Friday, July 25, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

I went in blind when I chose to cover Dinaw Mengestu's All Our Names for this blog. It was on a list of recommendations provided by Goodreads, and I was able to find it at the library. Add the fact that it was a recent publication, and I figured why not take a chance on it. Sometimes fantastic new (to me) authors are discovered that way.

The Situation: Isaac has recently arrived in the small Midwestern city of Laurel from Africa. All he has in his possession is his Kenyan passport, the suit he is wearing, and very little in the one suitcase he is carrying. Assigned to help him from the Lutheran Relief Services is Helen, a woman who has been slightly burnt out by the many hospital visits and funeral attendances for her clients because of her job. Sensing this, her boss assigned her to Isaac's case, allowing her to stay away from hospitals and funeral parlors until Isaac has been taken care of. Despite this being 1970s America, and segregation is part of the not-so-distant past, Helen and Isaac quickly fall for each other, having to sneak around and keep their relationship fairly hidden. Middle America is not quite ready for a white woman and a black man to be romantically involved.

The Problem: While being an interracial couple is certainly one issue Helen and Isaac must deal with, there is also a whole other story as to how Isaac even came to be where he is, and who he is. His passport may be Kenyan, but he is actually from Ethiopia, where he was involved in the country's civil war. At first him and his friend simply showed up at the local university where other protesters would show up and sometimes just hang out. Eventually, the police got involved and put a stop to this, but Isaac continued to grow more and more bold in his own demonstrations, seemingly unafraid to be beaten up and abused by both civilians and the police. And when his boldness gains the attention of a powerful man with the means to start a real war, Isaac's idealism and dreams of a revolution become all too real, with real dangers and real consequences. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I could have easily labeled as historical fiction, as it deals with the real events that occurred in Ethiopia in the early 1970s. The country had recently gained its independence, but was now dealing with the withdrawal of support from the British. Violence would soon break out between the government and those seeking a revolution, and the body count would be high. In Mengestu's story, Isaac would gain the favor of one man, named Joseph, who had enough money and influence to start a war of his own, one in which the soldiers under him would call themselves "liberators" as well as "revolutionaries." Eventually, Isaac would end up in America, even though the fighting continues in his home country. In American he meets Helen, and then must attempt a different type of survival. The chapters switch back and forth between Helen telling the story of her relationship with Isaac, Isaac telling the story of his time in Africa. In this way, the reader somewhat knows the ending on one story by the beginning of the new one. It's a story that isn't just about the brutality and messiness of war and revolution, although there is plenty of that, but also about how the fight doesn't necessarily end just because you switch locations. Also, identity plays an important part in both stories within this book. The Isaac in Africa is incredibly different from the Isaac in America, and in both countries, "Isaac" is really just a name. Identity is something that is played with and the reader never really knows for sure who Isaac is and what he is capable of.

My Verdict: This is an incredibly powerful book that doesn't contain brutal scenes just because it can. Mengestu handles the realities of war and revolution honestly, but not in a way that seems unnecessary or over-the-top. There were scenes where I felt my self turning away from the book, as if I were watching it on TV or in a movie theater, but then I remembered I was reading, and me turning away from the page meant that story stopped and would still be there waiting for me when I turned back. That was how vivid and real everything seemed that Mengestu had written down. With that said, there were times when I felt that Helen's story dragged and I wished to just get back to Isaac's story of when he was still in Africa, but Helen's story isn't without its moments of poignancy either.  I think those who enjoy reading about the conflicts that go on in other countries, especially those in fairly recent history, would enjoy this book a great deal. It is also a story that explores how quickly the ideal of a revolution can become a dangerous reality.

Favorite Moment: When Helen learns more of who Isaac really is and his past, shattering her own idealistic vision of what is going on between them.

Favorite Character: In this book, identity is a weird and tricky thing, so to pick a favorite character doesn't quite feel right, but I suppose I'll try anyway. I'll say that my favorite character was Isaac, but that really isn't clarifying much. So I pick the Isaac that went to the university in Ethiopia, before coming to America, and pretended to be a student, although his clothes and the way he walked immediately told anyone with the least bit of observation skills that he was too poor to be a student. He just wanted a better life for himself than what was available to him at home, and to be accepted by the protesters on the school's lawn. This was before revolution would show him things he could never unsee and force him from the country he would probably never return to.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland, as it contains many of the same themes, except it takes place India, as well as America, and follows two brothers as opposed to two friends. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

I certainly arrived late to the Christopher Moore party as the first book I ever read by him was Sacre Bleu, which was published only two years before his latest book that I am writing about today, The Serpent of Venice. More devoted fans will recognize some of the characters in The Serpent of Venice as they also appeared in Fool, which was published in 2009, and now is a must read for me as I would love to know how Pocket's adventures first started.

