Friday, June 24, 2016

Science Fiction: Fledgling by Octavia E. Butler

I decided to read and post about Fledgling in honor of the author, Octavia E. Butler, who would have turned 69 years old on June 22nd. Butler has always fascinated me since I first read Kindred for a class in graduate school, and listened to one of her interviews in which she described reading as a child and simply thinking that she could surely write better stories than what was in front of her. There is certainly something different and captivating about her work. And while time travel and vampires are not exactly new themes and ideas, her approach to them certainly feels fresh, even years after their publication.

The Situation: Shori Matthews cannot remember anything beyond a few days ago, when we she woke up in a cave and in incredible pain. Her memory seems to be wiped clean of her life before the great tragedy that caused what turns out to be her home to be burned to the ground. All she knows is that she is small like a child, hurt, incredibly hungry, and not altogether human. Thanks to Wright, a local man who offers her a ride from the side of the road, Shori is offered shelter and clothes, and can begin to piece together what has happened to her and what she is. Though she may be small, she eventually comes to the realization that she is a genetically altered 53 year-old vampire, and her family and home were wiped out by an unknown enemy. With everything and everyone gone, including her memories, Shori must begin the impossible task of rebuilding her life.

The Problem: Shori's family was wiped out by someone who does not want her to begin again. In fact, they most wish that her life had never started. And when it becomes obvious that they did not succeed in their main objective, they end up trying again and again, consistently attacking any place Shori might be hiding. It is difficult enough for her to try to start a new life, but doing so while under constant attack brings in a new level of frustration. Through new friends, and apparently old ones that she just cannot remember having known, Shori is able to learn about who she is, what she is, and who might want to hurt her and her family. But knowing will not be enough. If the attacks are to be stopped, then someone must be brought to justice.

Genre, Themes, History: To put this book under the heading of science fiction is misleading and a little short-sighted as it really does not do Fledgling justice. Sure, Shori is a genetically altered vampire in the sense that a little human DNA was mixed in, which allowed her skin to be darker, which means she can stay out longer in the sun than the other more pale vampires. But there is also a significant amount of fantasy, paranormal, and horror. As Shori begins to learn about vampires, a race that refers to themselves as "Ina," there is a great deal of history and culture included in the story. It is clear that Butler took the time to come up with the science behind how they live; their history and how the many different families have come to be what they are today; their culture and how they govern themselves; and even how they interact with humans and how much they depend upon them. And Butler does not simply rely on the common rules most of us have heard of. Yes, the Ina are incredibly sensitive to sunlight, but holding up a crucifix does nothing. Yes, they drink the blood of humans, but they cannot convert one into a vampire. The more Shori learns, the more obvious it is that, while the Ina can heal faster and better than humans, and also live to be centuries years old, they depend on us almost totally for survival. They cannot in all honesty see themselves as the superior race, and many of them resent that.

My Verdict: Books with anything like vampires and werewolves are always a little hard for me because ultimately, I am and always will be on Team Van Helsing (I used to own a shirt that proclaimed this truth proudly). So when the main protagonist has the size and look of a little black girl, and has just had her entire family wiped out essentially due to racism, but is in fact a vampire, I was a bit conflicted. I still wanted Shori to find justice, and find the people who killed her family and were still wanting to harm her. But I was not able to romanticize the life of the humans who choose to stay with the Ina in a symbiotic relationship. But this was not because of any fault in Butler's writing or any inability to explain things clearly. Butler was nothing if not thorough in explaining just how the Ina live and what life is like for the humans who stay with them. And while there were moments of frustration where I felt like the action of the story was being interrupted to discuss some seemingly random cultural Ina tradition or rule, for the most part, the story was not ever boring or hard to get through. Actually, I felt like this could have been a much longer story and still would have been incredibly good. There is just so much Ina culture and history packed in that Butler could have easily gone on for another 300 pages, or even made the story into a series. Even so, Fledgling still stands well on its own and is a great selection for anyone more interested in vampires than I am.

Favorite Moment: When Shori manages to humiliate and call into question the mental capacity of an older Ina who is clearly racist.

