden.

The award will be announced April 6, 2012, at Norwescon 35. 

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany

The Yacoubian BuildingThe Yacoubian Building by Alaa Al Aswany
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A handful of intertwining stories all passing through The Yacoubian Building in downtown Cairo, I read this in one plane trip from Texas to SC. I couldn't put it down! And not just for the sexual content, which I'm sure is the reason half the people who read this pick it up. Controversial in Egypt? Oh my! It has interesting insight into relationships of all kinds - homosexual men in a society that may look the other way if they like you enough, women who marry to support their families, and the rights of children after the death of a parent.

"At rare and exceptional moments Souad Gaber appears as she really is. A look suddenly flashes from her eyes like a spark and her face recovers its original appearance, exactly as an actor returns to his own character on finishing a role, takes off his costume, and wipes the makeup off his face. On such occasions, a serious, slowly awakening look suggestive of a certain degree of hardness and determination appears on Souad's face and reveals her true nature... that spark will flash in her eyes confirming that her mind never stops working, even in the heat of passion."

In an interesting conversation about patriotism:
"A person has to love his country because his country is his mother. Does anyone hate his mother?"
(I'd say that's a pretty loaded question.)

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa

The StorytellerThe Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This was not an easy book to read, in fact I put it down frequently to read other books. The concept is interesting, about a Peruvian writer who goes to a photography exhibit of Machiguenga tribal members and is convinced one of the men is somehow his colleague from school. This story is interwoven with folk tales from the Machiguenga, as well as the story told from another perspective about storytellers in the jungle.

These elements were interesting, but ultimately were not woven together enough to form a cohesive whole. I felt like Llosa was fascinated by the Machiguengan culture, the folk tales he had heard, and also wanted an opportunity to make a political statement about cultural and religious indoctrination. I'm just not sure it works as a novel.

I also think the translation was awkward. In the beginning the word "pal" keeps being used, I think perhaps to indicate the more informal "tu" being used in the original, but this was incredibly grating. One does not use the word "pal" the way the Spanish "tu" is used. It read as condescending, not familiar. It just took me out of it every time.

On a personal note, it was interesting to have read a novel that included such a stern critique of the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Twelve years ago, I was very close to going to Papua New Guinea with this organization, and not surprisingly, it was because of the very issues Llosa brings up that made me uncomfortable enough to decide not to go. In the end, it wasn't the location (humid jungle with hundreds of unknown languages) that frightened me, but the purpose of SIL in the first place.

"Luckily we know how to walk. Luckily we've been walking for such a long time. Luckily we're always moving from one place to another. What would have become of us if we were the sort of people who never move! We'd have disappeared who knows where."

"You're going to bring on an apocalypse with your tantrum."

"Let's leave them with their arrows, their feathers, their loincloths. WHen you approach them and observe them with respect, with a little fellow feeling, you realize it's not right to call them barbarians or backward. Their culture is adequate for their environment and for the conditions they live in. And what's more, they have a deep and subtle knowledge of things we've forgotten. ... We don't even know what the harmony that exists between man and those things can be, since we've shattered it forever."

"Each man has his obligation. Why is it that we walk? So there will be light and warmth, so that everything will be peaceful. That is the order of the world. The man who talks to fireflies does what he's obliged to do."

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Equations of Life by Simon Morden

Equations of Life (Samuil Petrovitch, #1)Equations of Life by Simon Morden
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this because it was nominated for the Philip K. Dick award in 2012, and I'm glad it showed up on that list as I hadn't come across it in any other way. Technically the entire trilogy is nominated.

This is set in a post-apocalyptic London (in the "Metrozone"), in a time where bombs have destroyed most of the world and countries like Japan have completely disappeared due to environmental disaster (war-related).

Samuil Petrovitch is around 20, having recently escaped from St. Petersburg and working as a graduate physics student, when he ends up helping someone who is being kidnapped. He gets involved in a situation involving Russian mobsters, Yakuza, and ends up with technology going crazy.

The story is fast-paced and has a lot of bits to make my geeky heart happy, including mathematicians who might be cracking the code to time travel in the midst of the chaos, a main character who swears in Russian, a nun who just happens to have the biggest gun of anyone, and a new Japan created in a virtual space. Samuil is written to be complex, but the age of the characters really got to me - Maddy and Sam are both around 20 and I just kept thinking how much more I'd believe their actions and powers of deduction if they were at least in their 30s.

I think I may actually read the next book.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Man Seeks God by Eric Weiner

Man Seeks God: My Flirtations with the DivineMan Seeks God: My Flirtations with the Divine by Eric Weiner
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Eric Weiner always makes me want to do things after reading his books. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World kickstarted my Iceland obsession, and this book made me want to read more about religion in a broader sense. It may finally be time to wade through Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth.

