Ilsa Bick: Ashes

For someone who professes not to like YA, I sure do seem to be reading a lot of it lately. I can’t help it. My daughter keeps handing me books and telling me that I “have” to read them. Well I am not normally a pushover, but when my daughter shoves books at me I am powerless, completely powerless, to resist.

In my last post I complained that the author created false suspense by withholding information from the reader that the characters knew. Well that sure wasn’t a problem in Ashes, because the main character was completely clueless, and every piece of the puzzle that she solved, we solved right along with her. In fact, if anything, it was the other way around, where I had my suspicions about certain things well before she did. (Now that’s a whole different thing, isn’t it. Suspense created when you know what’s going on but the character does not. That can be truly unbearable… in the best possible way!)

Anyway, Ashes is a zombie post-apocalypse dystopia kind of thing. If you don’t like that genre, I would definitely skip this book. It is very dark, very violent, and has an extremely pessimistic view of human nature. The worst, freakiest part of the book is not the zombies but the human settlement *shudder.* It reminded me of that movie The Village, which despite its flaws couldn’t be beat for sheer spooky atmosphere.

However, what was really weird about Ashes was that it ended extremely abruptly, leaving so many plot threads dangling that the story felt completely unbalanced. There was no real climax, nor any denouement. The reason why Becca wanted me to read it, in fact, was so that I could share her frustration and puzzlement. “I just hope she’s planning to write a sequel,” said Becca, annoyed.

So I did what I always do when I am frustrated and puzzled, which is to visit Google. I found out right away that Ashes is book one of a planned trilogy, with Shadows and Monsters forthcoming. Ok! Phew!

But that got me thinking. I realized it is relatively rare that I read a newly-published first of a series. I can think of a few other series that I read as they came out — No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, Harry Potter, The Hunger Games — but in all of those the individual volumes are just fine as stand-alone novels, even as they leaving you dying for more. That is not the case with Ashes. I think the publisher should have waited until she had written all three and then published them in a single volume.

Hannah Roberts McKinnon: The Properties of Water

I don’t normally gravitate towards YA fiction, but when my 12yo daughter hands me a book and says “Mom, you have to read this” that is my cue to drop whatever else I am doing and read that thing.

The Properties of Water is a book about deep issues: family, siblings, tragedy, grief, denial, acceptance. It’s about a girl, Lace, whose older sister Marni is gravely injured in a diving accident. The whole family has to readjust their priorities, their worldview, their relationships, etc. The author doesn’t pull any punches. Lace’s attempts to come to terms with what happened feels very real. She spends most of the summer in denial — refusing to swim or even go near the lake where the accident happened, refusing to visit her sister in the hospital, distrusting the new housekeeper who assists them while the mother stays at the hospital, etc. But gradually she comes to accept the new order, and learns that the properties of water include healing as well as hurting.

There were two things I really loved about this book. One was the close relationship between the sisters. My own relationship with my sister was very very similar to theirs, and I could totally relate to both the love and the friction between them. They had me teary-eyed at times, and regretting (not for the first time) that my own sweet daughter only has brothers.

And the second thing I loved was the water. I myself am a water baby. I can’t get enough of the stuff, whether I’m in it, on it, or drinking it. Ocean, river, lake, pond, kiddie pool, bathtub — water is my element. Says Lace: “The lake is everywhere, soaking our beach blankets, sucking our toes, suffusing the air we breathe. Growing up on this lake, Marni used to say it was in our blood.” Yes, I have no problem believing that Lace’s relationship with the lake could be deep and complex and fraught.

I do have a gripe though. I really did not like the way the circumstances of Marni’s accident were only gradually revealed, even though the entire story takes place well after the fact. At the beginning of the book, all you know is that Marni and her mom are not there. You know there’s been a tragedy, but you don’t even know if they are alive or dead. Gradually you discover that the tragedy was a diving accident, that it was the cute boy that rescued Marni from the water, that she is in the hospital in another town, etc. It is only in the last 30 pages of the book that we actually get to meet Marni and learn that although she suffered a traumatic brain injury, she will be okay. Perhaps the reason the author parcelled out this information so gradually was to illustrate Lace’s gradual acceptance of the situation, i.e. we don’t learn “what happened” until Lace herself is able to think about it. However, this is a huge pet peeve of mine — withholding information from the reader that the character knows. I always feel like the author is manipulating me, getting me to keep reading by creating unnecessary suspense. Becca noticed this too, by the way — it was one of the reasons she wanted me to read the book in the first place. It was frustrating not knowing, especially since a book with these kinds of themes does not need to be suspenseful to keep you interested.

