Category Archives: Book Reviews

“Hallelujah Anyway”: Mercy and Change

This week, I stumbled across Anne Lamott’s TED talk, 12 truths I learned from life and writing, through Twitter, and it inspired me to get her newest book at the library. (It also inspired me to write my own list, which was an helpful process.) I tore through Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy, in a few hours. It’s a short book of essays. I intended to just read the first essay, but I happily spent the afternoon reading.

I love how she interweaves her own stories with Bible stories on the loss and rediscovery of mercy, particularly in challenging times. I particularly liked her story of tadpoles and loved this quote from the last page of the book:

Images of tiny things, babies, yeast, and mustard seeds can guide us; things that grow are what change everything. Moments of compassion, giving, grief, and wonder shift our behavior, get inside us and change realms we might not have agreed to have changed. Each field is weeds and wheat, but mix the wheat with yeast, the most ordinary of elements, and it starts changing the flour.  It becomes bread and so do we, bread to eat and to offer…(176).

We always have room to grow, as individuals and as a society. It isn’t always comfortable, but we can change.

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Social change in Kim Stanley Robinson’s “New York 2140”

[Spoilers the size of the First Pulse ahead]

Earlier this year, over spring break, I traveled to San Francisco for a work conference. (What a lovely place!)  I needed a book for the return flight across the country and remembered that I had been looking forward to the new Kim Stanley Robinson novel about future New York. (In a previous post, I discussed why I loved reading his last book, Aurora, as well as Seveneves by Neal Stephenson.) I hiked all over the city to local bookstores, trying to find a copy, which I eventually found at Alexander Book Company.  I had high hopes for New York 2140.

This book was precisely what I needed after the political events of 2016.  One of my concerns about much of popular culture (in movies, tv shows, books, etc.) in recent years has been the focus on dystopia, cruelty, anti-heroes, self-loathing, etc. I’ve been slowly cooling out on many parts of popular culture that I used to enjoy.  As an example. I stopped watching Game of Thrones seasons ago (and am torn as to whether I want to finish the novels.)

In my own writing, and in the stories that I want to read right now, I want stories that focus on real people who are working to make their communities better. We need stories that tell us that we can be good, that we can be better. We need stories about communication and collaboration. We need stories that show that outcomes change through daily actions and diligence. New York 2140 delivers this through its magnificent cast of characters—characters who have ordinary but essential jobs. Characters who actually grow as people over time due to their situations and interactions with other people in their communities.

However, it’d be too easy for a novel to swing too far in the other direction away from dystopia and total despair. It could focus too much on utopia, on “perfect” heroes without flaws, on rosy ideas that could never actually happen because we humans are complex and messy. Apparently, at least in this novel, Kim Stanley Robinson feels similarly.

The future New Yorkers are dealing with uncertainly and adversity relating to the environment and capitalism and have been for more than a century.  Yet, despite the destruction, people are still living their lives. There are people who are swooping in to take advantage of disaster and those who are the “helpers” that Mr. Rogers referenced.

This book made me wish that I had read more American literature. There were many classic American stories embedded in the larger story which is why such a large cast was needed: it included a treasure hunt, a police/detective story, a rags to riches orphan tale, Moby Dick references, “Mutt and Jeff,” a gritty lawyer, the immigrant experience, an internet star, love affairs, and so much more.  I’m sure that I missed some references. There’s also “a citizen” that waxes poetical about the city of New York, that gives historical and educational information about New York through the centuries. In fact, New York City felt like a character in this book.

Many stories play out simultaneously in a city, and Kim Stanley Robinson points this out.  In fact, we often focus on the “few” people, but in reality, there are many people responsible for the events around us, including social change. It reminds me of the differences between micro-level and macro-level approaches in sociology.  Reality construction requires the day-to-day interactions and meaning construction between individuals.  You don’t get large institutions like banking or politics without individuals. Yet the institutions and large scale-conflicts around us shape those individual actions. The characters actions in New York 2140 impacted the society that they live in; however, other people in the city/nation/world who were not a part of the narrative played a role, too. Kim Stanley Robinson puts it like this in a chapter by “a citizen”:

Note that this flurry of social and legal change did not happen because of Representative Charlotte Armstrong of the Twelfth District of the State of New York. . . Nor was it due to any other single individual. Remember: ease of representation.  It’s always more than what you see, bigger than what you know.

