Salman Rushdie as Joseph Anton

In 1989, Salman Rushdie became the focus of a fatwa, declared by the Ayatollah Khomeini, and was accused of being against Islam for his novel The Satanic Verses. Being a fiction writer caused him to live in hiding for years and to defend freedom of speech for writers and for all people. Joseph Anton is a complex, honest memoir of Rushdie’s life during the fatwa.

“Literature tried to open the universe, to increase, even if only slightly, the sum total of what it was possible for human beings to perceive, understand, and so, finally, to be. Great literature went to the edges of the known and pushed against the boundaries of language, form, and possibility, to make the world feel larger, wider, than before. Yet this was an age in which men and women were being pushed toward ever-narrower definitions of themselves, encouraged to call themselves just one thing, Serb or Croat or Israeli or Palestinian or Hindu or Muslim or Christian or Baha’i or Jew, and the narrower their identities became, the greater was the liklihood of conflict between them. Literature’s view of human nature encouraged understanding, sympathy, and identification with people not like onself, but the world was pushing everyone in the opposite direction, toward narrowness, bigotry, tribalism, cultism and war” (628).

Joseph Anton

Salman Rushdie

2012, US

633 pages, paperback

Rating: 4 — Recommended Reading

Read my review of Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories here.

Summary

While many memoirs span a person’s whole life thus far, Salman Rushdie chooses to focus heavily on the years he was under the fatwa. Rushdie does flashback to his past, but remains mostly in the professional and personal turmoil of being forced into hiding from threats on his life. At the heart of Joseph Anton (the title being the alias Rushdie adopts for protection) is the very personal struggle of one author to assert the importance of the right to freedom of speech while simultaneously attempting to live life as well as he can.

Reasons to read

  • The honesty

I probably hadn’t finished the first part of Joseph Anton before I started telling people that it was the best memoir I’d ever read. The main reason for this was the honesty with which Rushdie writes. He seems to present himself as he truly is (as much as a person can, especially in memoir), and presents the facts of the fatwa period of his life as accurately as he remembers them. At the same time, I felt like I was reading a Rushdie novel with a splendidly believable character who was broken and struggling but with whom I felt some common bond. Rushdie’s portrayal of himself is a memoir that feels like a fiction novel. The tone is perfect.

  • The perspective

Memoirs are usually told fully through the author’s perspective and closely focused on the author’s life. While Joseph Anton certainly fits these criteria, it also includes more people and their perspectives than I’m familiar with for this genre. Rushdie includes (admittedly, his perspectives of) the other people around him during the fatwa like the men guarding him, the women and children in his life, his family, his friends who protect him, those who write and speak against him, and all of the government hoopla. He may not always be fair to those perspectives (who can be all of the time, especially in memoir), but he found a way to make other voices present in an otherwise very author-focused book. These additional people create a rich, detailed, fleshed-out story that is deeply human.

  • The discussion of freedom of speech

Freedom of speech, especially as it pertains to fiction writers, is squarely at the center of Joseph Anton. By focusing the novel on his experience living under a fatwa, Rushdie is able to explore many facets of this idea. Our freedoms are most often thought of abstractly, and this novel excellently depicts what happens when one of them actually turns into a life or death situation. Rushdie includes his missteps along the way as he defends is own novel and the larger issue of freedom of speech, so that the memoir doesn’t read as a straight hero’s tale, reminding us that standing up for ideals like freedoms is very difficult.

Aspects that could bug you

  • Literary names

I can’t quite call it “name dropping” because he doesn’t seem to do it solely for effect, but there are SO many literary greats in here that Rushdie calls close friends, strong enemies, or just brushes elbows with. It’s impressive. If you’re a literature person, you’ll be excited to see into their lives and jealous that you don’t get to hang out with Harold Pinter, let alone experience someone “being Pintered” firsthand.

  • Length

For being focused on such a relatively brief period of time in Rushdie’s life, Joseph Anton is over six hundred pages long. Some readers will certainly find this too formidable. While the fatwa is the main focus of the story, there are flashbacks and digressions to other events which sometimes highlight other themes. The novel is also not divided into chapters but rather into ten longer parts, although there are section breaks that the reader can use to break the parts up. If length is the only thing keeping you from reading this book, I say give it a try anyway.

