Library Checkouts, July Edition

What did I get at the library this week?

First, a sff Tor Novella called The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson.  I’d seen her name here and there on book twitter, so when I spied this novella on my public library’s New shelves, I grabbed it.  The description says it’s Lovecraftian, which I’m not really into, but I read a Lovecraftian novella by Cassandra Khaw last month and really enjoyed it, so figured I’d give another reinterpretation a shot.

 

Second, I was surprised and pleased to see An Extraordinary Union, by Alyssa Cole on my library’s New shelves.  It’s a novel of the  U.S. Civil War, with a black woman protagonist, written by a black woman!  I’ve heard great things about this one in non-sff book circles, and I’m looking forward to seeing what it’s all about.


                            AN EXTRAORDINARY UNION by Alyssa Cole

 

I also checked out Connie Willis’ All Clear, companion novel to Blackout, in my quest to read everything she’s ever written.

 

 

It Takes Two: Radiance and A Stranger in Olondria

So I sat here at my computer, staring at tumblr posts as the scrolled by, and thought to myself that I hadn’t done much writing–of any stripe–in quite a while.  I’ve really fallen off the book reviewing wagon. My reading hasn’t dropped off in any significant way, but I just don’t have the mental energy to write reviews, edit them, and then get them out.

So instead, I thought back to a few things I’ve read–recently and not so recently–and tried to come up with a theme-y feeling, or feelings-ish theme that I find weaving through at least two novels.

And lo, a theme post is born.

Here I’m going to talk about Cat Valente’s Radiance, and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, both of which I’ve read and reviewed in the past six months. (You can find those reviews here on or my Goodreads page).  I’m probably going to be too lazy to go back and find links for them.

It Takes Two: Stories of Dead Women

Radiance is (spoilers?) the story of Severin Unck’s final days, her final film, her final journey out among the stars of the alt-Solar System discovered in the Victorian period and subsequently settled all the way out to Pluto itself.  In A Stranger in Olondria, the reader is presented with the coming-of-age story of Jevick, and islander who travels to the mainland nation of Olondria chasing stories and the learning he has glimpsed via a foreign tutor, but his quest for self-fulfillment is subsumed by the story, of a sick young woman he met on ship during the crossing, who revisits him as a ghost and haunts him, prodding him to write her story as she tells it in Jevick’s dreams.

What these two novels have in common is not simply the fact that each is concerned with the story of a woman who is now dead, but that each woman’s story is being told, in some way, by another character–or characters.  Severin’s father, the most famous filmmaker in that version of the solar system, is trying not only to recreate her last days from the memories and speculations of those around her, but to find a proper film medium in which to tell this story.  Jevick’s obsession with the written word is whatt draws the young woman’s ghost to him, an unrelenting commandment to put words to paper, to save her story in a way that her body, her life, could not be saved.

Each novel is a heartbreaking and stunning look at the power of art.  Art creates and drives people to create; stories tell more than their text.  Art is also sinister and dangerous, driving people to the edge, further, making them vulnerable to the manipulations of others.  Severin was driven to understand the murky ends of a small town on Venus, the inhabitants of which were divers for one of the companies who harvested milk from the great, semi-sentient beings living in Venus’s warm seas.  With her documentaries, she pushed limits in ways her father never would with the drama and intrigue he ladled into his fictional films.  Having grown up in a house where nothing was ever really real, having all been caught on film, Severin spent her life documenting instead of creating fiction.  In this way, Valente continues to play with notions of the real–as every documentary is still an interpretation, and is informed by the experiences and opinions of the documentarians.

A Stranger in Olondria pulls from the vast tradition of telling stories with other stories.  It is an astounding piece of worldbuilding, creating not only the people and living culture of Jevick’s home, Olondria, and other nations, but also the stories by which those places know themselves.  Jevick is so caught up in what he thinks is his story of discovery and growing up–almost a sort of ironic “noble savage” narrative, on his part–that he fails to see what is right in front of him.  In the same way, Severin’s father is so caught up in turning everything into fiction that in the end he doesn’t really understand his daughter, and is obsessed with crafting the perfect fiction to describe her real, non-fictional life.

