Saturday, July 30, 2011

"The Mind's Eye" by Oliver Sacks

The brain is an endlessly fascinating organ.  How can lumpy grey stuff be responsible for so much?  In The Mind's Eye, the neurologist Oliver Sacks explores the extraordinary power and function of the brain through a series of essays on medical issues related to sight.  The essays traverse cases of alexia (an inability to read because written words and letters appear like a foreign language), facial blindness (an inability to recognize faces), and lack of stereovision (3-D vision), among others.

What is immediately apparent through Sacks' writing is the complexity of the brain.  Even small neural changes can create huge disruptions in a person's life.  For example, as a seeing person with two properly aligned eyes, I completely take my stereovision for granted.  Yet for someone without stereovision, simple events like climbing stairs (because they all meld into a flat plane) could cause difficulties.  I say "could" in the previous sentence because a theme that runs throughout Sacks' work is humans' ability to cope and adjust.  Whether it is the inability to read, the inability to recognize objects, or blindness, people always find ways to continue their lives.

Another core question that Sacks' essays raise is "how universal or singular are my perceptions of the world?".  In the chapter on blindness, Sacks compares different blind individuals' ways of adjusting to a non-seeing world.  Some went into "deep blindness," completely forgoing visual imagery.  Others created complex and detailed visual imagery in their mind to the point where they could "see" the world around them.  Here I kept thinking about my own method of perception.  Though it's not impossible, I have always had a hard time creating images in my head.  Ask me to picture my husband in my mind and I can remember a photograph of him, but I can't see him separate from a specific photographic image.  When people ask, "How did you picture that character in that book?", I'm puzzled.  I never have any image in my head as I read.  It was surprising to learn about the enormous range of ways others use or don't use visual images.

I'm assuming some of the essays in the collection were previously printed elsewhere, as there was some overlap in information, particularly in the beginning.  This is the first book I've read by Sacks, and although all the issues were interesting, I got the impression that these essays weren't necessarily his best work.  His essay on his experience in losing sight in one eye was tedious at times, relying on excessive examples and repetitive observations.

The Mind's Eye worked well as an audiobook, as there was plenty to think about (I had to stop myself from closing one eye to test how my perception changed without stereovision as I drove).  The essay format also created nice divisions between material.

Considering how well-known Sacks is, The Mind's Eye might not be the best book to start with, but that doesn't mean it's not based on fascinating subjects.

Friday, July 29, 2011

"The Revisionists" by Thomas Mullen

What would you do if you had the power to travel back in time?  Would you prevent the atrocities that have plagued our world?  Or would you ensure that those atrocities occur in order to protect the current world you live in? These questions begin The Revisionists, by Thomas Mullen, but they're ultimately not the questions Mullen is most interested in. 

When the book opens, we meet Zed, an agent who has been sent to (our) modern day.  "Hags" have been traveling back in time to try to prevent atrocities (e.g., 9/11), and it's the job of agents like Zed to prevent the hags from succeeding and thus disrupting the future Perfect Society in which Zed lives.  Specifically, Zed must ensure that an event called the Great Conflagration occurs.

There are some interesting philosophical questions around Zed's actions.  Is he doing anything wrong by letting people die? (after all, they're already dead in his time)  What are his responsibilities to the past or to the future?  Unfortunately, these questions don't last long because it quickly becomes clear that Zed's "Perfect Society" is simply a revamped version of Big Brother, bent on controlling individuals' access to knowledge and squelching dissent.  In fact, given Zed's ambivalence about his job, it's surprising that it takes him so long to realize the truth.  When it's obvious that Zed's agency is evil, the ethical dilemmas become much more black and white.

The lives of three other people are also interwoven in the story.  Tasha is a lawyer whose brother recently died in Iraq; when she discovers that one of her firm's clients has been behaving unethically, she decides to go public with her knowledge.  Leo works for a security firm, tracking radical leftist activists.  Sari is an Indonesian woman in the U.S. as a maid to the South Korean ambassador.

Leo and Sari's relationship is another area of the novel that starts more morally interesting than it turns out. When they meet, both are surprised at encountering another who speaks a common language (Leo had worked many years in Indonesia).  Knowing her tenuous relationship as a maid in a foreign country, Leo's instincts to help her kick in at first, but instead he immediately goes to his boss and decides to use her as a way to spy on the diplomat she works for.  Because of this, I never saw Leo sympathetically, despite his repeated insistence that he was trying to do the "right thing."