The Situation: Brabantio, Iago, and Antonio have decided to murder the fool Fortunato, also known as Pocket. They have already murdered his love and Queen, Cordelia, and now proceed to chain him up and wall him in, much like what is done in Edgar Allan Poe's The Cask of Amontillado. But just as Pocket has resigned himself to death, he is saved by a horrifying, although incredibly helpful, serpent-like creature he has decided to name Vivian, or Viv for short. Now, Pocket, who was already bent on revenge for the death of his beloved Cordelia, must find those who have wronged him and sought to end his life, while simultaneously hiding the fact that their plan didn't succeed.

The Problem: For Pocket, keeping his identity a secret while carrying out revenge is difficult enough. But it doesn't help that Iago is attempting to be rid of Othello, a friend of Pocket's, and also be rid of Cassio, Othello's second in command. Also, Antonio and Iago both have come up with a scheme to have Antonio's young friend Bassanio win Portia's hand in marriage, therefore giving him a seat on the council that would have been given to Othello if the plot to have him out of the way works out. And in order to even attempt such a thing, Bassanio would need to have Antonio borrow money from the Jew, Shylock, whose own daughter, Jessica is intent on running away with Lorenzo, another of Antonio's friends. Somehow, Pocket has got to foil all of his enemies' plans while also keeping himself alive and getting revenge for the wrongs done to him, plus find his giant idiot accomplice, Drool, and the monkey, Jeff. It also doesn't help that the serpent-like Viv enjoys showing up and killing off men in an incredibly gruesome manner. Pocket is certain Viv won't harm him, but he doesn't know that for sure, and can't quite figure out how he has gained such an ally.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a humorous fiction novel set in late 13th century Venice. It borrows heavily both the characters and events from William Shakespeare's Othello and The Merchant of Venice. It also borrows from the already mentioned The Cask of Amontillado. In order to use the elements from the two Shakespeare plays, Moore had to move their timelines up by a few hundred years, as both were set in the early 17th century. Some geographical changes were made as well, but ultimately, both plays were set in Venice, which is why Moore chose them for the book. He has Iago and Brabantio from Othello join forces with Antonio from Merchant, therefore making Antonio an antagonist instead of a hero. Moore has also made Othello's Desdemona the older sister to Portia from Merchant, allowing Brabantio to be the father of both. While The Merchant of Venice has elements of anti semitism, Othello has elements of racism, and both certainly play a part in Moore's book. But Serpent also has elements of hypocrisy, greed, revenge, courage, and adventure.

My Verdict: To me, this book was like a How It Should Have Ended for both Othello and The Merchant of Venice. These two plays are some of my least favorite that I have read of Shakespeare's. Othello is just a little too tragic, and Merchant I don't actually think to be that funny. But Moore certainly changes that and has some fun creating his own ending. As I mentioned in the introduction, reading this book has also made me want to find a copy of Moore's Fool so that I can read how Pocket's adventures first began. The book is incredibly funny, and certainly makes for a fantastic introduction into some of Shakespeare's characters for those who may not be all that familiar with the Bard's plays. 

Favorite Moment: When Pocket is able to find and rescue his giant if slow-witted friend Drool. He is certainly a gentle giant, and while he may be stupid, he is still useful with specific skills of his own apart from his enormous size and strength.

Favorite Character: There are certainly many great characters in this book, and while I am tempted to pick Drool, or even Viv, the serpent, I think instead I will go with Jessica. She may a bit blind when it comes to love, and has no problem abandoning her own father, but ultimately she makes a great companion to Pocket while he attempts to carry out his ridiculous schemes.

Recommended Reading: I would most likely recommend Fool had I actually read it, so instead I recommend Moore's previous novel Sacre Bleu. The book focuses on post-impressionist painters and has them as its main characters. Like Moore's other works, it is funny, vulgar, irreverent, and has fun with history. 