Favorite Character: Just like with humans, there are good Ina, and awful Ina. They even have racism like we do, and such hatred causes some of them to do horrible things. I do not think I can pick a favorite character though, mostly because I had a hard time relating to any of the humans, and Shori's experiences, as well as those of any of the vampires, were hard to relate to. She meets many that are incredibly helpful and comforting, but not one really stood out as a "favorite."

Recommended Reading: I must recommend what is probably the book that started it all, Bram Stoker's Dracula. His vampires are very different from the ones found in Fledgling, but the book is just as unsettling, and very much worth the struggle of reading a story told through letters written by the characters. 

Friday, June 17, 2016

Historical Fiction: The Memory of Us by Camille Di Maio

Camille Di Maio is a local San Antonio author whose name I stumbled upon while looking through the calendar of events for The Twig Book Shop, and then was able to speak to recently about her overall experience with publishing a book. The Memory of Us is her first novel, and there are already plans for a second to be published in May of 2017. Not only is Di Maio a writer, but also a real-estate agent for the San Antonio area. And even though it feels like I have done more than enough reading about World War II to last for the rest of 2016, the premise of this novel was interesting enough for me to endure one more.

The Situation: Julianne Westcott leads a fairly privileged life in prewar Liverpool, England. Her days are full of organizing social events and fundraisers with her best friend, Lucille, as well as her with her mother leading the way. She delights in picking out the perfect dresses, hats, shoes, and jewelry, and manages to turn the heads of nearly every young man who catches sight of her. With plans to study nursing, Julianne is more than a suitable match for any young man who both has a bright future and has the guts to pursue her. And even when she learns about the blind and deaf twin brother her parents never told her about, the one they keep hidden away in the Bootle Home far away from Liverpool, Julianne still manages to enjoy the social functions, even if they do now seem somewhat trivial in the grand scheme of things. Keeping her visits to her brother a secret, Julianne keeps up appearances among her family and friends, while living with the questions she desperately wants answered, but does not dare ask.

The Problem: Visiting Charles at the Bootle Home is a delight for Julianne. But soon it is not only Charles that she comes to visit. While she has made a friend in Miss Ellis, the kind older woman who works at the Bootle Home, Julianne has also made a friend in Kyle McCarthy, the son of the gardener. Almost immediately, Julianne finds herself looking forward to seeing Kyle almost more then she does her brother. She goes out of the way to make conversations with him, and is disappointed when he is not around. And while it becomes clear that the pair have feelings for each other, once Kyle's father secures work on the Westcott grounds back in Liverpool, it is also clear Julianne's parents would never agree to the match. Plus, Kyle is studying to become a priest, and priest do not marry. What begins innocently enough between the pair turns into a relationship that will take their lives to places they never imagined. And then there is the small matter of World War II and the advances Hitler's Germany is making. Julianne's parents become one of the lesser adversaries in the couple's life, as Julianne must make one impossible decision after another, always considering what is best for those she loves.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical novel set mostly before and during WWII in England, with the later part of the book moving quickly into the 1960s and beyond. At the start of the novel, Julianne is young, pretty, ambitious, and does not have many secrets to hide, aside from the one big one of knowing about and visiting her blind and deaf twin brother. Julianne finds out about her sibling purely by chance, and even her vague hints about his existence do not manage to bring out the slightest sign of recognition or remorse in her mother or father. And once Kyle enters the picture, she must deal with not only his future vocation in the priesthood, but also the fact that a Catholic gardener's son would never be accepted as a suitable match by her parents. With WWII looming, Julianne's once simple but still exciting life becomes more and more complicated, and each day brings with it an impending doom, one that will affect more than her love life. Di Maio's story shows that while choosing who to love has its own consequences, everything can still be turned on its side once war enters the picture. Di Maio admits that the story is heavily influenced by the Beatles song "Eleanor Rigby." There is a lonely priest and a lonely woman, and while the song does not say much about their relationship, Di Maio decided to speculate a little bit. At its core, the novel is a love story, and all of the issues Julianne must encounter only prove that just because it may be meant to be, it does not mean it will be easy.

