Tuesday, November 29, 2011

"The Kingdom of Gods" by N.K. Jemisin

Though I had read some negative and middling reviews online, I enjoyed the last book in Jemisin's trilogy, The Kingdom of the Gods, no less than its predecessors The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Broken Kingdoms. Whereas the second book takes place in the same world as the first but with almost completely new characters, the third book picks up characters from the first and second, giving it a greater sense of familiarity. In this novel, the protagonist is Sieh, the trickster boy godling who played an important role in Yeine's life in the first novel. Sieh becomes involved with two Arameri children, Shahar and Dekarta, and inexplicably begins to become mortal. Though this theme is repeated from Broken Kingdoms, in which the god Itempas lived life as a mortal man, Sieh's transformation and relationships with others are significantly different, and his story feels different too.

The tagline on the cover of this book is "Gods and mortals. Power and love. Death and revenge. She will destroy them all," which doesn't make a lot of sense. The only "she" it could possibly refer to is Shahar, which overstates her importance. This is a book foremost about Sieh, which makes it the first of Jemisin's books to be narrated by a man and by a god. Sieh lives in an interesting world--though he's powerful as an ancient godling, he also is not part of the three gods (Yeine, Nahadoth, and Itempas) and thus feels loneliness, made even more acute by his character as a youthful childish boy. Other reviewers have found him dislikable, but I didn't find him so; he's not perfect, but that's in keeping with who he is. I also enjoyed his relationships with Shahar and Dekarta, even though the intensity of his relationship with Deka comes rather suddenly.

The gods are somewhat more human in this book than in others, likely because we see them through a godling's eyes. Both Nahadoth and Itempas are less standoffish and more caring, though they perhaps lose some of their mystisticism because of it. The gods also play a more direct role in human affairs, which is somewhat of a shame, since mortals did so much on their own in the previous two books.

The climax did seem to come a bit suddenly, and the "surprise" of the villain was a bit contrived. Nonetheless, in the end, I found Kingdom of Gods a satisfying conclusion to a series I've greatly enjoyed.

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

Monday, November 21, 2011

"River of Smoke" by Amitav Ghosh

When I first began River of Smoke, primarily about the opium trade in China by foreign merchants, I was a little doubtful. I'd absolutely loved Sea of Poppies, the precursor to River of Smoke in the Ibis trilogy, and had even named it one of my top ten books of 2009. But now, years later, I couldn't really remember why I liked the first book, and I almost felt reluctant in picking up this historical epic. However, I soon began noticing how immersed I was in the story and how quickly the pages flew by--in short, River of Smoke is as utterly engrossing as the previous novel.

This is truly something to commend Ghosh on, for in River of Smoke he has less sympathetic characters than in Sea of Poppies. Where that novel features poor lovers on the run and burgeoning young romance, River of Smoke's main protagonist is Bahram, an Indian opium trader, and its story focuses primarily on Bahram and the American and British traders pushing against China's decision to prohibit the sale of opium. Their cause is without merit and is presented so in the novel, yet the reader is still completely drawn in.

Interestingly, the novel has almost no female characters as women are not permitted in Canton, the primary city of foreign trade. Away from the influences of their traditional society (and women), the men live a different way of life. Male friendships are deep, and the men even dance together at functions! Although there's some teasing from others, it's normal for some men take other men as "Friends" and pursue long term relationships. Furthermore, men of different races, ethnicities, and nationalities mix and socialize together in a way that never would have been possible in England or the U.S.

Of course, when push comes to shove and Chinese officials begin cracking down on the traders, this world also starts crumbling. Homophobic epithets are thrown at those who sympathize with the Chinese objectives, and Bahram recognizes that he'd quickly be sacrificed for an American or British man. It's at this point that Bahram becomes particularly sympathetic. Overall, he is a good man succeeding in a way very few Indian men could at this point, a time in which their country was controlled by the British. He has succeeded in being respected among his fellow merchants, yet that's not enough to ensure him protection in the end.