Overall

If you enjoy fiction, writing, Salman Rushdie, or discussions of freedom, you’ll enjoy this memoir from the most harrowing time in Rushdie’s life and a difficult time for freedom of speech around the world.

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The State of Public Education: Reign of Error

“Public education is in a crisis only so far as society is and only so far as this new narrative of crisis has destabilized it” (Chapter 1).

Perhaps you’ve seen a school pop up in your community with an odd name or perhaps a commercial for an online K-12 school, and you’ve wondered “What is happening with public education these days?” Well, Diane Ravitch’s most recent book, Reign of Error, is for you.

It is a very clearly organized, concise, easy-to-follow narrative of the current situation of public education in the US. It focuses on the so-called “reform movement”, which is attempting to privatize public education under the guise of school choice and chain charter schools. Ravitch first introduces the reader to this privatization movement by describing how they came into being and gathered support. She then debunks the myths that this movement promotes by using testing data, research, and current events. Finally, Ravitch offers solutions for restoring the public school system and returning its community focus, as well as what needs to be done to bring the US’s whopping almost 25% of children out of poverty.

Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools

Diane Ravitch

US, 2013

416 pages (read on Kindle)

Rating: 4 — Recommended Reading

 

As a former public school teacher in a reform district, this is the book I wish everyone in the community could read so that they would know that they must take action if they want their public schools to remain strong and educating the best that they can. Now that my personal plug is out of the way, let’s move on to the five reasons why I think you should read Reign of Error.

1. Grounded in reality

Sometimes people who have served at a federal level and dealt with policy can become removed from the day-to-day issues and realities of those who serve “in the trenches”, so to speak. However, Ravitch is firmly grounded in the reality of what the reform movement is and how it affects teachers, students, and parents. As a former teacher in a reform public school district in Colorado, her descriptions rang true for my experience and the experiences shared with me by teachers who had been in the district longer than I had. Ravitch’s discussions of merit pay, teacher tenure (Tenure in K12 education means only that the teacher has a right to a hearing with an arbitrator, the right to see the evidence for the grounds of termination, and the right to offer a defense. That is it.), and the loss of teachers’ academic freedom and professionalism are all topics that I have direct knowledge of, and Ravitch did them justice.

2. Tackles complexity

Reign of Error is clear and easy to understand, but not because it is oversimplified. Ravitch depicts the reform movement’s various aims at the level of the movement as well as the goals of certain people and organizations. She focuses on former Washington D.C. superintendent Michelle Rhee, who became the face of the reform movement for a time, as well as various specific charter schools that operate in one city or state. The books is well-balanced between local, state, and federal education policy and concerns.

3. Opinions steeped in facts

You probably have guessed by now that Reign of Error is written from Ravitch’s own perspective and opinion. While a former Assistant Secretary of Education and former supporter of No Child Left Behind, Ravitch withdrew her support from the growing test-focused “accountability” of the emerging reform movement (She discusses this change of opinion more fully in her 2010 book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.). In Reign of Error, Ravitch does make her opinion very clear, and it is clearly delineated from the objective data and evidence that she presents. Her tone is harsh when dealing with reformers, but she explains why she is taking that tone. Ravitch’s anger and frustration don’t seem out of place because the reader begins to mirror her ire. Any book about this subject will be coming from a particular perspective, and Ravitch handles this genre and issue well.

4. Large scope

The scope of this book is excellent; I can’t think of a facet of the public school debate that isn’t at least touched on. Ravitch deals with high school graduation rates, state-level charter school legislation, Teach for America, the impact of vouchers on public schools, teacher tenure, and so much more. She importantly includes poverty as essential to any discussion about public education in the US, and really the interplay between poverty and achievement gaps is certainly part of the thesis of her argument in Reign of Error. Ravitch also addresses the myths that the US is falling behind other countries in terms of education outcomes and the ever-touted achievement gap. Whatever your question about the current state of education, it will likely be addressed in this book.