Friday, July 11, 2014

Historical Fiction: The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

I decided to read The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd after it popped up on Goodreads as a "mover & shaker." I of course had heard of The Secret Life of Bees, and The Mermaid Chair, but this book would end up being my first by Kidd, although probably not my last.

The Situation: At eleven years old, Sarah Grimke would be given her very own slave. It is 1803 in Charleston, South Carolina, and Sarah lives with her plantation owning family and their many slaves. The one assigned to her is named Hetty, but prefers to be called Handful, the name her mother Charlotte gave her at birth. Up until the day she was given to Sarah, Handful had always slept by her mother's side, but now she sleeps outside of Sarah's bedroom door, in the cold of the hallway, should Sarah need anything in the middle of the night. Even at only eleven years old, Sarah abhors the "peculiar institution" and sets her mind to setting Handful free. But after a failed attempt to do so, Sarah believes that perhaps becoming a lawyer, something that women back then just did not do, will be her way to be able to change the laws and be rid of slavery altogether. Meanwhile, Handful and her mother commit their own small acts of rebellion, attempting to be free in any way they can, if not physically.

The Problem: Sarah's ideas about abolition and equality are not welcome in the slave-holding south, not even inside of her own house. Her difficult and ill-tempered mother is not above inflicting cruel punishments on the slaves that make mistakes or misbehave. While her father isn't quite as harsh, he is less than supportive of Sarah's ambitions to become a lawyer, and does not welcome her "radical" ideas concerning freedom for what he believes to be his property. Meanwhile, as Sarah struggles between her privileged but constrained life and fighting for what she knows to be right, Handful is simply fighting to survive and not let the Grimke's enslave her mind as well as her body. Charlotte had made Sarah promise that she would do what she could to set Handful free, but while waiting on the promise to be fulfilled, she sneaks away from the Grimke property with fake passes that allow her to walk the streets of Charleston and earn money that she intends to save up in order to purchase freedom for both her daughter and herself. Handful fears her mother will one day be caught and all hope will be lost, and Sarah fears her being a woman will give her no opportunity to fulfill her promise. Over the next thirty-five years, both women will fight for similar things using what little they have available to them.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that begins in the early 19th century and extends into the beginnings of the Abolitionist Movement as well as the Women's Rights Movement. Sarah and her sister Angelina, or Nina, were real sisters who became involved in both movements, despite having grown up in a slave-holding family in Charleston. While Sarah would be known mostly for her writing, Nina was known as a great orator, and both were incredibly passionate not only about freedom for slaves, but also equality with their white counterparts. They came under heavy fire not only because of their radical views, but because they were women, something that caused much friction between those that wanted to focus only on abolishing slavery, and those that were also concerned with the rights of women. Many of the events Kidd has put into the novel are fictionalized, but there are also a great deal of them that are true, if maybe placed a few years ahead or behind when they actually happened. Sarah was even given a slave named Hetty, but little is known about her, so the half of the story that came from her is completely of Kidd's own invention. In the novel, while Sarah was a free white woman, she felt trapped because of the roles she was confined to despite her intelligence and her ambition. And because Handful was a black slave, she was physically trapped, but determined to never let them have her mind, mostly due to her mother's influence who was bent on the same. Freedom is of course a big theme, but so is greed, as this seems to be the main thing that keeps some people who believe slavery to be awful from actually freeing their slaves. Insecurity and fear also play a role in people's hesitance to push for both abolition and equality, and they seem to play a part in the public's resistance to the two outspoken Grimke sisters.

My Verdict: While I certainly see that value of this book and can see that Kidd did her research into the lives of both Sarah and Angelina Grimke, I wish that parts of it were written better. I think I was much more drawn to Handful's story than I was Sarah's. At first, I was interested in both stories equally as they are both children, one meant to be served by the other, but instead there was a strange friendship that had formed, because that is just how children are. But as the girls get older, and when Sarah eventually leaves Charleston, I am no longer as interested in her story as I am Handful's. Maybe it was because, at the end of the day, Sarah was a free white women while Handful was a black slave, and probably always would be. Both stories had moments of intensity and their fair share of trials, but Handful's story just seemed more compelling. Perhaps it was because there is more written about Sarah Grimke, and therefore more actual accounts that this fictionalized version was attempting to adhere to. Meanwhile, Handful's story is pretty much completely made up. I'm not sure what it is. But overall, it isn't a bad book, just not as interesting as I had hoped. 