I was worried that having forgotten much of Sea of Poppies would be a detriment, but River of Smoke is more a companion novel than a sequel. Though some characters reappear from the previous story, this novel is a wholly separate story, not a continuation, and it would not be necessary to read Sea of Poppies to read River of Smoke.

Ghosh is a talented storyteller. The entire world of the novel is rich in detail, and the use of local language and terms adds authenticity. He writes about a fascinating (and utterly shameful for the American and British) period in history, but it's his characters that bring the novel to life.

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

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami

The first Murakami book I read, Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman, was frustratingly obtuse and enticingly enigmatic. It was that combination of reality and the weird, of wanting to throw the book at the wall and immediately pick it up again, that ultimately made it memorable. Blind Willow is a collection of short stories, and I wondered how Murakami's style would do in a novel, so I chose Kafka on the Shore.

Unfortunately, I wasn't nearly as intrigued by this book as I was with my first Murakami foray. There are still weird elements: a 15-year-old boy, who sometimes speaks to himself in a second personality named "the boy called Crow," goes on the run; an elderly man named Nakata speaks of himself in the third person and speaks to cats. There's an unexplained consciousness-losing of a bunch of students, Johnnie Walker and Colonel Sanders, leeches falling from the sky, and a trans-man librarian. But, sustained over an entire novel where character development, not just oddity, must play a role, Murakami's writing seemed to lose something.

Kafka, the protagonist, is likeable enough, though there's far too much about his penis (always referred to as c*ck in the book, a term which I only associate with porn and found really jarring--don't know whether I can attribute that to Murakami or the English translator). In fact, the sex in the book, as a whole, is weird in an off-putting way. Oshima, the librarian, is also likeable, though like every character in the book, he is far too giving and caring without explanation. Kafka and Oshima particularly spend far too much time philosophizing and talking about how life is a metaphor.

Nakata is someone you want to root for, but his speech style becomes repetitive and aggravating, as does the "geez whiz, I just better follow you!" attitude of his sidekick, Hoshino.

I liked the novel better in the beginning as we slowly learn about the students on the hill and Nakata gets sucked into the events that happen. But by the end, so much muddying had happened that I lost a sense of connection to the book as a whole. I'm still not sure how it all fits together, but not in an enjoyable way, like with Blind Willow.

Kafka on the Shore was a disappointment, but I'd certainly like to try Murakami's fiction again, especially since I've been reading a lot about him recently with the publication of his most recent book, 1Q84.

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

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

"Sybil Exposed" by Debbie Nathan

In perhaps my freshman year of high school I choose to read the best-selling nonfiction book Sybil, about a woman with sixteen distinct personalities that were formed in childhood because of a horrifically abusive mother. I read it for some course, though I can't remember which specifically, and looking back, I know I was definitely not prepared for it. Perhaps some fourteen-year-olds can handle graphic depictions of sexual and physical violence, but I most certainly could not, and for that reason, the haunting book has long stayed with me.

Nevertheless, I hadn't thought about Sybil for years until I saw a review of Sybil Exposed in The New York Times. In the book, author Debbie Nathan explores the lives of those involved in creating Sybil: Shirley [aka Sybil] a troubled young woman; Dr. Connie Wilbur, her ambitious psychiatrist; and Flora Schreiber, the author of the book. In doing so, Nathan challenges nearly all of Sybil, including Wilbur's diagnosis of multiple personality disorder (MPD) and Shirley's accounts of parental abuse, exposing Wilbur and Schreiber as being more concerned with their own agendas than the truth.

It's clear from the beginning of the book how grossly negligent Wilbur was as a doctor, even giving her leeway for there being different ethical standards for doctors and psychiatrists than today. In treatment, Shirley often spent hours daily under the haze of the drug Pentothal while Wilbur prodded and encouraged her to reveal ever-worsening abuse. Though Shirley came to Wilbur as a sick woman in need of help (it's revealed at the end of the book that Shirley most likely suffered from anemia), Wilbur undoubtedly did significantly more harm than good as she guided the life of Shirley over decades.