Monday reading: classic sci-fi

Well I am discovering all sorts of fun memes here in bookblogland! Sheila from Book Journey wants to know: what are you reading?

Heh, I am reading Beginning Operations by James White. Beginning Operations is actually a collection of the first three novels in his Sector General series. I read one of these novels years ago and never forgot it. I don’t know why they aren’t more widely known because they sure are fun.

Do you remember the cantina scene in the original Star Wars movie?

Sector General is kind of like the cantina, except that it’s a HOSPITAL. And there are thousands of different alien species in this hospital, both patients and staff. Some of them breathe water or chlorine; others don’t breathe at all. Some of them require 4 Gs of gravity; others must float. Some of them must be kept at near-absolute zero temperatures; others are radioactive and hot. Some weigh several tons; others are microscopic. And the stories are basically about all the different accommodations that must be made for all these different species. Yes there is plot, but really it is all about the setting. And my favorite thing about it is that whenever a new species is mentioned, the author invariably includes a bit of info about the alien’s home planet conditions to explain why they have those particular characteristics; it is never random. I have a long-standing interest in biology, and particularly evolutionary biology, and this feeds right into it.

These stories probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, though. They are quite typical of pre-1970s hardcore sci-fi. The doctors are all male and the nurses are all female — at least, for the species that actually have gender. The “futuristic” technology is dated (they use “intercom mikes,” for example, and educational “tapes”). But the prose is rock-solid and unobtrusive; the aliens are brilliant; and the scrapes they find themselves in are hilarious. Classic science fiction just doesn’t get any better than this.

What are you reading today?

Beverly Jensen: The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay

Holy cow, this book was absolutely magnificent! Probably the best book I read this year. I will be giving it to everybody this holiday season. I had an incredibly busy week with very little time for reading, but I could not put this down.

The Sisters from Hardscrabble Bay tells the story of Idella and Avis Hillock, born in New Brunswick in the first decade of the twentieth century. They spend their childhood living with their father, eking out a living between their rocky farm and the herring they can catch. They grow up, move down south to Maine, get married, have kids, and live their lives. Like most people, they experience tragedy, comedy, love, despair, heartbreak, and joy.

The story I just described probably sounds like a million other books. But what makes this one different is the incredible writing. Each chapter works as a stand-alone short story. And every one is a prose poem. For example, there is one where Idella has dinner with the parents of a boy she has been dating. The mother is a very difficult person and the dinner goes badly (to say the least). At the end of the meal the boy blows his temper and stomps out the back door. The story ends with this paragraph:

And there was Eddie, over by the strawberry patch, scooched down on his haunches. He, too, was looking out at the field—a soft gray figure silhouetted in the dimming light, fuzzy around the edges as though sitting in a private fog. Mist rose up from the long field grasses and sat like puffs of smoke in the lower dips and hollows. Idella slipped gratefully out of her new shoes—she wasn’t used to wearing that much heel—and stepped down onto the cool, dark grass. She walked toward Eddie, choosing to let go the screen door so it screeched and banged closed behind her. Not for the last time, she thought, as she padded toward him, smiling. Not the last time she’d hear that screen door bang.

I think that is my favorite passage in the whole book. “Not the last time she’d hear that screen door bang” is such a sweet way to show that she’s planning to stick with the guy, but in the context of this truly miserable dinner it’s more than just sweet. It shows you something about her character: she is stubborn and scrappy and she doesn’t mind banging a door. (Also interesting to think that a door slamming shut can indicate the beginning of something, not just a closing or ending.)

So, anyway. Each chapter is a beautiful story in itself, and some were actually published individually. One I believe was nominated for a Pushcart. And many years lapse between the events in each. At the same time, the story-chapters fit together beautifully and make a perfectly cohesive, seamless novel.

At least, I think it’s a novel. I noticed something very curious on the cover. The design includes a small yellow badge that says FICTION. Very odd. Usually if there is a question the cover will say “A novel” or something. But… fiction? Hmmm. This book really feels like a memoir. It reminded me a lot of Half Broke Horses by Jeannette Walls (awesome book!) which is subtitled “A True-Life Novel.” It even reminded me (a little bit) of the Laura Ingalls books, say, if they had been written for adults and without the sad parts of her life glossed over. Not only that but Idella’s married name is Jensen and she has four daughters, three of whom apparently have the same names as Beverly Jensen’s sisters, the fourth of whom I believe is never mentioned by name. Is this really a novel? Is it a memoir? Is it something in between?