In Man Seeks God, Weiner explores eight religions through attempts to experience them, not just interviewing people but putting himself through retreats, services and rituals. He based this premise largely on his reading of William James, who said "Knowledge about a thing is not the thing itself." (He quotes heavily from Campbell and James throughout the book, both clearly were on his shoulder throughout this process). I sense that most of what was most meaningful was actually Joseph Campbell, paraphrased and applied. I'll understand more once I've read him.

I enjoyed the variety and the honesty of his perspective, often relating it back to depression and his own background as a "Gastronomical Jew." I felt like I gained a different perspective on Buddhism in particular. Most of the time, when journalists propose book projects that send them all over the world for a theme, it is excruciating to read; a thinly-veiled free trip with no context or personal interest. I find the opposite here. To me, it read as a spiritual journey, regardless of those other facts. Thank goodness.

About the place of religion:
"To flee from insecurity is to miss the whole point of being human, the whole point of religion." (Peter Bertocci)

"We can derive great benefit, tangible benefit, from myth. Not a myth in the sense of a lie, but myth in its original meaning, as a story that helps guide us through this thicket of thorns otherwise known as life."

"Take a moment... Saying grace before a meal. Watching our breath. Repeating the ninety-nine names of Allah. Whirling like a dervish. Prayer. They all have one objective: to get us to pause just long enough to realize that your life, your life, is a freaking miracle. The least you can do is pay attention."

"We are so busy looking for the big signs, the revelations, that we miss the smaller ones, the glimpses of the divine that, collectively, might add up to something very big indeed."

Specifically about paganism:
"We hold each other accountable because we believe in change, and the power of the self to cause magical transformation." (Jamie the pagan)

"Magic may be a form of self-delusion, but it is a necessary one. It is a way of jump-starting the subconscious. We all engage in these private rituals... We don't call it magic, but the dynamic is the same: altering our interior climate through external actions. Witches, though, take it a step further. They believe that not only can these actions shape our thoughts, but our thoughts, our intentions, can also shape reality."

Specifically about shamanism:
"'Shaman' derives from the Siberian word saman, which means 'one who is excited, moved, raised.'... Another definition is 'one who knows.' Not one who believes but one who knows."

Little anecdotes I liked:
"Tell no one the way your mind travels." (Nepali proverb)

"Yes,' replied the lama. 'But he was such a beautiful illusion.'"

"We fling ourselves halfway around the globe not to fall apart but to come together, to create new patterns of meaningfulness."

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Zoo CityZoo City by Lauren Beukes
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In my review of Lauren Beukes's earlier book, Moxyland, I pointed out that so much is going on that even the characters don't know where they are. In Zoo City, I feel like Beukes has gone a little too far in the opposite direction - the setting is interesting (a simultaneous alternate South Africa where perps get 'animalled' and end up with special skills) but the plot is weak (something about a pop star and a hidden wife, but then it doesn't seem very important).

I'm not sure I think she has as unique of a voice as everyone keeps saying. It was difficult to read about the animals the young adults living in Zoo City have (sloth, alligator, mongoose) without thinking of a much more richly written series with daemons and alternate cities, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman. It is true that the setting is in South Africa, which is fresh to those of us not living there, except the author did a better job capturing the urban feel of what South Africa might become in Moxyland than in here. This could have been any city with a separate area for Zoo people.

I like the character of Zinzi but the fluidity of her moving from detective to con artist to passable music journalist was hard to picture.

I listened to the audio, and Justine Eyre does a great job interpreting all the different African accents in the book, from Nigerian to Kenyan to South African.

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 6

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 6The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume 6 by Jonathan Strahan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I got this from NetGalley, and it comes out March 6. If you enjoy short stories or science fiction/fantasy, you should definitely read this!

I had a few favorite authors with stories in this volume, but surprisingly (to me), those stories weren't my favorite. They were still great, but others really stood out:

The friendship/romance in Steam Girl by Dylan Horrocks - so touching!

The Invasion of Venus by Stephen Baxter was thought provoking about humanity's place in the universe. That sounds so somber, but this story was.

Woman Leaves Room by Robert Reed is just a twist on a concept that I don't want to give away, but is definitely an experiment in cognition.

The Onset of a Paranormal Romance by Bruce Sterling started slow for me but by the end I wanted to reread the entire story again, and did. There are two sections, Lover A, and Lover B. Nothing is how you assume.

Goodnight Moons by Ellen Klages was cute, about a child born in space.

My favorite story - The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees by E. Lily Yu. Anyone who loves Catherynne Valente would love this story. It was beautiful to imagine in my head.