The author Schreiber is no less guilty, as she willingly and blindly ignored gaping errors in Shirley and Wilbur's stories in order to publish and promote her book.

The publication of Sybil made multiple personality disorder a fad, though fortunately its recognition has become more strictly guided recently. Nonetheless, for years, individuals with severe mental illnesses went under various drugs in order to discover "repressed" memories of abuse, all in the name of MPD. The popularization of such a disease helped lead to abuse panics nationwide and fostered a continuing popular obsession with stories of sadistic abuse, something I find abhorrent (e.g. the book A Child Called It, done in the same vein [though, as far as I know, true], was popular a few years ago, despite being a complete piece of trash).

On the whole, Nathan comes down pretty hard against multiple personality disorder, now called dissociative identity disorder (DID). This seems warranted to me, but it's clear from reading reviews of the book on Amazon that there's significant ongoing controversy about the disorder's recognition. Most of the reviews had rated the book a one or a five, with nearly all the ones coming from psychologists or psychiatrists defending DID as a legitimate disorder.

In the book's introduction, Nathan attempts to situate the women's actions in the context of the pre-feminist movement and the book's popularity in the nascent women's liberation. However, though it's clear that Wilbur worked hard to become a doctor in a man's world and that Sybil helped many American women of the time express their own conflicting feelings about needing to be multiple things at once (e.g. a professional and a mother), Sybil Exposed doesn't explore those issues very deeply. Instead, it's a fairly straightforward account of the women's lives.

Sybil Exposed is a nice reality check for anyone who was ever moved by Sybil, and because it's so short and easy to read, it can be digested quickly. Nathan appears to have done her research, but in the end, there's nothing particularly interesting about her conclusions or analysis. The vague lesson than "we should never accept easy answers or quick explanations," which appears on the last page, doesn't really say much about a case that captivated so many and destroyed at least one woman's life.

Monday, November 7, 2011

"Cutting for Stone" by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone is a unique book that I think I would have enjoyed even more if it wasn't nearly so long. Even so, it has a lot that makes it a worthwhile and engaging. The novel takes place largely in Ethiopia, following the expats working at Missing Hospital. There the reader meets Sister Mary Praise, an Indian nun who works as a surgery assistant to Thomas Stone, a skilled British surgeon. When Sister Mary dies in (an unknown to everyone else) childbirth, the Indian gynecologist Hema and the Indian physician Ghosh become her twins' parents. The story then is told primarily from the point of view of the twin Marion a he grows up in Missing and becomes a surgeon himself.

Ethiopia is a fascinating setting for the book, as it challenges and reinforces notions of African poverty.  Missing lacks many of the medical advancements available in the United States, but it also has skilled and dedicated doctors who do much to improve the lives of those around them. It's also interesting to see the growth of the twins, Marion and Shiva, native Ethiopians of Indian and British parents. They are a part of and separate from their country of birth, especially because their position as the children of Hema and Ghosh allows them privileges others don't receive. Cutting for Stone is also situated at an interesting period historically, as the rule of Emperor Haile Selassie is challenged.

It's clear from the novel that Verghese is himself a doctor. His passion for his profession is evident in his exact detail of surgeries (not for the squeamish!) and also his emphasis on compassion in medicine. Verghese's own upbringing mirrors Marion's in many ways, and that authenticity of detail in the locations and in the challenges of being a foreign a medical student was a great strength of the novel.

Unfortunately, I didn't feel that same believability in the characters. I wanted to like the characters more than I was able to, particularly because I felt Verghese strives too hard to make them "literary." Marion's life-long obsession with an early love is tiresome and culminates in a highly problematic rape scene that's not depicted as rape. Shiva's standoffish "not like others" personality feels forced. In the real world he might be labeled as autistic, but in the novel, he comes across as mysteriously (and unrealistically) otherworldly.

