Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Complications" by Atul Gawande

Summary: A collection of essays on the tricky and uncertain science of surgery and medicine.

Musings: I found Complications on a list of engaging nonfiction, and Gawande's work did not fail me in that regard.  In fact, I found his book more engrossing than much of the fiction I read. I think this is because medicine is an area that pervades our lives despite the fact that many of us know so little about it. Gawande's book is then both reassuring and frightening, for it details the way in which there is so much doctors and scientists don't know as well.

The first section of the book is on surgeons specifically, where Gawande discusses the training of doctors and the "complications of medicine"--how things go wrong and how difficult it is to prevent and predict those occurrences. The second and third sections address disease, with individual chapters on things such as gastric bypass surgery, SIDS, pain, and nausea.

The medical terminology is all explained in layman's terms but without making the reader feel like an idiot.  And although the book is not for the overly squeamish, disease and surgery are described straightforwardly, not grotesquely.

Probably what brings the book most to life, however, is Gawande's personal presence.  A surgeon himself, Gawande's stories of his experiences with patients fill every chapter, and he uses his own challenges as a spring board to examine larger issues at play.  In the afterward Gawande credits writer Malcolm Gladwell as a supportive friend, and I could see something of Gladwell's style in the book (whether that's because of the friendship or because both write for The New Yorker, I don't know). Like Gladwell, Gawande's essays all follow a similar structure: begin with a narrative, introduce the personal, analyze with scientific evidence, and return to narrative.  Nonetheless, the repetitive structure doesn't lessen the reader's fascination with the myriad topics Gawande explores.

I highly recommend Complications to anyone looking for fast-paced nonfiction or insight into modern medicine.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Friday, February 25, 2011

"Redwall" by Brian Jacques

Summary: The Redwall Abbey has long been a peaceful place for all woodland creatures.  However, when the ruthless rat Cluny the Scourge discovers the abbey, he determines he and his minions will take it.  Matthias, a young mouse of Redwall, knows that finding the long-lost sword of Martin the Warrior will provide the abbey's inhabitants with the needed inspiration to defeat Cluny.  Matthias must follow a series of clues to find the sword before Cluny's horde takes over Redwall.

Musings: This should probably be less of a review and more of a love letter to Jacques and the Redwall series.  I first discovered Redwall as a kid, sometime in elementary school, when I read Mossflower, which chronologically comes after Redwall.  I read a paperback library version, which, at around 450 pages, seemed huge to me.  Nonetheless, I was completely sucked in and read the entire book in one sitting.  I was so entranced that once I finished, I begged my mom to take me back to that library--right at that instant--in order to pick up Redwall, which I also finished in the same day. I probably read eight or so books in the series (there will be 22 as of May) before reaching those teenage years when I read little, but Jacques' stories have always had a special place in my heart.  With the recent news of Jacques' passing, I knew I wanted to return to the Redwall world again.

Redwall is the perfect epic story of good heroes defeating evil villains.  Redwall is a multi-cultural paradise where all woodland creatures--mice, badgers, otters, squirrels--exist in harmony.  But despite the essential goodness of all the characters, the protagonists don't feel boring or simple.  There's the determined Matthias, willing to take on a leadership role despite his young age.  The strong and stubborn Constance the badger is probably my favorite character, followed closely by the experienced fighter rabbit Basil Stag Hare.  It's hard to choose a favorite character because the world is so richly populated.

As much as the Redwall citizens are good, the villain Cluny is truly evil.  My husband pointed out how effective Jacques is at making Cluny terrifying despite the fact that he never really has any success at taking over the abbey.  And, truthfully, I like that about the series.  It's not a series for very young kids--there are violent battles, terrified characters, and even some deaths.  But the books are never tragic, hopeless, or morose.

Could I do some critical analysis of the series?  Perhaps.  And I'm sure there's something to say for the division of "good" woodland creatures and "bad."  In the end, though, I think that's rarely going to matter for the reader.  Redwall is a rousing adventure in a world the reader can't help but want to inhabit.  Who doesn't want to jostle among the bickering shrews or scale walls alongside Tess the squirrel?  Then there's the food! Anyone who has read the series knows that just as the fights and quests are epic, so are the feasts, which are so fully described that the reader immediately becomes hungry.

I hope to read these books aloud with my children some day, and I'd like to continue to reread the series myself.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

"A Hundred Thousand Kingdoms" by N.K. Jemisin

Summary: There were once three gods.  But the god Itempas killed the god Enefa and imprisoned the third god, Nahadoth.  Now Nahadoth and his children are enslaved weapons of the Arameri, the ruling people of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

Yeine has been raised with her father's family in Darr ever since her mother--sole heir to the Arameri throne--was disowned after giving up her heirship to be with Yeine's father.  Both of Yeine's parents are now dead, and Dekarta, Yeine's grandfather and current ruler, has recalled Yeine to Sky in order to name her potential heir, along with two of her cousins.  In Sky Yeine learns what it means to be Arameri for the first time while becoming uncomfortably close with the enslaved gods, particularly the seductive god of darkness, Nahadoth.

