Friday, October 25, 2013

Historical Fiction: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena made it onto the fiction long list for the 2013 National Book Award. Normally I avoid anything, fiction or nonfiction, that is about the very real wars that have happened, or continue to happen, on this earth. But for Marra's book I decided to take a chance.

The Situation: It is the Second Chechen War and Dokka has just been taken from his home by the Russian Federation. After briefly searching the house, the Feds then continued to douse the inside with gasoline and set the entire structure on fire. His eight year-old daughter, Havaa, would escape only because her father had enough foresight to have packed a "just in case" bag for her and was able to push her out of the back door before the Feds entered the house. The little girl hid in the woods while her father was taken, and afterwards she is found by Akhmed, a friend of Dokka's. Akhmed knows Havaa cannot stay with him, as the informant who gave Dokka's name to the Feds is nearby and will be looking for her, so he takes her to the hospital. Sonja, the doctor who now runs the less than fully functional hospital, is reluctant to take on the small child. Sonja also isn't thrilled that the completely incompetent Akhmed wants to stick around and help out, but she needs all the help she can get. And Akhmed holds onto the faint hope that they all may be able to save each other.

The Problem: As I already mentioned, it is the Second Chechen War, and things are bad. The informant that gave Dokka's name to the Feds is still looking for Havaa, knowing she couldn't have gone far. And the people he reports to keep asking for names, and he's willing to give up his friends and neighbors in order to save his own neck. And while Sonja gets used to the presence of two more people in the hospital, she also deals with her own loss of her sister, whose narrative shows the trials and hardships many women go through when seeking illegal passage to Europe. Even Akhmed, as he attempts to keep Havaa safe, also has a very sick wife at home for whom he expects death is very close. He cares for her while using  his current relationship with Havaa as some sort of absolution for how he treated Dokka in the past. Everyone is struggling to just survive, but they are also struggling to keep secrets from decisions made in the past, some of which were made out of necessity, and some just out of selfishness. In the end it may not even matter. 

Genre, Theme, History: This is a historical fiction novel that takes place in 2004 in Chechnya. The Second Chechen War rages on and won't see an end for five more years. And while this book does take place during a war, there aren't a any battle scenes. Instead, Marra focuses on the civilians that stayed behind in Chechnya, or in Sonja's case, those that came back. I could just say that the overarching theme is one of survival, but there is more to it than that. Not only are these people trying to survive, and each one has a limit to what they will do in order to do that, but it is also about how many are willing to look beyond themselves in the face of imminent danger. Akhmed knows he is putting his life on the line for Havaa, but he does it anyway. Meanwhile, Ramzan gives up the lives of others in order to continue his own and get medicine for his father, something his father will come to resent. And even Dokka, before his disappearance, made room in his house for refugees needing a place to stay. And Sonja will come back from the safety of London to find her sister, and then will continue as a doctor in the nearby hospital...a hospital that many are quickly fleeing as she resolves to stay. This is the effect this war has had on this particular group of people, and everyone's decisions effect everyone else in some way. 

My Verdict: The only reason I picked up this book is because it was on the long list for the National Book Award, and the UTSA library had it available for check out. But I am glad I read it and glad I pushed through some of the harder and more brutal scenes to the end. None of these characters are completely innocent people. Everyone is guilty of some act of selfishness at some point, except maybe Havaa. But somehow, even with all of their flaws, Marra made each one relatable. Sure, I would like to think I have nothing in common with Ramzan the informant, but even his story manages to evoke some sympathy despite his continuing acts of cowardice that result in the disappearance and ultimate death of others. The novel is a picture of war that is often unseen and forgotten about. It is about the day to day life of those who aren't fighting, but trying to live their lives while their home is being torn apart. It is not only informative, but also compelling, and incredibly heartbreaking.

Favorite Moment: The reveals that Marra places throughout this book, not only about the main characters but also about many minor ones, are absolutely fantastic and done incredibly well, even the tragic ones. Marra slowly and thoughtfully reveals the plight of each of the people the reader has come to care about. In the same that way he unwraps their past and shows how they are all connected, he unwraps their future and shows how what happened in the course of the novel got them there.

Favorite Character: For my favorite character I have picked Ramzan's father, Khassan. He definitely does not approve of his son's decision to become an informant. And to really show his disapproval, he takes any of the food Ramzan gets as payment and feeds it to his dogs. 

Recommended Reading: While reading A Constellation of Vital Phenomena I was reminded of Rutya Sepeteys' historical young adult novel Between Shades of Gray, which tells the story of a Lithuanian family who are forced from their home under Stalin's orders and are taken to the Arctic Circle for a life of hard labor. Two different wars, two different countries, but a lot of the hardship and terror are eerily similiar. 