Favorite Moment: When Sarah ignores her mother heads outside to help a wounded slave.

Favorite Character: While I would probably be annoyed with her if she were my sister in real life, I liked Nina, Sarah's younger and much braver sister. She grows up to believe much the same thing as Sarah does, but she doesn't hesitate to say what is on her mind and jumps right into the movement despite the consequences and doesn't understand why others wouldn't do the same.

Recommended Reading: Slavery is always a hard subject to read about, fictionalized or not. So because the book I just reviewed falls under fiction, I will recommend the nonfiction Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. But be warned, it is incredibly difficult to read.      

Friday, July 4, 2014

Nonfiction: The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue by Daniel Vaughn

I thought for the 4th of July I would post about something very near and to me: Texas BBQ. I was fortunate to meet "BBQ Snob," author and editor of the blog Full Custom Gospel BBQ, and Texas Monthly editor Daniel Vaughn at the 2014 San Antonio edition of the Texas Book Festival. I then heard him talk about his book, The Prophets of Smoked Meat: A Journey Through Texas Barbecue. During the question and answer portion, it was only natural that someone would ask him about the best BBQ joints in San Antonio. He then mentioned B&D Ice House, which a quick Google search on my phone told me I could walk to from my house. I had already bought the book before I had a chance to try B&D, but one bite of the brisket told me that this guy knew what he was talking about and I could trust the rest of his recommendations. But be warned, today's post is unashamedly all about Texas.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that gives fairly detailed reviews about the BBQ joints all across the great state of Texas. Vaughn traveled, along with photographer Nicholas McWhirter, across every section of the state - which is slightly bigger then the entire country of France - trying every BBQ place along the way, most of them planned, but there were quite a few that were impromptu stops. The result is a book that covers 35 days, 10,343 miles, and 186 BBQ places. Each chapter covers a specific section of the state, starting with the Panhandle and ending with Central Texas, with Vaughn often stopping at the best places more than once as he comes across them in different trips. Vaughn is actually not a Texan by birth, having been born in Ohio, but as we like to say of those who eventually find their way here, he got here as soon as he could. Throughout the book, along with the reviews of various smoked meat - the "holy trinity" of which is brisket, sausage, and ribs - there are color pictures of not only the food, but also the people and surrounding sights. And in the back of the book, Vaughn not only included a very helpful and practical index, but also profiles of pitmasters (those who have become experts in producing the best smoked meat), and a final short list of what Vaughn has decided are the places to find the BBQ in Texas. But the one page I found myself referencing more than any other throughout my reading of the book, and one that I will continue to reference as I form my own BBQ trail, was the map of Texas at the front of the book that marks out where each restaurant is located, as well as what type of wood they use in their smoker.

My Verdict: If you live in Texas and love, or even like, BBQ, this is a book for you. If you enjoy driving out to middle-of-nowhere Texas, and the state has a lot of that, and finding hidden gems with great food, then you'll find this book incredibly useful. The pitmaster profiles even include some recipes so you can attempt to replicate their flavors and creations on your own. But while this book is certainly about Texas BBQ, it is also about the joys of the road trip, and just how much the vast state of Texas has to offer someone willing to just get in the car and drive. Vaughn encounters the loneliness and desolation of the miles between San Angelo and El Paso, the tension that comes from the Texas/Mexico border, the trees and views of northeast Texas, the popular urban areas that lie along I-35, I-10, and I-45, and almost everything in between. And while I was worried that there would end up being a mind-numbing repetition as Vaughn declares this place great, and that place bad, and this other place as mediocre, I can honestly say that I was never bored with this book. There is a lot of repetition, but I was always eager to see what Vaughn's ruling was going to be on every place he visited, even if he had already been there. 

Favorite Moment: In the pitmaster profiles, it is revealed that the beautiful plate of food that makes up the cover of the book came from a place in San Antonio, Texas known as Two Bros. BBQ Market. Such a seemingly small thing makes me even more proud to call San Antonio home. I have actually never been to Two Bros, but I guarantee you it is on my list.