The importance of these two narratives dealing with the stories of dead women is twofold.  First, in pushing each story-writer character to craft the story of the dead woman in each–via their different but equal motivations–the authors are not telling how these women died, but how they lived.  Though one is dead at the beginning of the novel and the other dies at an important turning point for the main character, the reader is fully immersed in the very real and vibrant lives of these women.

The second aspect of importance is not simply that these women had lives which are a strong part of the narrative, but that they did something with those lives.  These women had, and throughout their respective novels continue to have, agency and effect over the course of their lives.  Severing took control of a life she’d grown up feeling she had no control over, and went out amongst the planets to give context and reality to other worlds.  The ghost haunting Jevick belongs to a young woman who grew up illiterate, daughter of two worlds in a bizarrely colonial landscape that left her little room to be herself.  She dies from exposure to a disease she had contracted while on an adventure, and even in her sickness she refuses to be treated as a simple invalid.  In death, she is powerful and takes on a new life, part of which is the telling of her youth, and the other a hunger for literacy and immortality in the stories that Jevick prizes so highly.

The glint of immortality shines strongly through each of these novels, hastened by their meta-textual themes–film in Radiance, and writing in A Stranger in Olondria.  Not only do these novels share a similar theme, but they also share a carefully crafted duality that is both satisfying and challenging to read.  Though these novels are different in voice and style, they are well-matched.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Corruption
crosses all borders, but so does beauty. 
Americanah spans the Atlantic
Ocean, crossing Nigeria, to the United Kingdom, to the United States, and back,
and across the miles, the bond between Ifemelu and Obinze, somehow,
remains.  In a novel that is
remarked upon for its lethal skewering of race in the United States and the way
American foreign policy affects nations the world over, a love story is created
that becomes a metaphor for so much more. 
            

Both
Obinze and Ifemelu leave their native Nigeria in search of something else—they
don’t really even know what, other than stories—in the west.  And both, eventually, return to Nigeria
and find a way to make a life for themselves there.  Along the way, the reader is introduced to a palette of
friends, relatives, and barest acquaintances who color every experience that
the pair have.  Adichie revels in
the good and the bad, every scene a delight of sight and sound, grounding the
novel as something lived-in and worn with all the experience of real life.

The
style of the novel is matter-of-fact, confident in its lines, accepting no
nonsense.  Adichie’s narrative
carries the reader along, as if in a trance, floating in that corner of
Ifemelu’s brain as if part of her. 
Adichie layers narrative through the use of Ifemelu’s blog, allowing her
characters to say what needs to be said, have experiences that go beyond the
reach of a story and out into the real world.  It’s a subtle and affecting novel, one that every reader in
the U.S. should pick up.

Readers
attuned to deeply personal narrative journeys will be spellbound by Ifemelu’s
journey and the experience of her inner consciousness.  Those looking for something deeper than
your average Sparks or Picoult will enjoy the depths Adichie is able to reach
with such a simple-seeming plot. 
Anyone interested in peeking outside the traditional realm of white
publishing should definitely get hold of this one.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson

           There are books that are affective
for what they say about life, the world, and our place in it.  And then there are books that are affective
for what they don’t say.  At 544 pages in
hardcover Life After Life is an
extremely wordy novel.  And it has a lot
to say about a great number of subjects.
It is the story of Ursula Todd and her many lives.  It is not a time travel novel, nor a parallel
worlds novel, but a meditation on what it would be like if, every time someone
died, they started over, back at the beginning, and did it all again.  If there was in fact life, after life.  The novel imagines what it would be like to
be Ursuala Todd who, through no fault of her own, must experience life after
life after life, with no respite.