Friday, October 18, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

All credit for my discovery of this novel goes to Goodreads as well as Barnes & Noble. It was on Goodreads that I first read the description of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Americanah and decided I wanted to read it eventually. But it was seeing it at Barnes & Noble that made me realize that "eventually" wasn't quite soon enough.

The Situation: Ifemelu and Obinze grew up in Nigeria, where they met as kids. Almost immediately there was something between them. They liked each other and continued to date even after Ifemelu went away to America to go to school. She and Obinze kept in touch through emails and phone calls, and their friends and family did not doubt that soon they would be receiving wedding invitations and that the couple would be linked together forever. But eventually, it appears that Ifemelu has cut off all contact with Obinze. She stops returning phone calls and emails, eventually changing her number and deleting her old email account. Friends and family are confused, and Obinze is devastated. Enough time will pass, and Ifemelu will begin to meet and date other men as she gets more established in America, and Obinze himself will get married and have a child back in Nigeria. It isn't the way anyone thought the story would go, but that is what was happening.

The Problem: Obinze is now a rich man in Nigeria and is doing very well. But he isn't completely satisfied with how things are, and he often thinks about how he should not have married his somewhat simple and superficial wife, Kosi. He may have been able to continue living this life just fine, except one day he receives an email out of the blue from Ifemelu saying that she will be returning to Nigeria after years of living in America. Now he is obsessively looking online for more information about her and about what she has been doing. He checks his Blackberry constantly to see if she has emailed back. He even finds out what he can about the men she has dated in the States and finds himself becoming jealous, even though Ifemelu has long done with them. What will Ifemelu's return mean for him? For them?

Genre, Themes, History: If anything, this section is going to show just how simplistic my above summary actually is. This is a fiction novel that is about much more than just a boy and girl who become separated by time and oceans who are about to be reunited again. In fact, for the majority of the book, Ifemelu and Obinze aren't even together on the same continent. Just as much as this book is about a long lost love, it is also about race relations in America, cross-cultural communication and interaction, immigration, literature, education, and even black hair care. Ifemelu didn't simply come to America, get an education, work a few jobs, date a few people, and then go back home to Nigeria. She had to deal with all of the paperwork and red tape that comes with being from another country and trying to work and go to school in America. She started a blog about race in America that soon had readers from all over the world. She watched her aunt, a single parent, struggle to become a doctor in a strange country while raising her son. And she watched other people from other countries try to make it in their own way, with their own unique struggles and successes. Even Obinze had a brief stint in London that ended in his deportation. And after finally making headway as a businessman back in Nigeria, the reader is given a look into how Nigerians do business, how much they value status and wealth, and what being successful means to them. There is a lot packed into this 477 page novel, making it one of those books for which it is impossible to answer the dreaded question "So, what's it about?"

My Verdict: As I said, there is a lot to this book, but I rarely felt overwhelmed by everything that was going on and everything that Ifemelu was observing. I am sure many will feel like Ifemelu's thoughts on race will seem heavy-handed and unnecessary, but really, her observations felt to me like the kind of stuff a non-American black person would pick up on and find interesting. The reader gets to follow Ifemelu from her life as a young girl in Nigeria, to her life as a young adult in America, and then back home again. And while you know from the beginning that Ifemelu intends to return to Nigeria and meet up again with Obinze, Adichie writes it all in such a way that I didn't mind at all that she takes the scenic route and almost leaves the reunion for the very end. In fact, I think I would have been fine if Ifemelu and Obinze went on living their separate lives. The love story between the two of them was probably my least favorite part. I enjoyed watching Ifemelu navigate life in America, and Obinze's misadventures in London that lead him back home. There is one part where a character, the sister of one of Ifemelu's American boyfriends, is lamenting that she wanted to write about race, but the editor keeps wanting her to sort of water it down and make it about other stuff too. And maybe that is what Adichie had to do. Maybe this book is really about race, but the love story was put in to really sell it. I honestly have no idea, but I can see that happening.

Favorite Moment: The parts I enjoyed the most came from the blog post entries that were included throughout the novel. Ifemelu is a fairly straight-forward person who isn't afraid to speak her mind, but in her blog, she really didn't hold back. Topics ranged from black hair care, to Barack Obama, to the white friend who "gets it," to interracial relationships, and on and on. For me, these were some of the most interesting passages in the book.

Favorite Character: I may not have agreed with her opinions and her actions all of the time, but I will pick Ifemelu as my favorite character. She is the one the reader has the most access to throughout the novel, and fortunately for me she rarely got on my nerves and didn't cause much eye-rolling. I think I like her because she wasn't afraid to be the bad guy and tell the truth.

