Sunday, January 27, 2008

Darwin's Radio by Greg Bear

I picked up Darwin's Radio for my husband to read. I know he liked other Greg Bear books. He finished it, told me a bit about the plot, then told me I probably wouldn't like it very well. In fact, the plot sounded very interesting, so I decided to read it anyway. When I got done, I asked him to explain why he felt the book fell short. As someone who has read a ton of science fiction, he felt that the last third of the book was terribly cliché, and had lost it's originality. I don't know that I agree.
Darwin's Radio is a very stereotypical science fiction book in the fact that it relies heavily on modern day science and takes it one step further to create an interesting, but terrifying futuristic scenario. In Bear's case, he examined how people evolve and combined evolutionary theory with current day fears about deadly viruses. The story revolves around a few key scientists who have discovered that women are having miscarriages followed by unexpected pregnancies one month later. The non-traditionalists see the pregnancies as the newest leap forward in evolution while the traditionalists believe that a virus along the lines of AIDS and Ebola has begun that will destroy the human race if a cure is not found.
Much of the story analyzes the political repercussions of a society-wide disease. The President, the Vice-President, and the Surgeon General all make appearances as scientists concur with them about what can and should be done to quarantine the effects of the change. The one personal story is that of Kaye Lang a biologist, who is among the first to recognize that the shift is not a disease but an evolutionary leap.
Darwin's Radio reminds me of other medical science fiction like Robin Cook's Outbreak or P.D. James' futuristic Children of Men. There is a lot of heavy science discussion - and the glossary in the back is not going to help a reader discern the meaning of RNA and DNA transfiguration. And there is definitely a commentary on contemporary society. Overall, the book made me think which is always refreshing. However, I will say, I have had some strange nightmares the past few nights since finishing the story about miscarriages and sick children.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin

I picked up this book because I am fascinated by the Ottoman Empire and I was curious to see what was being written about it, especially in light of contemporary American views of the Middle East. My mom read the book before I did, and she enjoyed it, but felt that it moved a bit slowly and that the author used a lot of very specific vocabulary that slowed down what she was reading.
I'm glad that she read it first, because she had a very different perspective than I did. Reading The Janissary Tree I did not feel it moved any slower than any other book because of its vocabulary or subject. However, I realize in retrospect, that the vocabulary and themes specific to nineteenth-century Istanbul are not as foreign to me as they would be to my mom.
The mystery revolves around the disappearance and death of five members of the New Guard, the soldiers defending the Ottoman sultan. Yashim, a eunuch, is called in to investigate the disappearance of the soldiers. Goodwin's choice of a eunuch as the main character was a masterful stroke. On the one hand, he could use his historical knowledge to explain the life of an Ottoman eunuch - why a man would have been castrated, and what kind of life he would have expected to lead in Istanbul. However, and more importantly for the story, a eunuch has a greater freedom of movement than almost any other actor in the Ottoman Empire. Unlike any other man, he would have had access to the private lives of women. But, as a man he also existed in the world of men.
Goodwin's presentation of 1830s Istanbul clearly reflects the author's extensive historical knowledge of that world. His incorporation of European ambassadors watching the world of the sultan and seeing how and when he might fail reflects the political reality of the era and adds some humorous and interesting characters to the story. The discussion of Westernizing the empire to continue to remain a strong power in light of an ascendant France and Russia and the incorporation of a proposed edict that would change society mirrors the Tanzimat reforms that came in the late-1830s.
Looking at other reviews of the book, I have found that readers do not find the plot "believable." In fact, I think they want a more Americanized, exoticized, view of the Ottoman Empire instead of the more historically accurate portrayal that Goodwin gives. In fact, I find Goodwin's interpretation to be a better and more realistic look at the Ottoman Empire than much of what is written about this little-known world. All in all, it is a well-crafted mystery and a historically accurate story.
It is slow at points, focusing on the detailed and convoluted history of the Ottoman Empire. But, I find that rather than detract from the story, in this case it helps give a more complete and honest picture of the world of Yashim the detective. I look forward to reading The Snake Stone, the second book in the Yashim series.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Suite Française by Irene Némirovsky