Part of the problem may be the length of the novel. The paperback comes in at nearly 700 pages, but because I read it on a Kindle, I really had no idea that it was a long book until I finished. Instead, the story simply felt interminable, and while I read, I tended to attribute my inability to make much headway to failures in the story itself, rather than the length.

Cutting for Stone came to me highly recommended, and it's undoubtedly an interesting novel, though I wasn't as impressed as I had hoped to be.

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

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

"The Name of the Wind" by Patrick Rothfuss

Though I'd had The Name of the Wind on my radar for awhile, I ended up starting the novel mostly by happenstance. I wanted to try checking out an e-book from the library on my Kindle, and The Name of the Wind was immediately available.

Rothfuss' novel is a traditional fantasy that's largely successful, though it's not without its flaws. Taking place in a typical medieval setting, The Name of the Wind follows Kvothe, a young and talented traveling performer who is exposed to magic (called "sympathy") as a boy and later travels to the university to study. It's easiest for me to discuss by breaking down some of the story's strengths and weaknesses:

1. Over-reliance on fantasy tropes: I'm certainly well aware that it would be difficult to create a wholly new fantasy series. But when you add up an intrepid young man, a wise teacher who teaches the protagonist magic, a family tragedy, the rough and tumble life of a street orphan, and a rich and snobby rival at school, it's hard not to see the story as cliche. Nevertheless, I could have handled most of the tropes, even the "so talented he's way above everyone else in everything his does" protagonist, if it wasn't for Kvothe's rivalry with fellow student Ambrose. I found the Draco/Harry conflict tiresome, and this was even worse.
2. Unfeeling romance: Most fantasies have some kind of romance, but for it to work, the reader has to believe the feelings and desperately want the lovers to end up together. Nonetheless, I just didn't buy the relationship between Kvothe and Denna. I couldn't understand his feelings for her, and I felt no spark when they were together. And, though I can stand some idiocy when it comes to relationships, Kvothe's absolute insistence on being a moron and thinking Denna doesn't have feelings for him was irksome to no end.
3. Age unbelievability: Kvothe is supposed to be fifteen, but he always felt older. Some of that may be because he's surrounded by older characters (since he was so smart and admitted to the university way before anyone else--see complaint #1), but I just couldn't see a teenager of that age acting similarly.

1. Story format: The reader is first introduced to Kvothe as a slightly older man, past all the adventures he is famous for. When a writer comes to town, Kvothe tells his story, and the novel switches to first person as the reader learns of Kvothe's life. This format provided a nice view of who Kvothe is--we know he's renowned yet currently in isolation, and the happiness he does experience as a youth is shadowed by the knowledge of what will become of him. My one complaint in this area, though, is how the structure was used to introduce the romance. At one point, Kvothe stops in his story, going through a long spiel to the writer about how difficult it is to describe the woman, how she will soon be entering the story and it's so overwhelming. But then, when he reveals who the woman is, the reader realizes the woman had already been introduced (to both the reader and Kvothe) earlier in the book! There was no reason to create tension for a character that had already been introduced, and it felt like a cheap narrative trick.
2. Unique form of magic: All fantasy worlds have some kind of magic, and the "sympathy" in Kvothe's world was certainly interesting. The magic relies on the relationships between objects and the transference of power between.
3. Kvothe: Okay, I liked the protagonist. He's stubborn and cocky and often stupid, but he's also brave and righteous, and you have to like him for that.

Whew. In the end, I did enjoy The Name of the Wind, despite a slow patch in the middle where Kvothe mostly obsessed about how he had no money. There are some interesting secondary characters as well, particularly Master Elodin and Bast, whom I'd love to hear more about. And, if I could excise Ambrose from the story, I'd eagerly pick up the sequel (and, who knows, maybe I'll pick up the sequel anyway). In the end, I'd rate it similarly to other fantasy beginnings like Wizard's First Rule and A Game of Thrones, though it's much less dark than those two.