Whatever it is, go read it!

Philip José Farmer: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

I’m tagging this one Quit Lit. I made it as far as page 86. Alas, this thing is unreadable.

The reason I picked this book up in the first place is because my sweet geeky husband posted NPR’s list of the top 100 sci-fi and fantasy books on his facebook. I’ll be honest: I voted in that poll. I do like sci-fi. Quite a bit. So it was very entertaining to watch this big long thread develop on his page, with all his geeky buddies arguing and reminiscing and all. And this one guy was all up in arms because Philip José Farmer’s Riverworld series was not on the list. “All these dead people get resurrected on another planet,” he enthused. “People from all periods of history mingled together, including Sir Richard Francis Burton as the protagonist. Riverworld is awesome!” So awesome that hubby rushed right out to the library and checked out a copy of the first book in the series, To Your Scattered Bodies Go.

I have been burned before by enthusiastic book recommendations from my husband’s pals in the past (*cough* The Drizzt Do’Urden series, which, unbelievably, did make the top 100). But this was a different pal, and I love historical fiction as much as I love sci fi; I mean they don’t make ’em much cooler than Sir R.F. Burton, right?

Well. It is true that all these people get resurrected on this mysterious planet, and the idea of all these historical figures being thrown together is a fun starting point. But unfortunately this book turned out to be nothing more than an adolescent male fantasy. See, they all wake up naked. And all the women have “great figures” and “exquisite features.” And there are psychedelic drugs which cause them to throw off all inhibitions and act according to their deepest desires… Now, I don’t mind sex and violence if it serves the story, but in this case it just seems self-indulgent.

And what’s even worse than the self-indulgent adolescent male fantasy is the schmaltzy pretentious writing. Random example: “Lev Ruach climbed out of the water and ran his hands over his skinny body to take off the drops.” Eh? People don’t “take off drops” — they dry themselves. Bizarre! Another example: “Frigate continued, ‘I’m so timorous and queasy because I am afraid of the anger, the desire to do violence, that lies not too deeply within me. I fear violence because I am violent. I fear what will happen if I am not afraid.'” Ugh, spare me the melodrama.

Yep, this is Quit Lit.

Ha Jin: Waiting

Waiting is a love story set in communist China. Doctor Lin Kong is in love with a nurse, Manna Wu, but he is trapped in a loveless, arranged marriage to Shuyu. Year after year he goes back to the village with the intent to divorce Shuyu, and year after year he fails. After 18 years he is finally allowed to divorce Shuyu and he marries Manna only to find that he was happier, waiting.

Waiting is a novel of characters, not plot. Although the novel takes place over a twenty-year period, there is nothing remotely “epic” or “sweeping” about it. It is tightly focused on the daily minutia and inner lives of Lin and Manna (and to a lesser extent Shuyu). These characters are finely drawn and all-too human. Lin can be annoying at times — he is passive, lacking in emotional intensity, doesn’t love Manna “enough,” and is generally disengaged from those around him. At the same time, he has a naiveté and gentle humor that makes him quite likeable. Manna is an interesting character too. In contrast to Lin, she experiences some extreme emotional highs and lows during the course of the story. Furthermore, it is she who initiates their illicit relationship, which takes a lot of courage — were the adultery made public they would both lose their careers. Shuyu is the least well-developed and hardest to understand. For much of the novel all we really know about her is that she is illiterate and had bound feet, a source of embarrassment for Lin. She is a long-suffering martyr type who, to tell the truth, kinda makes you cringe.

Sounds pretty dismal, doesn’t it? Actually it was anything but. I was completely engaged with these characters and very eager to find out how the 18 years of waiting would get resolved. There were some wonderfully deadpan comic moments, such as when Lin and Manna have to write a review of Leaves of Grass, of all things. (“To him, this was a bizarre, wild book of poetry that had so many bold lines about sexuality that it could be interpreted either as obscenity or as praise of human vitality. Moreover, the celebration of the poet’s self seemed to verge on a kind of megalomania that ought to be condemned. But on the whole this must be a good, healthy book; otherwise the commissar wouldn’t have let Manna read it.”) There were also sad moments and joyful moments and deeply moving moments. In other words, it was really good!