My Verdict: While I may be a bit burned out on stories set during WWII, this book did not frustrate me or make me wish I had taken a break from historical novels that use this setting. Despite the death, destruction, unbearable sadness, and constant mourning that comes with what happened at the time, this novel still manages to be refreshing while still facing head on the difficulties the people endured. Julianne's life may have been easy once upon a time, but it does not remain that way. And the tough outer shell the character must cultivate comes about naturally and does not feel forced or unbelievable in any way. Julianne simply does what she believes, from her viewpoint, must be done. It starts with her desire to visit her brother and grows from there, making what could have easily been an annoying and entitled character into someone to admire and root for. I do take issue with some of her decisions as well as her reasoning behind them, but I still liked her by the end of the book. While still remaining a love story, the book explores so many other things that even those more interested in history or even light suspense would enjoy. And knowing that Di Maio drew inspiration from "Eleanor Rigby" makes me like the story even more. Fun Fact: when Paul McCartney visited San Antonio in 2014, Di Maio got a chance to hand him a copy of her book, and he began to read it to the audience.

Favorite Moment: When Julianne's gentle bedside manner is able to soften Kyle's cranky father when nothing else seems to work.

Favorite Character: Lucille is Julianne's best friend from childhood and always manages to be the most gentle, steadfast, and supportive force in her life. Even when the two become separated by marriage, distance and war, Lucille remains someone Julianne can look forward to seeing and talking to.

Recommended Reading: The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Historical Fiction for 2015, and with good reason. It's worth checking out for those interested in more fiction set during WWII.        

Friday, June 10, 2016

Nonfiction: Quiet Power by Susan Cain

Today's book was an obvious choice for me as I had read Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking back in 2012. The book sparked an ongoing conversation regarding the introvert/extrovert dynamic and helped many people understand themselves, and their loved ones, a whole lot better. Now Cain has come out with Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverts as a companion book for teens and kids. And although it has been years since I was a teenager, I still learned a lot and was able to relate to many of the stories.

Genre, Themes, History: Quiet Power is a nonfiction book geared towards introverted teens and kids, although extroverts would benefit from it as well, along with parents and teachers. Cain uses some personal stories, but mostly stories from various kids and teens, as well as research, to discuss what it means to be introverted in this day and age, when the habits and personalities of extroverts seem to be celebrated the most. Separated into four parts - school, socializing, hobbies, and home - Cain gives examples of introverted kids struggling, but also succeeding, through the often difficult middle and high school years. Many introverts who attended school will recognize the stories of kids who were told they needed to speak up more during class, and sometimes even were forced to do so or suffer the consequences of losing those all important participation points. But the examples and tips Cain offers go far beyond just struggles in the classroom. Cain touches on friendships, extra-curricular activities, family life, social media, navigating relationships with extroverts, and eventually ends with offering tips to both parents and teachers on how to reach out to the introverted children in their class or home. The book is an expansion on the ideas presented in Quiet, but tailored more to kids and teens who want to know more about what it means to be an introvert.

My Verdict:  I can go ahead and say that I liked the book. Of course, I am not the intended audience. I am also not a parent or a teaches. I do not pretend to know what teens like - honestly, even when I was a teenager I did not really know what they liked. But I imagine that this book would certainly be helpful to someone, whether they are a teenager, or come into contact with the intended demographic on a regular basis. Even though I had read Quiet already, I still found myself learning a lot from Quiet Power. Naturally, the book also caused me to reflect on my own middle and high school years and think about how I handled my introverted nature in an environment that seemed to want me to speak up often, and loudly, when that just wasn't what I felt driven to do. For me, any book that challenges my high school experience is more than okay by me.

Favorite Moment: In the chapter titled "Quiet Friendship," Cain includes the story of Lucy, an introverted British teen who realized she needed more time to herself, so she began to hang out in the library during lunch instead of with her friends. One day the group confronted her, angry that she had been ignoring them, or at least that is what they felt was happening. Even after apologizing and explaining that she wasn't ignoring them, that she just needed some alone time, it was explained to her than in order to stay in the group, she had to hang out with her friends at lunch. Thankfully, over time, Lucy was able to remain friends with some of the girls in the group, though she fell away from others. While I did not have this exact situation happen to me, I have had the experience of people thinking that my need to go off on my own and just be my own company for awhile is somehow about them, when it most certainly is not. 

Recommended Reading: Naturally, I recommend Quiet, the book Cain wrote for adults. But I also though I would recommend Brene Brown's Daring Greatly, as Cain makes many suggestions that seem to line up with Brown's belief in the importance of vulnerability.