5. Solutions

It would have been very easy for Ravitch to talk all about the problems facing public education and avoid discussing solutions, but she didn’t take the easy way out. Her solutions stem from the idea that “schools fail when they lack the resources to provide equal educational opportunity” (Chapter 21) and that schools will not see dramatic shifts in educational outcomes until change is made in alleviating poverty. She admits that it will be expensive “to address the root causes of poor academic performance…but probably not as expensive as the cost of doing nothing” (Chapter 21). Ravitch’s solutions assume a person who cares more about the needs of the larger society than their own, which is admirable but I wonder if there are enough of those people out there to make the necessary changes.

 

Ravitch tackles huge issues from nationwide public education to systemic poverty, but offers explanations and solutions that are well-reasoned and clear. If you are looking for some answers to what is going on in public education, this is a good book include in your study.

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Ancillary Justice: A Vengeful Space Opera

Winning a Hugo, Nebula, and an Arthur C. Clarke award, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice is an easy book to hear about. It’s acclaim intrigued me, as well as the fact that the narrative assumes female pronouns (she, her). In her sci-fi space opera, Leckie creates a stunning futuristic world focused on a complex political crisis made more difficult by the intersection of human and AI (artificial intelligence).

Ancillary Justice

Ann Leckie

2013, US

397 pages (Kindle version)

Rating: 3 — Worth a Try

Summary:

In Lecke’s Ancillary Justice, a futuristic society is controlled primarily by the Radch empire. As far as the Raadaci are concerned, things are going well as they enjoy the fruits of the past centuries of annexation and the consolidation of planets and people into Radch control. Due to the large-scale annexations, ancillary troops, or AI channeled into human bodies, are created. Ancillary Justice focuses in on a single ancillary soldier, One Esk, who was not supposed to have survived a sabotage of her ship, Justice of Toren, and her other ancillary selves. The reader catches up with this ancillary, now calling herself Breq, as she is about to enact the final stage of her 20 year plan: to kill the Lord of the Radch.

*Note: Due to the way pronouns are used in this novel, character gender is ultimately unknown. In this review, I’ll do what Leckie does and use female pronouns throughout.

What Worked:

  • Main character

Breq is fascinating. She is just human enough to be relatable and different enough to be interesting. When Breq’s connection to her full consciousness is severed, she is split into her individual selves and One Esk is the only one to survive. The idea of a character who has multiple bodies and a starship attached to a single consciousness is fun to attempt to understand. As a narrator, Breq serves to enlighten the reader about the futuristic society as well as herself and the plot–and this is well done. The “world building” information that Breq has to provide could be boring or sound forced, but Leckie does a good job avoiding those traps. Breq also tells parts of the story in flashback, which creates a more humanlike space for memories tinged in emotion, adding important depth to an AI character. I can think of no better narrator for this novel than Breq.

  • The World

Leckie creates a complex, well-formed world. The Radchaai (citizens of the Radch) are easy enough to understand but far enough in the future that there are no forced ties to present day society. The political struggles are understandable but are not easily equated to situations today or in the recent past. The societal rules are, again, different enough but understandable, and there is even discussion of religion which is handled much the same way as politics (familiar and unfamiliar). I would say that Leckie’s biggest strength as a writer is easily world creation. This alone makes me want to read more books in the series.

  • The Ancillaries

With a single AI using human bodies as well as occupying a ship, Leckie really adds something new to literature featuring artificial intelligence. Breq was at one time a ship called the Justice of Toren as well as entire squadrons of human-bodied soldiers. The ancillaries are refered to as “corpse soldiers” a few times in the novel because that is what they are–deceased human bodies taken from annexations and plugged into the AI when they are needed. The ship and the ancillaries share one consciousness, and Leckie does an excellent job of explaining what that would be like. In one scene on a planet post-annexation, Leckie describes how this consciousness functions with the Justice of Toren orbiting and the Esk squadron in different locations within the house and around the city. This concept is fascinating and intellectually fun to read about and imagine.