           Atkinson is one of the most subtle
wits I have ever read.  Her subject and
setting—England and Europe during first World War I and then World War II—is
not particularly original although it must be said that her narrative of life
in a perpetually bombarded city, or of the feeling of waiting for the worst to
happen, is poignantly rendered.  Her wit,
though, comes through in how she allows characters to react to the world around
them, and how the world reacts to them.
Child Ursula grows in precocity every time she is born, to the point she
practically carries the weight of the world in her later childhoods.  Let us consider that the greatest tragedy
often imagined in society is that of a child experiencing evil and war, and let
us then imagine a child being continually born to experience the same war and
the same death.  As Ursula grows up having
a greater and greater foreboding of that death and of her death, one life after
the other, Life After Life becomes an
astounding work of literary finesse.

           Life
After Life
is inhabited primarily by women, who represent a range of feminine
identities.  Atkinson allows them each
their own nature, to have contradictory reactions to life and to each other, in
fact to be human without any special attention being given to it.  Atkinson’s understated approach to women in
her novel lend a startling poignancy to our view of how society treated those
women who strayed too far from feminine ideals, of how women were taught to
hate themselves, and how the lives of men were given precedence over those of
women.  There are many beautiful moments
in Life After Life, and many
heartbreaking ones.  Many people have no
doubt fantasized about what they would do if they had life to live over, but
that fantasy becomes a nightmare when you don’t have the luxury of choosing
when you live or die.  The most affective
moments were when the reader knows that if Ursula had a choice she would have
died, and yet life forces her to go on.
Death is only an escape when it lets you go.

           Readers interested in life during
the Great Wars will enjoy this novel for its realistic representations of
London and Berlin during the bombings.
Readers who can suspend disbelief and allow a novel to become an
experiment in narrative meant to reveal something about the nature of life,
rather than just being a straightforward story, will enjoy the speculative
aspects of Life After Life.  It is a novel driven by ideas, written with a
delicacy that allows its characters to shine.
Anyone in search of a “great, big book” will find much to love in this
novel.

Review of Before I Go by Colleen Oakley

The most likable part about this novel was that it wasn’t wholly likable.  Daisy is dying of cancer and as a reader I wasn’t sure whether to cheer her efforts at living out the remainder of her life in a way that seemed most fitting, or slap the book closed and put her back on the shelf.  One thing is for certain: you will cry if you read this novel. 

The premise is a bit cliché.  After reading the synopsis you may have images of The Notebook running through your imagination.  Before I Go is thoroughly sentimental, from Daisy’s smart but domestically hopeless veterinarian husband Jack, to her crass and immature but lovable childhood best friend, to her homespun-wearing, cornbread-eating, lemonade-sipping descriptions of her down-South semi-suburban home in Athens, Georgia.  Oakely, you’ll think, fixates a lot on appearances, feelings, and the kind of memories we have from childhood that are real but maybe just a little bit not-real.  And then you realize that it’s not Oakley telling the story, but Daisy.  And Daisy is dying, and she’s not going to go quietly like a Sparks heroine who looks pretty even when she cries.

Daisy isn’t even a heroine.  She’s the center of her own story, her own world, and there’s a lot she has to come to terms with, not least her own neuroses.  Here is where Oakley’s writing is impressive.  Daisy’s stream of consciousness, over and over,  brings the reader crashing back to the reason for the novel in the first place: Daisy is dying, and she’s ticking boxes, crossing off checklists, trying to make everything look the way it’s supposed to before she goes.  Whatever she does, up to and including trying to find a new wife for her husband, has a way of seeming—if not reasonable—at least the right thing to do.  Oakley’s writing, when she is Daisy, is precise and evocative:

“I don’t understand,” I say sluggishly.  My mouth feels like I’ve been chewing molasses. “It’s only been a year.  All my six-month checks were clear.”