The two women in the novel, Tasha and Sari, are stronger morally than the male characters, but they also don't get to do all the crazy spy work.

Mullen's message seems to be that each individual can control his or her life.  He also suggests that there are no absolutes when it comes to morality, and trying to live life otherwise will ultimately be unsuccessful.  I like the rejection of a deterministic universe, and the issues of morality certainly come through, even if they didn't always dig as deep as I'd like.

I've also read Mullen's The Last Town on Earth and was turned off by some of its hyper-violent scenes, which were fortunately absent here.  The Revisionists frequently switches narration, and I sometimes found myself confused or forgetting where a character was in the story.  This may be more a result of the short bursts I tended to read the book in rather than a criticism as a whole.

The Revisionists isn't a favorite, but it raises some interesting questions about the way we understand the world.

The Revisionists will be published in September 2011.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my review.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

"The White Woman on the Green Bicycle" by Monique Roffey

Unlike many people I know, I'm not a big fan of the Caribbean, though I've visited several times and have enjoyed myself.  There's something about the sweltering heat and sun that drains me, forcing me into air conditioned rooms rather than the beach.  I could feel this same oppressive heat and its effects throughout The White Woman on the Green Bicycle, a novel about an English/French couple and their life in Trinidad over the course of decades.

When Green Bicycle opens, George and Sabine have been living in Trinidad for over fifty years.  They're now an elderly couple with a strained and uncommunicative relationship.  In the first half, which is related from George's point of view, George comes off as a sympathetic character.  He clearly loves Trinidad and his work as a writer of human interest stories for the local paper.  He's ambivalent about Sabine, who spends her days lounging in the house and with whom he appears to have no intimacy. 

The pace in this first half is somewhat slow; the reader is not completely sure why George and Sabine are so hostile and unable to find common ground.  Sabine appears sluggish and lazy, spending the day in an alcohol and drug haze.  However, George's discovery of decades of letters Sabine wrote (but never sent) to Trinidad's first Prime Minister, Eric Williams, adds mystery.

The novel is not written in chronological order, so where the book really got going for me was when it jumped to the past, when George and Sabine arrive in Trinidad in the '50s.  They arrive at a tumultuous time in the country's history as Trinidad becomes independent from England and relationships between black citizens and "colonial" whites are rapidly deteriorating.

This and later sections are told from Sabine's point of view, who understandably becomes a much more sympathetic character.  She agrees to come to Trinidad only because of George, and while George falls in love with the island, Sabine never does.  She's far from her home, in a land where her only friends are the other expats who congregate nervously at the country club.  Her body deteriorates under the heat, and while George has his work to keep him occupied, Sabine (like women of the time) is expected to just exist.  She finds friendship with her maids, Venus, Lucy, and later Jennifer, and over the years she gives birth to Sebastian and Pascale, but she never seems happy or content.  George loves Sabine, but he's not willing to sacrifice his love of Trinidad for her.

Throughout the novel, the island itself is a strong character, even literally (both George and Sabine "converse" with the green hill overlooking their home).  The heat and fecundity of the island is ever-present, and Trinidadian history runs throughout George and Sabine's lives as they witness the country's move into independence.

For me, the most interesting parts were the early (chronologically) sections as Sabine tries to navigate an island in revolt.  She's not wanted by the citizens and she doesn't want to be there herself, but still she finds herself drawn into the country's politics.  I knew nothing about Trinidadian history, and Green Bicycle was an interesting way to learn.

If you can stick through a slow start, Green Bicycle delivers as an unique view into a Caribbean nation, though there are many questions left unanswered, and black voices (independent of Sabine's interpretation) are largely absent.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my review.

Monday, July 11, 2011

"Feed" by Mira Grant

One of the things I love about zombie stories is that there are so many different angles from which to discuss humanity's reaction to the undead.  Grant's Feed capitalizes on this; Feed discusses the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, but the novel takes place long enough after the initial outbreak (about twenty-five years) that human society is no longer solely in the midst of a crisis.  In this world, the zombies are not eradicated (and never will be), but the people are largely protected.  Life has irrevocably changed since the outbreak, but life also continues with normal routines--like an upcoming presidential election.