What Didn’t Work:

  • Pronoun use

Leckie is trying to do something interesting in Ancillary Justice by having the narrator assume female pronouns. Well, that’s only partially accurate. What’s really happening has to do with grammar and translation. The language the narrator speaks doesn’t have gendered pronouns (like “he” and “she”), but instead has a single gender neutral pronoun (like our “it”). The narrator, however, tells this story in translation to a language with gendered pronouns, and decides to use “she” all the time instead of assigning “he” or “she” at her discretion. There are times where the narrator is speaking other languages (the reader only reads them in translation, of course) where the narrator is expected to use gendered pronouns, and either phrases his or her responses to avoid using them altogether or makes mistakes. There are a few moments when the narrator is corrected and has to refer to characters as male that he or she has been using female pronouns for. While it sounds like assuming a female pronoun would be interesting (since our English-speaking American culture assumes a male one), it’s not that remarkable. The reasoning for even using female pronouns is shallow at best, and the execution is sloppy. I’m not sure which gender any of the characters are and with the way Leckie constructs her narrative, it doesn’t matter. I would rather have seen her invent a gender neutral pronoun for the narrator to use. The effect would be the same and the story would be easier to follow.

  • Seivarden

One thousand years ago, Breq knew (and didn’t much like) an officer named Seivarden. She was placed in suspension for most of that time and had a difficult time adjusting when she awoke. Breq doesn’t know why she saves Seivarden from freezing to death, even though Seivarden then accompanies her on her mission to kill the Lord of the Radch. Not only is Seivarden an unimpressive character, but she really doesn’t figure into the plot much. The only real use she seems to be is in helping Breq access Anaandr Mianaai, and Breq probably could have found another way to do so. Perhaps she figures in more as the series goes on (this is only the first book after all) but her presence seemed unnecessary in this book.

Overall:

With an enjoyable world, interesting main character, and some AI fun, Anchillary Justice is worth checking out if sci-fi space operas are your thing or if any of this review makes it sound enticing. Since I enjoyed the world Leckie creates so much, I will likely try the next book in this trilogy, Ancillary Sword.

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Harper Lee’s Messy and Powerful “Go Set a Watchman”

When I first heard about Go Set a Watchman, I was excited. Harper Lee had declared that To Kill a Mockingbird would be her only novel because in it she had expressed to the public the thing she wanted to say. Her message had been delivered, and there was no reason to write more. I admired that about her. Go Set a Watchman is the first version of Lee’s single great novel, written years before she published, so the story goes. I was intrigued by Lee choosing to publish this manuscript and while it took me awhile to actually pick up the book, I had already read reviews and learned two things: the novel was, as to be expected, lumpy and in sore need of editing and that Atticus, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, was a racist.

Go Set a Watchman

Harper Lee

2015, US

278 pages

Click on this image to view this book on Amazon.com

4 — Recommended Reading

 

*Note: Since I began writing this review, Harper Lee has passed away. Her novels, particularly To Kill a Mockingbird, will live on as both snapshots of a particular time in American history as well as novels that deal with the big problems of humanity.

“You are fascinated with yourself. You will say anything that occurs to you, but what I can’t understand are the things that do occur to you. I should like to take your head apart, put a fact in it, and watch it go its way through the runnels of your brain until it comes out of your mouth. We were both born here, we went to the same schools, we were taught the same things. I wonder what you saw and heard” (175).

Summary:

Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, our window into the classic To Kill a Mockingbird, is 26 years old when she takes a journey back to Maycomb, Alabama from her new home in New York City. Educated and independent, Jean Louise’s biggest worry in life is whether or not she should marry her local Maycomb man, Henry. As she ponders this big life decision she finds herself confronted with her father’s involvement with the Maycomb County Citizen’s Council, and her superhero of a father becomes an unrecognizable stranger to her as her world comes crashing down.

What Worked:

  • Lee’s smalltown South

    In this novel, as in To Kill a Mockingbird, Lee does an amazing job of capturing the essence of the smalltown South. The novel opens with Jean Louise’s journey home on the train as she nears Maycomb, which is an excellent way to settle the reader into the novel and to present the important main character of Maycomb. Lee’s skill is most vivid in the flashback childhood scenes and in Jean Louise’s descriptions of the changing town. There are many reasons that Harper Lee will be remembered as a great writer, and her ability to bring the setting to life may be the strongest one.