He shrugs and slowly shakes his head.  “I’m so, so sorry.  Unfortunately this happens sometimes.  A patient goes from six-moth checkups to annuals and the cancer sneaks in.  Yours is particularly aggressive.”

Aggressive.  The word triggers that football cheer and I can’t help but silently chant: Be! Aggressive! You’ve got to be aggressive!

Brains are funny that way.  The memories they conjure.  The tumors they grow.

Oakley nails the pervading things-falling-apartness of dealing with terminal cancer.  Now if only she could have nailed the rest.  While she gives all of her characters a believable set of traits, none of them quite lives in the story like Daisy.  They all seem a bit flat and washed out next to her oppressive living brightness, as though Oakley used up all of her colored inks on her best character and had to stretch what she had left between the rest.  

Before I Go suffers from a bit of first-novel-itis.  As I mentioned earlier, it’s difficult to tell Daisy’s voice from Oakley’s.  Daisy tells her story in the first-person present.  This in many respects turns out to have been a good narrative choice, as it puts the reader quite close to Daisy’s point of view. However, it also makes it even more difficult for Oakley to separate her authorial “I” from Daisy’s subjective “I” in instances where Daisy is forming impressions of people and events, and making narrative decisions.  Daisy is a person who likes to categorize everything.  She makes to-do lists and neatly organizes her refrigerator.  She cleans obsessively and speaks of Jack as almost hopelessly unable to manage on his own domestically.  Daisy also puts people into categories.  She judges them much like dirty kitchens and unkempt bedroom floors, by outward appearances.  And the trouble is that her reflections of people are too easily conflated with the author’s opinions and views.  Again, it’s as though Oakley put all she had into creating Daisy–Daisy’s life overpowers the entire narrative.  It’s a wonderful metaphor for the power of a situation like terminal cancer to overwhelm everything, and for Daisy’s eventual realizations that not only does she not have complete control over everything, she doesn’t have to.  But I constantly had to wonder, as I was reading, does Oakley see non-white people simply as boxes to check on a novel to-do list?  Each time a non-white person appeared, the reader was made aware of it, because Oakley/Daisy treats thin white people as the narrative default and anyone different is therefore brought to our attention.  Though it’s a character fault, not an authorial one, Daisy’s focus on outward appearances begins to grow thin.  And then we’re reminded that Daisy has cancer and that her own situation is wearing her quite thin.  So as unlikable as the novel is, in those ways, it’s for a good reason.  Cancer is not likable, and people dealing with it shouldn’t have to be either.

Readers looking for a more introspective, better-written Nicholas Sparks will enjoy Oakley’s concise dialog and keen grasp of narrative style.  Oakley has written a fast-paced novel that is compelling, and readers will find themselves power-reading, if only to find out what happens in the end.  Daisy’s neurotic and selfish insistence that the inside always equal the outside makes her a character more out of the pages of a Hemingway novel which, tiresome as self-centered men can be, is downright refreshing when a woman is allowed to have those traits.  Best of all Before I Go is well-paced and saves the biggest tear-jerk of all till the end.  This is a great vacation read, or lunch-break indulgence, or anything in between.

Before I Go | Colleen Oakley

What I’m Reading Now:

Before I Go, the debut novel of Colleen Oakley.  I went into this one prepared not to like it.  But the honest dialog and take-no-prisoners narrative, told from the perspective of Daisy, who has been recently diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, has made that difficult to do.

Before I Go | Colleen Oakley

Sepulchre | Kate Mosse

What I’m Reading Now:

Sepulchre, by Kate Mosse, is in the style of her first novel Labyrinth, featuring the same Languedoc region of France, but taking place in a more recent time period.  I suppose my favorite aspect of the novel so far is Mosse’s use of language and dialect to develop her characters.  Each character speaks in their own distinct voice.  Of course the historical research that has gone into the novel is intriguing and impressive, though to be honest it sometimes comes across as a bit encyclopedic.

Sepulchre | Kate Mosse