One thing I regret is that I didn’t think of looking up Mao’s Cultural Revolution until I was about halfway through the book. Although the story is completely focused on the individual characters, with very little mention of actual historical events, the sociopolitical climate of the time is integral to the story. It is (I assume) a big part of the reason why Lin was so ashamed of his old-fashioned wife. Not to mention a big part of why Lin and Manna have to be so circumspect, and why it is so difficult for Lin to obtain the divorce in the first place. Having a little background info definitely added a new dimension to the story.

Waiting won both the PEN/Faulkner and National Book awards. I can see why, and I’m eager to read more by this author.

Thomas Berger: Adventures of the Artificial Woman

Fed up with “real” women, a guy builds himself a perfect robot wife who makes it big in show biz and ends up being elected President of the United States.

Eh? Not the kind of hook that would normally pique my interest, but after all it is by Thomas Berger. I went through a Thomas Berger phase about twenty years ago. He is quite prolific, and I remember being impressed with his incredible versatility: he has taken on everything from westerns (Little Big Man) to detective stories (Who is Teddy Villanova?) to King Arthur (Arthur Rex), and much in between.

Adventures of the Artificial Woman is a satire, of course. (With a plot line like this one, what else could it be?) The robot, Phyllis, is a bit like Mr. Spock. She has no emotion and no sense of humor, but relies solely on logic to understand the world around her. Thus she is the perfect vehicle for taking potshots at everything from marriage and sexuality to politics and the entertainment industry. For example, on the topic of vice presidents, Phyllis observes:

“I’ve researched the subject. Running mates are normally lifelong members of a party, notable for their loyalty to it. Though they may have been, up to that point, of the faction that earlier opposed the person now nominated for the big job, they are expected henceforth to join hands in partisan unity against the enemy, uncompainingly assuming the Presidential candidate’s exact position on every issue, especially those that were most fiercely debated during the nominating process by these two very individuals. The reward for the resulting hypocrisy is that the ticket-partner of a victorious President generally has an inside track for his own future bid for the White House.”

“Where does that leave our problem, Phyl?”

“We have no party, and thus far I have not expressed an opinion on any issue, so these matters need not be taken into the equation. We can promise a potential vice-presidential candidate that he will have a great opportunity to run on his own eight years from now.”

This is a pretty typical passage. Not laugh-out-loud funny, but clever and a bit snarky. If you’re looking to escape into a cozy story with finely-drawn sympathetic characters, this isn’t it. Satire needs to be read in a certain way (I am realizing as I write this). You have to distance yourself from the story in order to appreciate it. You can’t get wrapped up in it the way you can with other genres. Or can you? What do you think?

Chaim Potok: The Chosen

The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, is an oldy but goody. I believe this was my third time reading it. It’s a profound and very moving story about friendship, fathers & sons, and coming of age. It is also a fascinating look into the subculture of Hasidic Jews.

Reuven Malter and Danny Saunders live just a few blocks away from each other in Brooklyn, but they are growing up in completely different worlds. Danny is the son of an ultra-orthodox Hasidic rabbi or tzadik (wise man; messenger of God). The father is so venerated by his congregation that he has nearly royal status; and Danny, as the firstborn, is the heir-apparent. Danny lives in an insulated community: he speaks Yiddish, he studies the Talmud all day long, and he is kept from virtually any contact with the outside world at all. Reuven, on the other hand, is also a religious Jew, but much more worldly. His father is a writer whose ideas are in direct opposition to the Hasidic tradition.

Of course these two boys must meet, and they do. The story begins with a baseball game, and Reuven and Danny are on opposing teams. Danny’s team plays viciously, saying Reuven’s team are apikorsim (apostates) and they are going to kill them. In fact, they almost do — Danny whacks the ball straight at Reuven’s face, smashing his glasses and sending him to the hospital to have a shard removed from his eye. Danny comes to apologize, they make friends, and the rest is history. Their friendship survives a number of obstacles, not the least of which is their fathers’ bitter disagreement over Zionism in the post-Holocaust era.

There is so much to appreciate in this novel. I think what I love the most is the way the author presents opposing views in such a sympathetic way. While Reuven is appalled at the way Danny’s father treats him, the author is careful to show the father’s “side” of the story as well. Yes he is tyrannical, but his tyranny is borne of deep faith, love, and respect for the traditions of his culture. The arguments for and against establishing a secular Jewish state, too, are evenly presented. Potok does a fantastic job of using the various characters’ voices to portray opposite ends of the spectrum without siding with either one, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions.

A great story. Much food for thought, even on the third time through.