  • A common humanity

    Lee can write about people so that the reader easily understands them. Not that these characters are simple or flat, but rather that the reader can imagine them clearly and have compassion for them. Lee’s characters are quickly familiar, whether they featured prominently in To Kill a Mockingbird or not. Uncle Jack, especially when placed in his home, jumps from the page and into the room. Aunt Alexandra is perhaps even more obnoxious in Go Set a Watchman, but I felt much more compassion for her as well. Jean Louise, as far and away the central character, is easy to become comfortable with. As her perceptions of her childhood and her hometown change, her ire and arguments are all believable and the reader can easily understand her emotions. Jean Louise’s relatablity combined with Lee’s ability to present the problem of racism made it easy to relate to Jean Louise in her moment of crisis. She is confronted with the systemic racism in Maycomb, the South, and America, and she gets angry. The reader is able to follow her logic and her emotions as she prepares for her big confrontation with Atticus.

  • Depiction of racism

     Lee does such a good job making the difficulties of race in the South vivid and complex. She includes pretty much every form of racism I can think of seeing or hearing (from a white perspective, of course). She includes the arguments of biological racism, the angry tirade from Mr. Grady O’Hanlon–which covers many arguments–, the “child-like” race stereotype, the idealism of the past (pre-war) condition, and Lee also depicts the underlying fear of the white community at large of African Americans entering their social space. When I discussed Go Set a Watchman with a friend from the South, we talked a lot about racism because Lee’s discussion remains so poignant and powerful. I will always appreciate Harper Lee for her ability to reveal so accurately the complicated issues of race in the Jim Crow era and at the dawning of the Civil Rights Movement, as these issues continue to burden us today. If Lee truly set out to tell her one story, I think she succeeded in telling it through these two novels. 

What Didn’t Work:

  • Story pacing

     This story meanders. There isn’t a lot of action in Go Set a Watchman so the novel is more introspective and involved with characters and ideas with Jean Louise in the center. It’s not quite a traditional coming of age novel, but it is about Jean Louise’s transition into a stage of adulthood where one becomes aware of the world in a new way. Jean Louise’s impending moment of personal crisis is the focus of the plot, but there are also flashbacks to the past, some of which are relevant. The result is a lumpy novel with flashbacks that drag on and rushed conflict. The novel is unpolished, but that is what I expected with its publication history.

Overall:

Although unpolished from a literary perspective, Go Set a Watchman is an important companion to Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird for its ability to make the reader think about the society in which they live, who they are, and what they stand for.

[Striped-Penguin.com is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com]

 

 

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Reading Resolutions 2016

 

For the past two years I’ve been setting reading resolutions for the new year. The first year I did quite well, and this year went well too. This year, I was surprised to see how a focus in a particular genre (sci-fi / fantasy) really swung my reading in that direction. I’m setting reading resolutions again for 2016 to motivate myself and perhaps inspire anyone who reads this to set their own reading resolutions.

Looking Back

Before we jump into the 2016 reading resolutions, let’s check out how 2015 went.

  • Graphic Novels/Comics: read 1 new graphic novel or comic

Achieved! This year I read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic.

  • Another language: read 1 children’s book in Spanish

Failed. This was a 2014 and 2015 goal as well to encourage me to keep studying Spanish. I think I could read a children’s book in Spanish now, but I still haven’t tried it.

  • Modern Fiction: read 4 books from 1990 or later

Achieved! Counting some books I did not review, I easily made this goal. I read and reviewed Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (2009), Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book (2014), and Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006). I also read, but did not and will not review, the available books by George R. R. Martin in the series A Song of Ice and Fire: A Game of Thrones (1996), A Clash of Kings (1998), A Storm of Swords (2000), A Feast for Crows (2005), and A Dance with Dragons (2011).

  • Science Fiction/Fantasy: read 3 books from either the science fiction or fantasy genres

Achieved! I read and reviewed two science fiction books: C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength (the third and final book in his Space Trilogy), and Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel (from his Robot series). I also read the five available George R. R. Martin A Song of Ice and Fire series (fantasy), which I will not review, and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice (sci-fi), which I will review soon.

  • Books in Translation: read 2 new books that have been translated to English from another language

Failed. I did reread Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which is translated from Russian, but I did reread it so it doesn’t count.


My main goal was to keep reading, and I think I did pretty well overall. I also read a lot more sci-fi and fantasy this year, which was a nice change of pace.