That said, people in this era did do it.  Individuals make history, but it’s also a collective thing, a wave that people ride in their time, a wave made of individual actions.  So ultimately history is another particle/wave duality that no one can parse or understand (603).

I loved this idea.  We’re riding a wave that we’re creating together. In some ways, it indicates a lack of control while also recognizing that we are in control of our individual actions. We can work to improve our communities and enact social change.  But there is a limit in scope of what one person can do alone.

A remaining questions that I have: is “a citizen” actually Franklin Garr, the only first person narrative in the novel? He’s smart and knows a ton about New York due to his work in the beginning of the novel as the creator of the Intertidal Property Pricing Index, and extremely complicated formula “used by millions to orient investments that totaled in the trillions“ (19).  It’d be easy to mistake him for “just a stock broker”, but he has to understand finance, as well as the physics of what’s happening.  He obviously had a great education; however, he is young, wealthy, privileged, selfish and immature. Over time, through his exposure to diversity within his building, though his interactions with the other characters, he grows and becomes more empathetic and thoughtful.  This is a great message because people can change. I’d have to go back and do a longer analysis, but small things make me wonder if he’s also “a citizen” like their love of boating, enthusiastic narrative style and way of “speaking.” ( Of course, this could be a coincidence  since the whole book is about New York being submerged.)

I highly recommend this book, and I hope that it gets nominated for awards next year. Although I haven’t mentioned it, New York 2140 would be educational for readers who might not have taken a sociology class.

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Distortion and Stereotypes in Le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”

[As always—spoilers]

It’s been quite some time since I’ve read past midnight, but I had to see how John Le Carré’s novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” ended. It was published in 1963, but I found it to be surprisingly relevant in 2017. One of things things that I admire about Le Carré’s writing is that he is not wishy-washy, trying to please everyone. There’s a bite to both the words and the plot.

Le Carre says of his own book in the intro called Fifty Years Later:

The novel’s merit, then—or its offense, depending on where you stood—was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old questions that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: how far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?(xiv)

He also points out that the negative parts of the spies’ culture were a reflection of the problems in the larger culture.  The plot of the book explores how easy it becomes to exploit the individual in the service of some “greater good.”  The sense of impending tragedy is palpable and grows throughout the plot. The pacing of the book is excellent. Leamas, the spy, has to give up much of his individuality and acts as a tool for his handlers to gain ground in East Germany. He willingly makes this sacrifice of himself.  Another character isn’t a willing participant in the scheme.

However, the thread that I found the most relevant to our current politics was the section where Liz Gold, a U.K. Citizen and a member of the communist party, is brought to East Germany before the wall came down. When she interacts with the people there, she realizes some of the distorted beliefs that they had about the British. For example, they informed Liz that the working class was treated horribly in the U.K. In one scene, after Liz has been involved in something disturbing and exhausting, she doesn’t feel like eating the food offered to her. The wardress and she exchange:

‘Why don’t you eat?’ the woman asked again. ‘It’s all over now.’ She said this without compassion, as if the girl were a fool not to eat when the food was there.

‘I’m not hungry.’

The wardress shrugged: ‘You may have a long journey,’ she observed, ‘and not much at the other end.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The workers are starving in England,’ she declared complacently. “The capitalists let them starve.’

Liz thought of saying something but there seemed no point (204).

It didn’t occur to them to ask Liz what her experience was as a citizen of the place, albeit of member of the Communist party there, because they already “knew” the answer.  Certainly, there were hungry people in that era as there are now, but most of them were comfortably fed, as demonstrated in an early scene, in which Liz is generous with another character, buying him a variety of food. Yet, Liz was also mistaken in her beliefs about what Communism was like. Le Carré was likely speaking to governmental propaganda.

In many ways, when compared to when this book was written, we have more exposure now to what other people’s lives are like in other places.  On the other hand, there are still distorted and stereotypical views.  Even within a country, people of different categories and political beliefs may not have exposure to how other people actually live or what they believe.

And yet, Le Carré also shows how both governments shared similarities in the prices they were willing to pay for their ideologies, despite having different ideologies. Both were willing to sacrifice the individual to win the “game.”

I’d highly recommend reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It’s an excellent spy novel that is also thought-provoking.