Specifically, Feed focuses on three bloggers: siblings Georgia (who covers the news) and Shaun (an "Erwin" who chases thrills) and a girl named Buffy, writer of fiction stories and resident tech-guru.  These three are chosen by Senator Ryman, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, to join his press corp and follow him on the campaign trail.  As young people who grew up in the aftermath of the zombie apocalypse, Georgia and Shaun especially feel suspicious of traditional news sources and view Ryman's choice in selecting them as his recognition of the power of new media.

Georgia, the novel's primary narrator, has two main priorities in life: the news (the Truth) and her brother Shaun.  Georgia and Shaun are not blood-related, but were both adopted after the zombie outbreak by their blogger parents.  Georgia clearly indicates that their parents adopted them only as a publicity tool, which she resents, but the issue is never explored much.  Georgia and Shaun have an unusually close relationship themselves and a complete absence of any romantic relationships, which seems a little odd as well.  Although it's clear Georgia and Shaun are completely devoted to one another, their interactions are often overshadowed by groan-worthy "repartee" and sarcastic remarks about Shaun being "suicidal."

Perhaps what's most surprising about the book is that so little of it is focused on zombies, or at least current zombie attacks.  Much of the novel is focused on politics and the mundanity of the campaign trail.  This is both a positive and a negative.  On the positive, there's a lot of fascinating questions that come from a world whose norm includes zombies.  In Grant's version of the zombie apocalypse, new zombies are created not just by being bitten by the infected, but also through death of any sort (there's a great scientific/medical explanation that I won't go in to).  Infection can be carried by any animal over forty pounds. What implication does this have on the health system? On capital punishment? On the keeping of large pets? Livestock?  These issues are addressed largely peripherally, and I would have liked to hear more. Grant also does a great job of creating a world built around protection from zombies, such as the ubiquitous blood testing and the severe restrictions on travel. 

In focusing very little on actual zombies, Grant has lots of room for description.  Lengthy and repetitive description, which can drain the story.  While the intricacies and frequency of blood testing is interesting, way too much of the novel is focused on describing each and every test the characters take.  Even ordinary events are subject to over-exposition.  A handshake reads (I'm making this up, but something similar does occur): "I raised my hand and took his hand in mine.  We shook and I returned my hand to my side."  Couldn't you just say "We shook hands"?

Furthermore, Feed also suffers from an obvious and cartoonish villain and a Scooby-Doo like confession (complete with the "And I would have gotten away with it too, if it weren't for you darn kids!").

Grant's worked in some fascinating observations about humanity's reaction to catastrophe, and in the end, what Grant seems to suggest is that regardless of the crises that plague humankind, humans' greatest enemy will always be one another.  Though Feed suffers from trite dialogue, slow pacing, and occasional over-earnestness, I'd still consider it a worthwhile addition to the genre.  Plus, the audiobook version kept my husband and I entertained through 16 hours of driving!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

"The Tiger's Wife" by Tea Obreht

I wouldn't call myself a fan of the magical realism genre, but I think we're all drawn to fantastical stories of some sort.  In the best, such stories not only straddle our world and another, but the relationships and emotions depicted are so recognizable that "believability" becomes a non-issue. I would place Obreht's The Tiger's Wife firmly in this camp.  Through interwoven tales that take place in small Balkan towns, The Tiger's Wife shows individuals' search for truth and understanding.

The novel is centered around Natalia, a young doctor crossing the border of war-torn countries to deliver medicine at an orphanage.  On the way, Natalia learns of the recent death of her grandfather, also a doctor. In thinking of her grandfather, Natalia begins to relate two tales from her grandfather's life: that of the "deathless man" and that of the tiger's wife.

The story of the tiger's wife is alluded to from the beginning, setting up what seems to be a great mystery.  In reality, her story is less amazing than I had expected, and I'm not yet certain why her name is the title of the book.  However, one of the things I did like is the way the two central stories give rise to other stories too, like that of Luka the butcher or Darisa the Bear.

Written in a "literary" style, I expected The Tiger's Wife to be far less engrossing that it was.  Obreht's smooth and dreamy language and ability to create tension in each story kept me hooked.

Obreht's beautifully written novel addresses the nature of memory, superstition, and the stories we tell--and those we choose not to.