Looking Ahead

So far, I’ve enjoyed setting reading resolutions, so let’s get specific and look at my new goals for 2016.

  • Graphic Novels/Comics: read 2 new graphic novel or comic

This resolution is becoming a mainstay on my list. Since I read one last year, I’ve upped the goal to two for this year.

  • Another language: read 1 children’s book in Spanish

Keeping this one on the list as well, but not changing anything about it since I’ve not met this  goal for two years running, ha!

  • Books in Translation: read 2 new books that have been translated to English from another language

I really would like to accomplish this goal, so I’m putting it on this year’s list as well. By reading translated books, I hope to read a greater variety of world perspectives instead of just an American/English-speaking one.

  • Women Writers: read 3 new books by women writers from any time period

I had a similar goal in 2014 but not last year. I wasn’t going to add this one but then I thought about the books I’m excited to read soon and I think they’re all written by men. Hopefully this goal will help me avoid an unintentional all-male reading list.

  • Modern Fiction: read 2 books from 2006 or later

I’m reducing the number of books in this goal, but I’m also narrowing the time period to the last 10 years. I have been reading more modern fiction and I’d like to continue to do so.


This list is a bit less ambitious than 2015’s 11-book list, but still lengthier than 2014’s 8. I did end up reading 12 books in 2015, which is quite good considering I started the year with a two month old baby. Ten sounds like a very reasonable number of books for this year.

Challenge

While I sincerely enjoy reading books, discussing them with other people is a close second. I’d love to see more people reading and talking about what they’ve read. So I’ll issue you (dear reader) a challenge to create your own list of reading resolutions. They don’t have to be as specific as mine, deal in the same categories, or even be limited to novels. You could challenge yourself to read more news articles, finally get to that one book your friend or mom or whoever has been bugging you about, or actually read the books you got for Christmas before next Christmas rolls around. And if you read something amazing or terrible or at least interesting, I’d love to hear about it.

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The Caves of Steel: An Asimov Sci-Fi Mystery

Set about three millennia in Earth’s future, The Caves of Steel is great Asimovian science fiction blended perfectly with mystery. When a Spacer is murdered, it is up to Lije Baley and his new robot partner Daneel to solve the case while navigating the dangerous relationship between robots and humans. As Lije pieces together the murder, he questions everything he knows about robots and his own human society.

The Caves of Steel

Isaac Asimov

Originally published: 1954, US

224 pages (read ebook version)

Rating: 4 – Recommended Reading

 

Summary:

When a prominent man is murdered, the commissioner assigns Lije Baley, a gruff policeman, to the case. Since the murder occurred in Spacetown, a community with a strained relationship with the native Earth population, Lije is also assigned a partner from Spacetown, a robot named Daneel. Lije is leery of his new partner and suspicious of the motives of most of the people around him. Daneel and Lije are thrust into danger that becomes clearer as the time they have to solve the murder runs out.

 

What Worked:

  • Genre

It is said that Asimov wrote The Caves of Steel as a sci-fi detective novel to prove that sci-fi could be combined with any other literary genre, and he certainly succeeded. The novel opens with the main character, Lije, at his job as a policeman (setting up the detective genre) annoyed by a robot (introducing the sci-fi genre). Asimov intertwines these distinct writing styles from the beginning so well that the reader doesn’t feel that either one is out of place; this is truly a testament to Asimov’s abilities. The Caves of Steel presents a believable and entertaining mystery set in a time where humanity is struggling with “the robot question”. Where some writers may have ended up amplifying the cheesiness of both styles, Asimov convincingly presents a story that shows off the flexibility of sci-fi as a genre.

  • Excellent storytelling

It has been awhile since I’ve been caught up in a mystery novel. Granted, I don’t read as many now as I have in the past, but it is rare now that I find one gripping. In The Caves of Steel, Asimov uses a unique perspective that forces the reader to watch the plot unfold either with Lije or a beat behind him. Lije keeps things from the reader, especially his accusations which come as a surprise to the reader as well as the other characters. The third person perspective helps create this distance between the reader and the novel’s main character, but the reader is certainly in Lije’s head than anyone else’s. Asimov’s perspective creates exactly the right speed for a mystery, where the reader can be along for the ride with the main character but is not always in the loop. I enjoyed truly not being able to guess many of the twists and turns of the plot.