Recommended Reading: A few times throughout the book, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart is mentioned, and that would be a great follow up to Americanah. Also, Baratunde Thurston's How to Be Black is always a good choice.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Science Fiction: The Long War by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Quite naturally, I had to eventually read and blog about Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's follow-up to The Long Earth, a science fiction series centered around the idea of there being parallel Earths, most of which are like our own. The Long War continues the story of how humanity is adjusting to the seemingly endless opportunities afforded to them by the Long Earth. As I mentioned in last year's post, this is a story line with seemingly endless possibilities, and Pratchett and Baxter decided to embark on a good deal of them.

The Situation: It is now ten years after Joshua Valiente and Lobsang took a trip across the Long Earth and discovered sights and species that most had only read about in science fiction novels. Now, humankind has spread out across the Long Earth, shaping it just as it is shaping them. And Joshua, now with a wife and child of his own, has settled in a small town simply referred to as Hell-Knows-Where (see what they did there?) a long way away from the Datum, or original Earth. Now somewhat of a celebrity, Joshua would like to live a simple life and leave all of the exploring to the more adventurous types, such as Sally Linsay, who doesn't care at all for Joshua's decision to "settle down." Also, the enigmatic Lobsang is still up to his old tricks with his ability to be in multiple places at once and know pretty much everything there is to know about anyone that he finds interesting or that he believes might help him in his personal mission. It has only been ten years since Step Day, so humanity is still making mistakes regarding the Long Earth, but progress is being made, and everyone is getting along as best they can.

The Problem: One of the many new species that human beings have encountered in The Long Earth are the trolls. They are kind, smart, strong, and somewhat sensitive creatures. They cause the humans little to know trouble. In fact, in many settlements, they work for the humans and don't seem to mind doing it. But in a place in the Long Earth known simply as "the gap," one mother troll decided she didn't want her cub to be part of an experiment being run by the space program, and attempts to subdue her and take the cub end tragically. And of course, because humans seem to have video of everything and will share anything remotely interesting  as quickly as they can, the video of this incident becomes well-known across the Long Earth, and the result is an almost complete split, with some wanting to protect the trolls and maintain peace with them, and others calling for their subjugation and/or extermination. Sally, a troll sympathizer, goes to Joshua for help, and despite his reluctance, he agrees. Meanwhile, President Crowley has sent out stepping airships across the Long Earth colonies that fall under the jurisdiction of the USA in an attempt to maintain control of them, and also to somewhat deal with the troll issue. And of course Lobsang seems to have his own objective as well, as he continues to recruit his own team and even attempts to get back into Joshua's good graces. With millions upon millions of worlds to explore, there are many opportunities ofr progress, and also for destruction.

Genre, Themes, History: In the first book, just the idea of there being so many alternate "earths" to discover was overwhelming enough. In this second book, it is still overwhelming, but that didn't stop Pratchett and Baxter from going even further with this idea. The Long War is of course a science fiction book, but it takes fear of the unknown and misunderstood, as well as colonization and greed to a whole other level. It is no longer just Lobsang and the Black Corporation that he works with that are interested in exploring the Long Earth. Now the Chinese are getting involved (and I'm assuming other countries as well) and are making their own discoveries. Also, it becomes apparent that each world isn't just slightly different from the Datum, but that some have the capacity to be nothing like anyone has ever seen, and same goes for the life forms that inhabit them. Literally anything is possible. President Crowley back on the Datum is concerned with maintaining control over the colonies associated with the US in order to not suffer a complete economic collapse at home, as well as protect those who chose to remain on the Datum. But like most things, it appears that ultimately, everything about the Long Earth doesn't revolve around human beings and what we think is best for it. These alternate earths have seemingly always existed without us, but now that humanity has started stepping, existence without the Long Earth may no longer be a possibility.

My Verdict: There was certainly some tension regarding the discovery of the Long Earth in the first book, but while there is still a great deal of discovery that takes place in The Long War, Pratchett and Baxter bring the tension to the forefront. Really, my only concern may be that there are too many possibilities for this type of book, as the authors bring up a lot of different storylines in the 400+ pages of this book. I am comforted by the fact that the series may end up being at least five books long, so maybe there will be ample time for everything to get somewhat resolved by the end, but still. It would be one thing if we were following Joshua, Sally, the US military, Lobsang, and the slew of other new characters that were introduced just over the surface of our own world. But we're attempting to follow these people over millions of worlds, all with their own species and ecosystems, a few of which nearly cost Joshua his life. But I suppose that is half the fun isn't it? So many possibilities make the story less predictable, and the adventures can literally go anywhere. I plan to keep up with the series, because at this point I just have to know where Pratchett and Baxter are going with this.

Favorite Moment: When Helen, Joshua's wife, completely lays out a would-be assassin of her husband with one punch to the face. 