Recommended Reading: I'm fairly certain this is the only food-related book I have ever covered on this blog, so I suppose I'll go with another book that explores life in small-town Texas. Karen Valby's Welcome to Utopia does exactly that as she talks about the real lives and struggles of the people who make up the extremely small town of Utopia, Texas.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Young Adult Fiction: The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender by Leslye Walton

There are two factors that brought Leslye Walton's The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender to my attention: one was, of course, Goodreads. At one point not too long ago that book was one of its "movers & shakers." But even though Goodreads brought the book to my attention, I probably would not have thought to click on the description had it not been for the way the title (which is also pretty fantastic) had been carefully placed on the incredible cover art. I try not to judge a book by its cover, really I do, but I sincerely hope they do the paperback as much justice as they have the hardback edition.

The Situation: There are currently three generations that live in the house at the end of the ominously named Pinnacle Lane. The oldest would be Emilienne, the grandmother, who had already survived both of her parents, as well as two sisters and a brother, before moving to Seattle, only to soon lose her husband as well. Her daughter, Viviane, hasn't left the house in 15 years, after she was left by the love of her life. She also forbids her two children, Henry and Ava, from leaving the house as well. If they were ordinary children with nothing special about them, she probably would not force her reclusive nature onto them. But Henry doesn't communicate well, and doesn't like to be touched. And Ava, while fairly normal in every other way, was born with the wings of a bird.

The Problem: While the neighborhood eventually moved past the whispers claiming that Emilienne was a witch, and now frequent her bakery without hesitation, Viviane remains a recluse, and for the most part, so do her children. Henry does occasionally venture out with Gabe, a man who took up residence in the house during the war, and has proved especially skilled at making detailed maps of the places they go. Even Ava ventures out with her best friend, but no one knows about it, except for a few kids from the school that Viviane doesn't let her daughter attend. Ava manages to come home safe every night, and what her mother doesn't know doesn't hurt her. But there is someone who does notice Ava's nightly escapes with her friend. And while the man believes Ava to be an angel, his fascination is one dangerous step from becoming an obsession, and Viviane's fear that the outside world isn't ready for a girl born with the wings of a bird may be prove to be warranted.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel with many elements of a fantasy, the most prominent of which being that Ava is born with wings...with feathers and everything. Also, her great-grandmother, Emilienne's mother, died by basically fading away into nothing, until eventually she was just a pile of ashes left on the kitchen floor. And Viviane's aunt, Emilienne's sister, managed to turn herself into a canary in order to get a local bird watcher to notice her (it didn't work). Also, the house where they all live on Pinnacle Lane has its own sordid history, and it is rumored to be haunted by the previous owner. No one even goes into the third floor, which Ava basically glosses over just by stating that no one goes up there anymore. And birds and feathers are everywhere. While there is more than enough story just surrounding Ava and her condition, the book gives an entire history of the family, beginning with Emilienne's immigration with her family to New York before the First World War. In fact, because Ava was born in 1944 and is the book's narrator, this could be categorized as historical fiction. In short, there is quite a bit going on in this book.

My Verdict: This is certainly not like any other book I have ever read. But even so, it isn't so out there and strange that it is hard to grasp or understand. It is creative, imaginative, profound, heartbreaking, and even hopeful. There are moments where the illusion was broken for me, mostly when there was a bad transition, or a less than believable back story given to a character as a reason for them to show up on the scene. But for the most part, the world that Walton has created is so complete and so enticing, despite some of the dangers that come with it, that it is very easy to get lost in it and not want to leave. And for me, the beauty of the cover art seemed to translate through the writer's descriptions of the scenery and events. And somehow, the idea of this taking place in a real place like Seattle doesn't take away from the fantasy, but actually adds to it. Not sure how she did that, but she did, and it's incredible.

Favorite Moment: When the main person who had been insistent on referring to Emilienne as a witch acknowledges the reason behind his prejudice. 

Favorite Character: For once, this is difficult for me not because there is no one to like, which is often the problem with modern fiction, but because there are so many people to like. All three of the Lavender women are remarkable in their own way, while still having flaws that they must work through. So I suppose I'll pick Rowe, the older brother of Ava's best friend, Cardigan. He works as the delivery boy for Emilienne's bakery before he goes off to college. He always sticks up for Ava and even protects her from his little sister's machinations to force her out into society. He's simply a sweet boy who doesn't just see Ava as a girl with wings.