The gods and the Arameri clearly all have plans in place--and Yeine must decide her role in the future of the world.

Musings: The summary above is much longer than the summaries I typically write, but that's because there's so much going on in The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms that it's difficult to even know where to start.  The complex nature of the novel is one of its greatest strengths and occasionally a hindrance.  The depth of the mythology and characters of Hundred Thousand Kingdoms makes it such an engaging read, but there's so much of interest that inevitably some areas are unexplored.

Jemisin's greatest achievement is her ability to create an entire back story--to the gods, the Arameri, and Yeine--that comes together in a compelling narrative. There's so much going on that at times I did feel a bit lost, but everything comes together in the end.  I especially liked the richness of the gods' histories and the way in which they seem mortal and not-mortal, understandable and unfathomable.  Most people today think of God (or gods) as an unreachable, perfect being, but these gods are more like those of Ancient Greece--all the more powerful and deadly because of their semblance to humans. Like American Gods, Hundred Thousand Kingdoms addresses what happens when a god is no longer at the pinnacle of power, something I found especially fascinating.

Yeine is the perfect protagonist, a strong woman from the matriarchal Darr who is thrust into a world she doesn't understand.  She finds herself pulled in many directions, and only slowly does she (and the reader) come to make sense of the world around her.  Her relationship with Nahadoth is unusual and intense, but I appreciated that it isn't her only relationship in the book--her friendship with the godling child Sieh and the Arameri servant T'vril are also significant. 

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is definitely high fantasy, and some people might be put off by the complicated world building, as well as the violence and sex.  However, for me, the novel came together perfectly, and I finished it far more quickly than any other book I've read recently.  Yeine's strong voice is completely compelling, and I think most any reader would find the book hard to put down once begun.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Winter's End" by Jean-Claude Mourlevat

Summary: When Helen, Milena, Bart, and Milos run away from their restrictive boarding schools, they know the danger they're facing.  The Phalange government is after them, and, in the end, only three are able to join up with the Resistance.  As Helen, Milena, and Bart work to overthrow the cruel Phalange regime, Milos finds he is being prepared to fight to the death in a gladiator match.

Musings: Winter's End has some nice dystopian elements, though in the end I think it will be a rather forgettable novel.  The book begins at the girls' boarding school and describes the school's strange practices; rules are numerous and the only real joy the girls get is from their thrice a year allowed visits to "consolers," motherly women who comfort the girls during their two-hour visits.  There's a nice creepy atmosphere at the school, and truthfully, I would have liked to have had more of the action there.  I also wanted more information on who the consolers are and how the magical "Sky" came to be, both of which aren't explained.

Instead, the story quickly moves into the town, which is under the rule of the Phalange.  The ruling group is not really explained, nor are their governing practices, beyond being obviously cruel.  This makes the middle section of the book somewhat dull.  It's clear that the Resistance will eventually try to overthrow the government, but without any unique world building there's little of interest. Milos' experience in the gladiator training camp is somewhat more interesting, primarily due to the unique characters he is housed with.

The four teenage characters are fairly dull and interchangeable, and the dialogue between them feels stilted and fake.  I don't know whether that's because of the book itself or the English translation (the book was originally published in French), but it reminded me of dialogue in books from the '20s ("Oh, yes, we shall!", etc.).  There's supposed to be romance, but there's not much passion felt.

Winter's End is diverting enough, but the most interesting parts of the book--the boarding school, the horse-men--are relegated to the sidelines.

- Read as part of Presenting Lenore's Dystopian February.
***Book received from the publisher at the NCTE Conference in 2009.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

"Who Fears Death" by Nnedi Okorafor

Summary: Onyesonwu is Ewu, a child born of the rape of an Okeke woman by a Nuru man.  The Okeke people have been enslaved and under the power of the Nuru people, and now the Nuru people are determined to follow the Great Book and wipe out the Okeke completely.  But Onyesonwu is not only Ewu; she also has the powers of a sorcerer, and with the help of her companion, lover, and fellow Ewu Mwita, she may be the one to rewrite the Great Book forever.

Musings: Although Who Fears Death appeared on a number of best of 2010 lists, I was nervous to read this book for awhile because of the graphic nature of the rape and violence in the book. Difficult as it is, that material is there, though it's integral to the plot of the story.  Onyesonwu is a child of rape, and violence will be a part of her life, though she works hard to go beyond the expectations that Ewu children will be nothing but violent.  Onyesonwu is a strong-willed and stubborn narrator who fiercely believes in equality of the sexes.  Her companion Mwita is similarly determined, and I liked the way in which Onyesonwu and Mwita butt heads yet unconditionally support one another.

There's an element of magical realism in the sorcery that appears through the book.  Onyesonwu's powers are revealed piece by piece, though occasionally I felt overwhelmed by the variety of magic and abilities introduced.  The novel is also science-fiction in some ways, as the setting is a post-Apocalyptic (presumably future) Africa.  However, the setting never felt quite right to me; the characters have access to computers, though they never use them, so I really had no idea how much technology played in their lives.