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Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology

For months, I’ve been anticipating Neil Gaiman’s book, Norse Mythology. I’ve always loved Gaiman’s fiction relating to mythology like American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. (For my thoughts on The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Buddhism, you can view this post.) I don’t know much at all about Norse mythology beyond what I’ve picked up in comic book movies—so very little. For years, I’ve tried to pinpoint why Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite authors. After reading Norse Mythology, I can better articulate why. He notes in his introduction to the book:

As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, in the lands where these stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the northern lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from (15).

Neil Gaiman is a writer who understands that stories are a process across time and weaves them accordingly.  “That’s the joy of myths. The fun comes in telling them yourself—something I warmly encourage you to do, you person reading this. Read the stories in this book, then make them your own…” (16).  He absorbs stories from the past and, as a member of the current zeitgeist, he then transmutes them with his own distinctive style.

Specifically, in this volume, he weaves together various stories of the Norse Gods into a narrative. The idea of Ragnarok, or the apocalypse of the world, is a fascinating one. In the end, while there are epic levels of destruction of gods, men, and the world, some survive, humans are created again.  Gaiman ends the book with chess pieces, and the last line of the book is: “And the game begins anew.”

Someone dear to me died two weeks ago, and I’ve been contemplating life and death so the book’s arrival was a bit synchronous for me.  Life and death are a process. And stories help us think about these processes. Storytellers played (and continue to play) an important role in the socialization of a culture, passing on ethical values from one generation to the next while also playing an entertainment role.

I don’t want to say too much about the specific stories: you should read them for yourself.  However, I loved Gaiman’s style when it comes to characterizing the other gods’ reactions to Loki’s trickery.  Loki is frustrating if he’s working against you, but he can be a very compelling ally—until he’s not anymore. One of my favorite stories, as a writer, was “The Mead of Poets,” where poetry comes from. The ending of it made me laugh.  The stories include the gamut of human emotions and experiences. The book was delightful, and I can see myself returning to read it again in a few years.

 

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First Thoughts on Ferrante’s “My Brilliant Friend”

I just cracked Elena Ferrante’s novel, My Brilliant Friend, open a few days ago. (I read Ann Goldstein’s translation from Italian.) It’s the first of four novels in a series. I tore through it. The last paragraph ends in a cliffhanger of the best type, and I’ve already put a hold request in at the library to get the second one. The book is beautifully written and the narrative engrossed me. It’s narrated by one character looking back on her friendship with another character as they grow up. The setting is in Naples, Italy. Most of the book is set in just one neighborhood.

Although the themes and symbolism are still percolating, I can say at this point that I loved the parallels between the two friends, the symbolism that the two of them expressed to one another knowingly (as well as other symbolism in the narrative), the cast of characters, and the inequalities discussed. One of the most important topics in the book is the connection between social class, education, mentorship, and relationships. The book interrogates both the broader societal conditions and relationships with other people, as well as the personal characteristics and traits that it takes to get an education. Until I finish the series, I’m reluctant to draw too many conclusions. I highly recommend picking up the first book.

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Pratchett’s “The Shepherd’s Crown” and A Pair of Sensible Boots

[Spoilers the size of Granny’s Boots.  Seriously, this post will spoil you on one of the most important moments in the book and in the series.]

Reading Sir Terry Pratchett’s last book in his Discworld Series, The Shepherd’s Crown, left me feeling emotionally raw in the best kind of way. While it may have been a bit less polished compared with earlier books in the series, it contained gorgeous emotional depth. It contained so much feeling, so much love. It contained warnings. It contained hope. Sometimes we, either individually or as a society, lose our way, but we can work together for the good of the community. Terry Pratchett believed in us. He believed that good people can prevail—not perfect people and not followers of a particular creed.  But rather good people who care about others and do the things that need doing. People able to both listen and truly see the world around them.

Although I have many books left to read in the Discworld series, I wanted to read this final book, as it was in his young adult series that I love. For those who haven’t read Terry Pratchett, he used different characters in his various sub-series in Discworld. One included witches like Granny Weatherwax. In his young adult series, he follows the childhood, adolescence, and, in this book, emerging adulthood of Tiffany Aching. (Incidentally, I loved Granny Weatherwax, as well as her principles, so much that I named my car after her. My next car will likely be named after Tiffany.)