Recommended Reading: For this book, I will recommend Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. Both books have created their own world within the history of this one. And they are both world's that are a little outside our version of reality, but not so much so that we can't relate to the characters and their struggles.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Contemporary Fiction: Orfeo by Richard Powers

Since I covered Generosity last week, I will cover Richard Powers' latest novel, Orfeo, for this week. In Generosity, Powers explores the idea of someone being unnaturally and inexplicably happy, and if it were possible to extract something from such a person in order to share it with the rest of us. In Orfeo, I found a story that dealt not only with music, but the idea that perhaps music can be written into DNA and actually played. Yeah, it was baffling stuff.

The Situation: Peter Els, now in his seventies, spends his days walking his faithful golden retriever, Fidelio, and running experiments in his lab. Peter has retired from teaching, and was once a composer in a previous life, having attained modest success with an opera he composed with a friend he hasn't spoken to in over a decade. Now he fights off both loneliness and senility by listening to music, taking care of Fidelio, and tampering with science. Growing up, music and chemistry were his two competing loves. He was good at both, and honestly liked both, even though chemistry was a major he chose because his stepfather wouldn't pay for him to get a degree in music. Both have shaped Peter's life, and even at 70 he hasn't given up on either.

The Problem: The lab that Peter runs his experiments in is at his home. He bought the equipment himself and set up his own microbiology lab where he messes with DNA. It's his hobby, just like music, and he sees no harm in it. It is very probable that no one would have ever known or found out about the homemade lab until Peter either died or moved, but he makes the mistake of calling 911 to report Fidelio's death, even though he was there when it happened and knows there was no foul play involved. When the police visit his house and find an illegal lab in his home where he is messing with DNA, Peter is told not to leave town for a few days as the officers report what they find. Soon, every piece of equipment in Peter's house is confiscated, and when he panics and runs off, the media turns him into the next bioterrorist threatening our country's safety. Peter knows he meant no harm, as do his friends and family. He was simply attempting to compose his greatest piece yet. But the authorities want to bring him in. And as Peter runs, the book tells the story of how Peter's life led up to this point.

Genre, Themes, History: I was tempted to place this book under the heading of science fiction, but I just stuck with contemporary instead. I also think this book could almost be placed under historical fiction since, while the reader is never given any actual years or dates as Peter's life story is being told, it does mark time by the wars and great tragedies that have occurred throughout history. Both music and chemistry play a massive part in Peter's formative years, but it is really music that he ends up devoting most of his time and energy to during his adult years, only to return to chemistry later in life. And much like the protagonist in Generosity, Peter is fairly insecure and ends up bending under more powerful personalities. And when it comes to women, Peter is even less sure of himself, although he does manage to get married and have a daughter. But it is music that would prove to be his true love, but even in that he can't seem to be sure of himself and confident of his own talent, no matter how much his friends and fellow musicians assure him of his brilliance. And even when Peter is on the brink of very real success, he is the one who sabotages it and ruins his chances for widespread fame. There are two stories in this book, as there is what is happening in present day, and also Peter's life story, but ultimately it is mostly about music. Musicians, especially composers, will probably understand it better than most any other kind of reader.

My Verdict: If I were more into music and knew more about it, I probably would have enjoyed this book more. But instead, I found myself bored through various long stretches of the story. Peter is just so into music that being just a music lover wouldn't be enough to keep the average reader from getting lost in everything that goes on in the story. Also, instead of Powers writing about what is going on with Peter in the present day in between telling his life story, I think I would have preferred if the book was either about Peter's present circumstances, or about his life growing up, not both. Whenever I was reading about one, I was wishing I could skip ahead to the other. With that being said, parts of the story are pretty solid and interesting, but it often felt like the author wanted to write about one thing, but decided there wasn't enough to make a book out of it, so he added other elements, therefore making it longer than it felt like it should be.

Favorite Moment: When Peter calls for Fidelio out of habit, forgetting she has passed away.

Favorite Character: Even though she isn't in most of the book, I think my favorite character is Peter's daughter, Sara, whom he refers to as his best work.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Richard Powers' previous novel, Generosity, which I actually liked a little better. To me, Generosity is a little more interesting and easier to relate to.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Science Fiction: Generosity by Richard Powers

As I added Richard Powers' newest novel, Orfeo, to my reading list, I went ahead and decided to check out his previous novel, Generosity: An Enhancement, in preparation. This is a new author for me so I wasn't sure what to expect, and hoped I hadn't just signed myself up to read two books by a writer whose style I didn't like.