In the end, I'm somewhat ambivalent about the book.  It's well-written with complex world building and compelling protagonists.  At the same time, the story always felt "off" in some way to me, and I was often reluctant to pick up the book each day, even though I read rapidly and with interest when I did.  However, I've been complaining about the dearth of POC fantasy and science fiction, so I'm thrilled to see Who Fears Death, which has the added benefit of being very much a feminist novel, receive so much attention and praise.

- Read as part of Presenting Lenore's Dystopian February.
***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

"Rampant" by Diana Peterfreund

Summary: Astrid has grown up hearing her mother's crazy stories: that she is descended from famous unicorn hunters (all virginal female descendants of Alexander the Great) who years ago drove the killer beasts into extinction. These tales are just fantasy to Astrid until one evening when her date is attacked by a unicorn and saved only by her mother's vial of Remedy--a magical substance that heals wounds.  With other strange attacks on the rise, Astrid's mother learns that an order dedicated to training young hunters is reopening in Rome.  Astrid's not interested in being a unicorn hunter, but her mother insists, and Astrid finds herself in Rome, confronted with unicorn lore, a very cute boy, and increasing danger.   

Musings: I'll admit I was unfairly prejudiced against this book when it first came out.  When I heard that the unicorn hunters could only be female virgins, I was immediately put off for two reasons.  First, I hate the idea that virginity is a black or white you are or you aren't, and secondly, I hate the idea that being a virgin somehow makes you better or more special than those who aren't.  However, I began to see Rampant on lists of feminist young adult titles (imagine my surprise!), and I loved Peterfreund's short story in Zombies v. Unicorns. I gave the book a try, and it turns out I was wrong. Rampant is not only a highly enjoyable read, it also approaches teenage sexuality in an admirable way.

Astrid's a great strong character, and I especially liked her (and most of the girls in the book's) approach to virginity.  She doesn't have twisted purity ideals or believe that her virginity is a special wrapped gift to give her husband.  At the same time, she doesn't want to sleep with just anyone, and she wants to do it on her own terms.  Truthfully, this is the way I felt as a teenager, and I think it's the way a lot of young adults--girls and boys--think. There's a lot of open and frank discussion about sex in the novel, which I appreciated.  The novel also gets double feminist points for its depiction of rape between people dating and its position on victim blaming ideology.

Apart from those issues, Rampant is an excellent combination of unusual unicorn lore, self-discovery, action, friendship, and romance.  Yes, there's a swoon-worthy love interest, but that relationship doesn't dominate the novel or Astrid's life. And besides, I hate to be all mushy, but it's hard not to fall for Giovanni, and there are definitely some steamy scenes.

There were a few points that were off to me, like Astrid's mother (whose characterization in the latter half seemed odd and inconsistent).  Sometimes I didn't completely follow what was happening in a battle, but that may have been because it was too fun to race through the book.

I'm looking forward to reading the sequel, Ascendant, soon.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

"Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" by Haruki Murakami

Summary: A collection of unusual short stories.

Musings: In describing my feelings about Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, it's difficult to know where to start.  I think that's because the stories themselves are so unquantifiable that to try to talk about them seems almost impossible.  These are stories that, when finished, the first reaction is: "Uh....?" Because no matter how carefully you read, you immediately feel like there's something there that you just didn't get.  A few of the stories, especially near the end, have some sense of resolution and meaning, but most have no obvious plot arc or theme.  For example, here's my summary of "A Perfect Day for Kangaroos," one of Murakami's typical stories (chosen because it's short and relatively easy to summarize):
A couple learns that a new baby kangaroo has been born at the zoo.  They plan on going to see the baby, but things come up, the weather is bad, and it's about a month before they get around to going to see it.  When they do go, the girlfriend is bummed because the baby isn't so much a baby anymore--it's hopping around on its own.  The boyfriend buys chocolate ice cream, and the girlfriend asks him a bunch of questions about kangaroos: how to they hop? why do the babies live in pouches?  They buy Cokes and hot dogs.  When they come back to the exhibit, the baby kangaroo it sitting in its mother's pouch, which the girlfriend is happy to see.  They leave and the boyfriend asks if the girlfriend wants to go out for a beer.
Most are even stranger and less linear, though the majority take place within the "real" world.  But, even though none of the stories "made sense" in a typical way, I never felt like I was being taken on a pointless journey, and I didn't feel deceived or duped by Murakami.  In fact, every story was immensely interesting and entertaining, like a fabulous new ghost story, only there's no real ending, and the reader is left with just a hint of meaning.  A character in an early story captures my feelings exactly: "I felt like I knew what he was getting at. At the same time, I felt that I had no idea what he meant" (40).

The stories are very short (there's 24 in the approximately 300-page collection), so the pace moves quickly.  I suppose the length also means that the reader is never so invested in a character or storyline that he or she feels let down without a typical climax or resolution.

There are some general recurring themes, though I can't pinpoint anything exactly: loneliness, relationships, old albums and jazz. My favorite stories are probably the ones that are weirdest, namely "Dabchick" and "A Shinagawa Monkey."

Like a good mystery, I think Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman would be a lot of fun to talk over with friends or a book group, and it would definitely be worth a reread.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.