Favorite Character: Before I had picked Joshua, who I still like, but I think I will go with Agnes for this book. Sister Agnes was one of the nuns at the home Joshua grew up in before she died. Now, she has been reincarnated (sort of) by Lobsang and is still as awesome and ornery as ever, but with a younger and quicker body. She is just the type who may be able to keep Lobsang in check, and she still doesn't take any nonsense from anyone.

Recommended Reading: Naturally, it would make sense for me to recommend reading The Long Earth before attempting to tackle its sequel. But just as I did a year ago, I will also recommend checking out Segei Lukyanenko's Night Watch series. It's much darker, and it's fantasy instead of science fiction, but it might be worth looking into if you enjoyed The Long War

Friday, October 4, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: Heart Like Mine by Amy Hatvany

I decided to read the latest novel by Amy Hatvany, Heart Like Mine. Hatvany also has a book that is due out in 2014 titled Safe With Me. I figured if things went well with Heart Like Mine, I could add Hatvany to my list of authors to watch.

The Situation: Kelli and Victor have been divorced for a few years now, and while Victor has more or less moved on with his life, Kelli still holds onto the dream of one day getting back together with her ex-husband. That is also the dream of Victor and Kelli's 13 year-old daughter Ava, whose life just hasn't been the same since her dad moved out of the house she shares with her mom and her little brother Max. But unbeknownst to the kids, Victor has just gotten engaged to his longtime girlfriend Grace. Even Ava admits that Grace is nice and all, but she isn't her mom. And Kelli isn't sure if she can handle a reality where her ex-husband will forever be with another woman.

The Problem: After Kelli is found dead at her home, everyone's world is turned upside down. Now Grace and Victor will have the kids full-time as opposed to every other weekend, and not only has Ava lost her favorite person in the world, but her dream of her parents getting back together and making their family whole again has been shattered for good. What follows is an incredibly tense season where Grace gets a crash-course in being a stepparent to two incredibly hurt children; Victor gets used to being in the same house as his children again; and Ava begins the seemingly impossible task of healing and accepting Grace as part of her family. But both processes are hampered by the questions about Kelli's past that her death has left behind. There is a noticeable lack of photos of Kelli after her freshmen year in high school, and it seems she wasn't completely honest with her daughter about her life before she met Victor. How do you solve a mystery about a person you love when the only people who know any answers aren't talking, and the one person you want to talk about it with is no longer alive?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that focuses on a fairly run-of-the-mill Seattle family attempting to maintain normal lives after being hurt by the pains of divorce. Grace never really wanted kids but has now been thrown into motherhood, and no matter how many times Victor asserts that his kids are his responsibility, there is no way Grace can be fully sheltered from Ava's anger and resentment over the whole situation. And seven year-old Max is too young to know why he is suddenly stomping on his Nintendo Wii, and why it actually made him feel better. The story is actually told from the perspective of both Ava and Grave, and then Kelli's story is eventually revealed through separate chapters told by an omniscient narrator, starting from when she was 14. Her story is more or less a tale of what it's like to grow up with strict religious parents who aren't that great at showing love and affection. And what results are crippling insecurities that she carried into her marriage.

My Verdict: This book is an emotional roller-coaster, but not in an overly sappy or heavy-handed way, which I appreciate immensely. Grace is a cool and collected career woman whose professional life centers around helping battered women transition back into life away from their abusers. She knows how to handle people who are hurting, and although Ava gives her a challenge like she has never had before (and will probably never have again), she does remarkably well. I personally do not have first-hand knowledge regarding the pain of divorce, so maybe Grace's ability to deal with the situation is a little unbelievable. But I also like how she doesn't stoop to competing with Victor's ex-wife, although Kelli seemingly takes every opportunity she can get to make underhanded comments and make sure her children's alliance stays with her. Hatvany manages to explore how tense and painful these situations and interactions can be, but without dwelling on them too long, even though a lot of the stories are told twice by different characters. It is always just enough to give the reader a picture of what the characters are going through, and then the author moves on. I do have to mention though, just like I did with last week's post on The Death of Bees, that having the incredibly strict, overly religious characters as the villains has been done before and has been done better. If authors insist on using devices that everyone else seems to be gravitating towards, then they need to use them in a new way that makes then stand out from the rest, because this particular device is definitely nothing new. 

Favorite Moment: When Grace stands up to Victor and tells him the truth about what is happening with both his children and their relationship. For these people, the more they talk to each other the better.

Favorite Character: Grace may be too good to be true, but she was still my favorite. Her background in counseling helped her navigate the minefield that was Ava's emotions, and I actually believed that she may be able to survive this situation and still get married to Victor.

Recommended Reading: I honestly have no idea what to recommend for this book. Anything I come up with ends up being young adult. So I guess I'll recommend anything by Sarah Dessen or Sarah Ockler, as both authors deal in complex emotions and situations that center around today's average teenage girl.