The Situation: Russell Stone is a new teacher and former writer. The only reason he is now a "former" writer is because of his inability to write anything truly imaginative and creative due to his fear of taking risks. While he enjoyed modest success during his short writing career, he became paralyzed creatively by the little criticism he received and one unfortunate event that involved the subject of one of his stories. But Russell is ready to try teaching, and ends up coming across a woman of Algerian descent who is inexplicably, and undeniably, happy. Russell isn't the only one who notices this. Anyone who meets Thassa or has any contact with her simply cannot deny that she has a joy like they have never seen. Thassa's joy and happiness is not only refreshing, but it's contagious. And for Russell, it starts to become troubling. He simply doesn't believe that anyone could truly be that happy. Especially someone who has witnessed the atrocities of war like she has. But despite Russell's disbelief, Thassa continues to infect those around her while insisting she is nothing special.

The Problem: While Russell would love nothing more than to keep Thassa's joy all to himself and the small circle of friends she has at school, an incident on campus causes the greater Chicago area to learn about the person who seems to be quite a bit happier than the rest of us. Soon, Russell is able to search the Internet for information on the world's happiest person and finds that everyone is slowly learning about Thassa and wants to know her secret. Inevitably, scientists are wanting to have Thassa tested, while journalists want to interview her. Other people are emailing Thassa wanting her for a range of reasons: some simply want to know her secret, others want her to go as far as to pray for them, with a range of other requests in between. Russell may have initially believed that Thassa was dangerously happy, but now he sees that happiness in danger of being smothered and never breaking the surface again. Unfortunately, he has neither the strength nor the courage to be her hero, and the fact of the matter is, if there is anyone who would be a hero, it would be Thassa.

Genre, Themes, History: I have placed this under the heading of science fiction simply because that is the category under which it is most commonly placed on Goodreads, and the book deals with scientific discoveries that have not yet been made in the present day. Plus, a good amount of the book deals with the question of whether happiness, much like depression for some people, can be genetic. Is there in fact a happiness gene? And if there was a way to bottle up whatever Thassa has and sell it to the public, how much would the public pay for it? The book also deals with the idea of being able to screen out certain diseases in an unborn baby, and how that possibility could easily lead to parents simply picking and choosing what color eyes to give their child, as well as hair, skin tone, height, etc. While part of the book follows Russell and his bumbling attempts at teaching a class, getting his creativity back, and generally just living like a normal human being amongst other human beings without coming off as too awkward, it also deals with the ethics behind the type of science that would try to discover the happiness gene and replicate it for future generations. And while the narrator is clearly third-person, I wouldn't say they are quite omniscient as it seems he (or even she) occasionally has the characters get away from him, but he also seems able to easily reign them in and have them do what he pleases.

My Verdict: This was at least the sort of science fiction I was able to easily grasp and wasn't too confused or intimidated by. I found Thassa's incessantly cheery disposition incredibly intriguing, but I didn't quite believe that people would really be so interested in her as they were. Sure, we would all love to know the secret to happiness, but I had a hard time really understanding just how magnetic Thassa was, and I don't believe that people would really act so desperately in order to have what she has. But maybe that is me being naive. What I do believe is how utterly helpless and useless Russell appeared to be. He shares a good amount of the blame for letting the general public know about Thassa and is absolutely useless in doing any type of damage control. In fact, given the opportunity, he would make things much worse. With all of that said, I am still looking forward to reading Orfeo for next week. And Generosity is short enough to where even if it isn't the best book you've read all year, it is still worth picking up.

Favorite Moment: When Thassa is given the entire world as an audience and ends up not giving them what they want.

Favorite Character: My favorite character is easily Thassa, and it is interesting that her incessant happiness would cause her so much trouble, mostly because people just don't seem to understand how someone, anyone, could be filled with such joy.

Recommended Reading: I recommend The Humans by Matt Haig. It involves an alien coming down to Earth simply to kill off the few human beings who have become aware of a mathematical discovery that would advance the human race tremendously, but ultimately cause them to be a danger to the rest of the galaxy. I recommend it because it is another book that seeks to understand why human beings act the way they do.