Reading this book was highly emotional since Terry Pratchett had early onset Alzheimers and passed away in March of 2015.  Before I read the book, I experienced a sense of loss and sadness. I wondered what the tone of his last novel would be like. I was right to expect an emotional response to the book, but I didn’t expect the wealth and variety of feelings I had. Pratchett seemed to love all his characters; this love never seemed so profound to me as in “The Shepherd’s Crown.” It radiated. As far as I know, Tiffany is the only character that he “raised” from childhood and focused on so extensively. In his books, he shaped her to be the representative of what he thought a good person, and a good leader, should be like.

I’ve been thinking about what it takes to make a good society and a good person lately, as this year has seemed especially filled with international tension. Terry Pratchett’s entire series dealt with this, but, in his final book, his thoughts became even more clear. This book was about communities and relationships. Throughout the books, Granny’s role as Tiffany’s mentor was essential. Granny dies in this book in a very low key way.  Her interaction with one of the main character’s in Pratchett’s series, Death, was important to the theme that Pratchett developed on what a good person, and a good life, actually is. Knowing that Death was coming for her, some of Granny’s considerate last acts were deep cleaning her home, thanking her bees, feeding her goats and chickens, and bathing herself. Death comes to take Granny’s soul.

Her visitor was no stranger, and the land she knew she was going to was a land she had helped many others to step through to over the years. For a witch stands on the very edge of everything between the light and the dark, between life and death, making choices, making decisions so that others can pretend that no decisions have even been made.  Sometimes they need to help some poor soul through the final hours, help them find the door, not to get lost in the dark (28).

Death and Granny converse. He asks her why she was content to live in “‘this tiny little country’” when she “‘could have been anything and anybody in the world?’” (29). Granny replied that she “‘never wanted the world—just a part of it, a small part that I could keep safe, that I could keep away from the storms. Not the ones in the sky, you understand: there are other kinds’” (29).

Death states:

“WE ARE ALL FLOATING IN THE WINDS OF TIME.  BUT YOUR CANDLE, MISTRESS WEATHERWAX, WILL FLICKER FOR SOME TIME BEFORE IT GOES OUT—A LITTLE REWARD FOR A LIFE WELL LIVED, FOR I CAN SEE THE BALANCE AND YOU HAVE LEFT THE WORLD MUCH BETTER THAN YOU FOUND IT. AND IF YOU ASK ME, NOBODY COULD DO ANY BETTER THAN THAT” (30).

For two pages, characters from the entire DiscWorld series become aware that Granny Weatherwax has died and mourn her loss in their unique ways. This illustrates how the effects of her life ripple outward.  However, this book is about Tiffany becoming an adult.

Shoes, generally, are a theme throughout Pratchett’s work. The book begins with a mention of Tiffany’s boots, an important symbol.

Today, for some reason, [Tiffany] had felt the need to come up to the stones. Like any sensible witch, she wore strong boots that could march through anything—good, sensible boots. But they did not stop her feeling her land, feeling what it told her. It had begun with a tickle, an itch that crept into her feet and demanded to be heard, urging her to tramp over the downs, to visit the circle. Even while she was sticking her hand up a sheep’s bottom to sort out a nasty case of colic.  Why she had to go to the stones, Tiffany did not know, but no witch ignored what could be a summons. And the circles stood as protection. Protection for her land. Protection for what could come through (4).

Tiffany gets outside confirmation that her feeling was correct. When Granny dies, the expectation is that Tiffany will lead the witches, although witches don’t officially have leaders. Granny leaves “all of it” to Tiffany, except her cat, who had a mind of her own. Tiffany thinks, “‘How can I possibly tread in the footsteps of Granny Weatherwax?  She is…was…unfollowable (43).

Pratchett’s thoughts on leadership are readily apparent, as Nanny Ogg, another witch in the series, says to Tiffany, “‘It’s you Tiff. Esme’s left you her cottage.  But more’n that.  You must step into the shoes of Granny Weatherwax or else’n someone less qualified with try an’ do it” (55). We have a responsibility to lead.

Although Tiffany has many doubts, Nanny expressed strongly (based on the previous books in the series) why Tiffany has earned the position by her own actions and merits. Tiffany tries to manage her own homestead in the Chalk, while trying both literally and figuratively to fill Granny’s boots and handle Granny’s Homestead. The book explores that being an individuated adult does not mean literally becoming the same as your elders.  It means finding your own path, your own loves, your own strengths, your own limits, and your own home. Tiffany wears her own boots, not Granny’s.