Friday, June 3, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge

I was able to catch Kaitlyn Greenidge as she sat on a panel at the San Antonio Book Festival with other novelists who recently debuted their first published book. She spoke about We Love You, Charlie Freeman, her writing process, and her writing history. Just from reading the book jacket, it was obvious that her debut novel would be anything but ordinary, so it was an easy decision for me to buy it, and a great honor for her to sign it for me.

The Situation: Charlotte Freeman and her family are moving from Boston to the Toneybee Institute in rural Massachusetts. The Toneybee Institute specializes in studying chimpanzees and their ability to learn language and communicate with human beings. The Freeman family, which also includes Charlotte's mother, Laurel; her father, Charles; and her younger sister, Callie; were picked among many families because they already knew sign language, and would therefore be a great help in working with one particular chimp named Charlie. The family is given an apartment on campus, where they will live with Charlie, and the girls each start at new schools while Charles will teach math at Charlotte's school. If it seems like a fairly dramatic shift and change for the family, it's because it is, and it is certainly a lot to ask of two young girls. But the Freemans make the transition anyway, and it is clear from the very first night, when Charlie has his first outburst, that things are not going to be easy.

The Problem: The transition itself is going to be pretty tough, but the level of investment that Laurel has in the experiment ends up verging on the disturbing. It soon becomes apparent that Laurel is willing to subject herself and her family to increasingly difficult demands, as long as it means the family stays a part of the experiment, and she remains number one in Charlie's life. Meanwhile, Charlotte happens upon some information about the Toneybee's past practices that makes her even more wary of this new environment her family has moved into. It turns out that the institute used to conduct experiments on African Americans, experiments they also conducted on the chimps. And the fact that the Freemans are also African American does not engender any confidence for Charlotte. If anything, it makes her determined to expose the Toneybee Institute for what it is and make her parents see what is really going on. But while she gathers up the courage to take a stand, her sister Callie steadily gains weight; her mother becomes increasingly attached to the temperamental chimp; and even Charlotte's steadfast and grounded father becomes distant. It is a situation that cannot hold together for long, and only threatens to tear apart the family the longer it goes on.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set primarily in the year 1990, although there are some letters that come from 1929, when the Toneybee Institute first began studying chimpanzees. The book's narrative is mostly told from Charlotte's point of view, but there are a couple of chapters that focus on Charles and Callie, one that focuses on Laurel, and a few more that come from a woman who was friends with one of the doctors from the institute in 1929. Even the founder of the institute, Julia Toneybee-Leroy, has a letter in the novel that she wrote for all African American people. Of course the book is about race, but that is not all that it is about, and not in the way that a book like Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison is about race. Because of the Toneybee Institute's past practices, and the creepiness of their current ones, there is plenty of doubt about their intentions for this experiment. And this doubt is enough to test an entire family. If anything, Charlotte learns that family can let you down, friends can let you down, and it is foolish to think that being chosen for an experiment and taking care of an animal will make anyone feel happy and fulfilled, especially if that is the only thing you have any hope in. And what is most interesting (at least to me), is that even the two girls are mature enough not to blame Charlie for everything that is going wrong.

My Verdict: This book is not disturbing in the way that a horror movie or book would be, but it is still incredibly upsetting, and not just because of the history of the Toneybee Institute and the implications that history can make for what is happening with Charlotte's family. In fact, most of my discomfort comes from the actions of Laurel and how attached she is to Charlie. It is one thing to take pride in your work and to want to do a good job and fulfill what you have signed up to do. It is another thing to make your family second because of some strange need to feel special. But even with this discomfort, I still enjoyed the book and believe it is making an important statement regarding race and the progress (as well as lack of progress) we have made with the subject. What Greenidge does, similar to Junot Diaz with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, and Paul Beatty with The Sellout, is she just did what I have heard Diaz refer to as "going for broke," and it worked.

Favorite Moment: When Laurel is found out by on outside family for what she is really doing.

Favorite Character: Though we are not given much access to his story, Charles would end up being my favorite character. He does not have much of a presence, especially when the strong will of his wife is involved, but he is probably the most grounded one of the family, and the one most willing to face facts, eventually.

Recommended Reading: While also disturbing, Paul Beatty's The Sellout is more humorous than anything, and will make you laugh for almost all of the wrong reasons.