Irene Némirovsky's two-part story Suite Française, has received incredible attention and critical acclaim in the past two years. In part, the fame is due to Némirovsky's own history. While writing Suite Francaise in 1940s France, she was deported to Auschwitz where she died. Her daughter's discovered the manuscript and worked to translate her work and have it published.
As a piece of historical evidence, the book is absolutely fascinating and a very worthwhile read. As an enjoyable piece of fiction with an engaging plot, it is less so.
Némirovsky writes in great detail. Reading the first past of her planned five-part suite, Storm in June, the reader has a very clear picture of the characters and the life people are leading in France in the spring of 1940. However, the details can become extremely overwhelming at times, bordering on obsessive. The three-page description of a cat playing in the twilight, for example, becomes laborious. I found myself skimming and putting the book down rather than reading ahead to see what would happen.
However, the second suite, entitled Dolce is a much more readable story. Characters from the first suite reappear connecting the two parts. But each story is complete in itself. Part of what makes Dolce so fascinating is the very real emotions that Némirovsky unearths in a time of terrible trial. What happens when a woman, unhappy in marriage, finds herself forced to house a German officer in World War II occupied France? How can people feel hatred towards the enemy and yet compassion and love towards the individual man at the same time?
I would love to use Dolce in a World War II history class. Némirovsky writes about a subject that is rarely studied. She examines how civilians in occupied France had to deal with the German soldiers who had been stationed there. She does an incredible job of demonstrating that daily life must continue, including falling in love, even if it is with the enemy.
The appendix of Suite Française is an equally important section of the book, especially for a historian. Divided into two parts, the first is a diary of Némirovsky's that chronicles what direction she wants her story to go. She had hoped to write at least one more if not three more sections to her book to create a complete narrative. Characters from the first and second suites would merge in the third part to complete her story.
The final section is poignant, but also an extremely fascinating historical source. This section transcribes letters between Némirovsky, her husband, and family friends from 1939 to 1943. The reader learns of Némirovsky's arrest and eventual death through the letters that her husband repeatedly sends in hopes of discovering her whereabouts. For any historian of World War II, these letters give a very personal face to the turmoil in occupied France. It raises the questions of who the French arrested and why they were taken. It also shows the confusion and lack of information, on a very personal level, that people had to deal with while still attempting to make a salary, feed themselves and their children, and live life as close to normal as possible.
This book is clearly not for everyone. Even as a lover of French history, I had to force myself through the first one hundred pages. It can be slow and laborious. But, if you can stick with it, the outcome is definitely worth it.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Murder at the B-School by Jeffrey Cruikshank

Jeffrey Cruikshank's book details the death of a Harvard Business School student. He is one son in an extremely wealthy family who is expected to take over the family business. Wim Vermeer, a professor doomed to not getting tenure, gets mixed up in helping to solve the case and finds himself in over his head. Enter the dowdy yet intriguing Boston Police Captain Barbara Brouillard.
This is a good mystery. I don't have much to say about it. I enjoyed it when I read it. The plot was not overly obvious. I was surprised by the villain. Jeffrey Cruikshank obviously knows the Harvard Business School because the details are very good. I like his protagonist. There's nothing like a jaded scholar to keep other scholars going.
I can't say I liked the ending very well. He's setting the book up for a sequel, but it just lacked spark. It was a good diversion. It was not classic literature. Read. Enjoy. Move on.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The New Year's Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini

Do you ever pick up a book and feel like you're talking to an old friend. You don't have to stop and give back history before plunging into the latest juicy gossip. That's what it is like reading this Jennifer Chiaverini book. The New Year's Quilt is, I believe, the eleventh book in the Elm Creek Quilt series. Having read the other ten, I already know the characters, I know the back story. I even can guess at the resolution when I open the book. It is a quick, easy, fun read. The story revolves around Sylvia, the main character, who is reflecting on her life and thinking about the New Year's Eves she has lived through.
The previous ten books have all revolved around Sylvia, her friends, and her ancestors. The creation of quilts and the lives of the quilters play a central role in every story. The front end of the books all have drawings of the quilt blocks that are described within the story which is a nice artistic touch for the reader. The stories all intertwine in a vague way, but they are not necessarily sequels of one another. Having read them all, the reader has a good understanding of the world in which Sylvia Compson, master quilter lives. Some of the stories can stand alone as historical fiction. The New Year's Quilt is not one of those stories.
I would not recommend The New Year's Quilt to a reader who has not read Chiaverini's other stories. Everything in this book reflects back on stories that Chiaverini has told in the past. Sometimes too much so. I felt like Chiaverini was trying to wrap up the series and tie it with a neat little bow. There was nothing surprising. There was very little that I read that was in any way unexpected. In some cases it merely felt like a simple chapter that had been left out of another book. The present day story was fun but not deep or surprising or shocking.
I am curious now that I have finished the book whether or not Chiaverini intends to write any more books in the Elm Creek Quilt series. It seems as though she has drained every drop of possible material out of Sylvia's life story. I hope that if she does continue the series she moves forward and write about the future rather than returning to the past again.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Into the Wild by John Krakauer