In the end, Pratchett’s major theme and symbol for the book, and the series, is the shepherd’s crown.  Tiffany’s ancestor, a shepherd, finds a shell. In the prologue, a sea creature developed a shell and survived. “…[T]here the creature lived on things even smaller than itself and grew until it became king” (1). It died when the water evaporated. Time passed until the day when “it was found by a shepherd minding his flock on the hills that had become known as the chalk” (2).  The shepherd was Tiffany’s ancestor, who saved the shell because it looked like a crown.  It passed down in the family until it was in Tiffany’s possession. Tiffany uses it to remind herself that she is of the chalk. Later in the book, a creature says to Tiffany:

“And I am the shepherd’s crown. Deep in my heart is the flint.  And I have many uses.  Some call me the sea urchin, others the thunderstone, but here, now, in this place, call me the shepherd’s crown.  I seek a true shepherd.  Where can a true shepherd be found?” (237).

At first, Tiffany thinks of her father. But then, she hears a voice, “‘Tiffany Aching is the first among shepherds, for she puts others before herself. . . .”(238).

The shepherd’s crown is in contrast to the usual idea of hereditary authority coming through a crown. (Other books in the series have discussed authority, power, and the crown.) However, the people that Pratchett argues do the most good in this final book for others are the people like Tiffany. They are quite powerful. However, they don’t thirst for power. But they do have power, and they use it when necessary. The witches fight for their communities and battle for them. Pratchett didn’t shy away from fighting when the community was threatened. But they also cut old men’s toenails. They do what is necessary for their flock.

Pratchett also explored differences between men and women’s experiences in the village communities. This might make some people uncomfortable, but I thought that he made a good point. A goat herder that joins them who has talents similar to the witches, including a goat familiar. Tiffany’s first big divergence as a leader was to welcome him as a witch. (This paralleled a previous Pratchett story where a woman became a wizard.) The older men in the community welcomed him and shared their invention with him. It is likely that they would not have felt as comfortable sharing the weapon with a woman, even a witch. The character was a vegetarian and looked at the world differently. In the end, he takes over Granny’s homestead. Tiffany returns to her own, and makes her own moving tiny home. She learns carpentry so that she can make her own home.  I think this is a major statement that Pratchett is making.  (It reminds me of the argument in “Shop Class as Soul Craft,” a book that a friend recommended to me years ago.  The book discussed the value and meaning of different types of work, especially that which people often devalue: making things.)

Ultimately, I think that Pratchett was arguing that we are connected intimately with our ancestors and our land.  It’s a relationship that we shouldn’t ignore. We can change, we can grow, but we should also acknowledge our roots. We build relationships over decades. We all like to feel useful. Even if we no longer live where our ancestors did, we should strive to understand and benefit our local community.  This includes people, wildlife, and the community itself.

I felt like Pratchett eased my grieving process over his death through showing the characters grieving the loss of Granny Weatherwax.  Although I didn’t know him, his creativity and values have shaped my life.

The whole forest sang now sang for Granny Weatherwax….

Where is Granny now? Tiffany wondered. Could a part of her still be…here? She jumped as something touched her on the shoulder, but it was just a leaf. Then, deep inside, she knew the answer to her question: Where is Granny Weatherwax?

It was: She is here—and everywhere (54).

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2016 Hugo Nominees

The 2016 Hugo Award nominees for best novel have been posted, and I’m excited that I’ve already read three of the five since last fall. In January, I reviewed The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher. I can’t wait to read more in the series, as I love swashbuckling, flying ships, and Butcher’s unique cast and world building.  I recently posted my thoughts on one of the nominees, Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson, as well as Aurora, which was not nominated, a shame. The other book that I’ve read is Uprooted by Naomi Novik. It’s a lovely, compelling story that pulls from different fairy tales than the ones I grew up on. I’m planning to write a longer review of it, possibly today.

I’d like to read the other two nominees soon, as I’ve enjoyed N.K. Jamison’s lush storytelling in the past.  I’ve read the first book in Ann Leckie’s amazing series, so I’d have to read another book before reading the nominee. This shouldn’t be hard to accomplish since the Hugo awards are presented in August. Luckily for me, I don’t actually have to choose between such disparate books.  I can just enjoy them all for what they are.

 

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