I hated this book. I read it because my mom asked me to. My mom asked me to read it because it is one of the assigned books for High School AP English classes and my mom wanted to know if I thought it was a book that would "speak" to high school sophomores. Personally, I can only imagine a fringe group of high schoolers to whom this book would appeal, and very few of those would be sitting in AP English.
Into the Wild is the story of a 24 year old man, Chris McCandless, who disposes of his worldly goods and treks across the United States living on the fringes of society. Eventually he decides to go "into the wild" and heads to Alaska where he can really commune with nature and get away from society. However, he dies of starvation in a bus 15 miles from nowhere. Revealing that he dies gives away nothing of the story. After all Krakauer starts the book with McCandless' death and tells the story through a wide variety of backflashes and conversations with people who met McCandless on the road.
From the fact that the AP chose this book and the quick glance of the reviews on, I am apparently in the minority for disliking this book. But that won't stop me from continuing to find it pointless. Basically, I felt as though Krakauer, himself a journalist for Outdoor Magazine who has lived off the radar and found society questionable, continually tries to convince the reader that McCandless was sane, not mentally unstable, and just unlucky or unprepared to have died in the wild. The further I got the more I kept thinking, the author "doth protest too much." McCandless had no practical experience hunting - but that was okay. He did not have adequate clothing - but that was explainable. He ate questionable seeds - but that too can be explained away.
Also, reading chapters about a mountain climber, another figure who lived away from society in 1934, and the author's personal experiences as a 20-something disenchanted member of society did not convince me of the rightness of McCandless's choices.
Finally, the beginning of each chapter began with quotes from McCandless's various graffiti or lines in books that McCandless had underlined. Krakauer gave each of these quotes undue attention. For Krakauer, they were necessary to understand the protagonist's personal struggles. How many college students have underlined passages in books and made marginal notes that had nothing to do with their greater internal struggles? I would hate to think that in the future someone would dig through my trove of books and make judgments about my state of mind and my views of society based on the commentary I wrote in a book. I found it to be a real stretch.
(And one last caveat. Don't just watch the movie and assume that it is the same as the book. My mom kept warning me about the relationship between the father and son. I got to the end of the book and went, "huh?" Apparently, the director took some literary license and changed some of the facts, in my opinion to make the main character seem slightly more justified in his crazy wanderings.)

Olympos by Dan Simmons

I like to read a wide variety of genres. Most of what I read is handed to me by a few friends, my mom, or my husband. Depending on who gives me the book will determine the genre. When my husband gives me a book to read, chances are it will be Science Fiction or Fantasy. Olympos is one of those books. It is the sequel to Dan Simmon's Ilium. And at 900+ pages the two books could have easily been divided into a trilogy rather than just a two-parter.
Dan Simmons is an amazing writer. His story combines a futuristic human world, the stories of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and robots who have studied Shakespeare and Marcel Proust. The futuristic world grapples with a lot of contemporary issues - nuclear power/weapons, playing with human genes, taking technology to its logical extreme - and in some cases its very illogical extremes. Simmon's grasp of all of these different stories and his ability to combine them into one engaging futuristic/apocalyptic storyline is impressive. However, there are moments when it reads as though he consciously wants his reader to think, "Wow, Simmons is impressive!" You can only read so many two-page descriptions of minor characters from The Iliad who have no real role in the plot of Olympos before you began to yawn and skim ahead.
When I told my husband about my frustration with the drawn out lists of names and descriptions he was surprised. To him Simmons perfectly mirrored the style of the original Iliad, further demonstrating his genius as a writer. After all, Homer felt it necessary to give a person's lineage when he introduced them, so it would make sense for Dan Simmons to do the same. I personally found it pedantic and unnecessary. It didn't add to the storyline in my opinion.
The last two-hundred pages are fascinating and fast-paced. The way that Simmons ties together all of his diverse story lines and creates a world that makes sense amidst all of the chaos he has let loose is inventive and definitely the mark of a creative literary mind.
If you enjoy heavy science fiction, you have a grasp of classical literature, and are curious about how someone would weave together a coherent storyline that incorporated those two aspects, then read Ilium and Olympos. But, if you only somewhat enjoy science fiction or you are not interested in reading extremely long-winded literary descriptions, then spend your 1500 pages on something else.