 

What Didn’t Work:

  • Difficult main character

Lije is a difficult character to like and is perhaps even harder to relate to. He is the main character of the novel but Lije is no everyman whose shoes the reader can easily slip into. He’s a curmudgeon and not a guy you really root for, even as you get to know more of his thoughts and perspectives. Although he inhabits a middle position on “the robot question,” he is not who I think I would be in that society. I much preferred the character of Daneel and found him more relatable, perhaps because he was an outsider in Lije’s society like me. Even when Lije is in danger, I’m not as concerned about his wellbeing. The only character I probably feel less interested in is his wife, Jessie, who is a flat character in what is still very patriarchal world, even about three millennia on. I’m not saying that I have to love the main character, but I’m still trying to figure out if Asimov made Lije so difficult on purpose (probably) and why he would do such a thing.

  • Societal gaps

The Caves of Steel is a relatively short book and the world Asimov creates is much larger, so there are gaps in the reader’s knowledge of this world. I was left with so many questions about this future human society like the details of their education system, more about the intricate class system (that seems very paternal), how marriage works (because Lije’s and Jessie’s seems terrible), and why the society is so incredibly gendered. Also, it seems like national boundaries are somewhat preserved, so what is happening with race/ethnicity or languages? I understand that explaining all of this would make The Caves of Steel bloated and boring, but there are probably some things that Asimov could have left out instead of touching on and leaving off (like education with Lije’s son). It was kind of like the Biblical naming in the novel, present but not really fleshed out or explained. However, I have not read any of Asimov’s other novels that feature Lije and Daneel, so perhaps the society is more fleshed out in those.

 

Overall:

The Caves of Steel is a classic Asimov robot novel because it delivers excellent, society-questioning sci-fi along with fast-paced detective mystery. You should pick it up because it crams a lot of entertainment (and some thinking) into a pretty small package.

 

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Five Reasons Why You Should Read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

In the wake of her father’s death, Alison Bechdel looks back at her life with him. Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic allows the reader peeps into Bechdel’s mind as she attempts to come to terms with both the mystery of her father’s death (was it suicide?) and his sexuality (was he gay?).

Click on the image to view this novel at Barnes & Noble
 Given numerous awards, put on so many reading lists, and made into a musical (which is currently nominated for several Tony Awards), there are many reasons why you should consider reading Fun Home; here are my top five.

1. The relatable narrator

For a memoir to work, the reader must be interested in the narrator. For some historical figures and celebrities, the intrigue is already there, but someone like Bechdel must capture the reader’s attention by being very easy to relate to. She does this brilliantly. Bechdel tells a relatable story that resonates with everyone because of her ability to capture what it is like to be a child, an adolescent, and a young adult. Similarly, the narration progresses in both understanding and analysis as she grows. The novel opens with child-Bechdel playing a familiar flying game with her father. And, while the first part of Fun Home describes some of her father’s eccentricities, it also includes some commonplace activities like playing games, helping with chores, and watching cartoons. From the beginning I trusted Bechdel and enjoyed her narrative voice.

 2. Fun uncertainty

I enjoy moments of ambiguity in stories where some aspects are just “left up to the imagination”, so it is no surprise that I am comfortable with the uncertainties in Fun Home. One of the issues with the memoir form is that the author attempts to tell a true story of their life but can never be completely accurate—that’s just the nature of memory. As the reader journeys with Bechdel through her memories, they begin to understand that she can’t definitively answer the question of her father’s sexuality (how could she?), so she chooses instead to explore how that very question makes sense in her life. The fact that Bechel avoids tying up the strands of her memoir in neat little bows (either for her or for her father) is an acknowledgement of her limitations as a storyteller. The uncertainties of this novel made me think about the “facts” of my own life and how my experiences are real, although they may not always be remembered correctly.

 3. The zaniness

I like the believable zaniness that Bechdel infuses into Fun Home. The off-kilter tone seems fitting for her father and adds to the ambiguity of the novel. She really plays this up with the funeral home setting and the juxtaposition of events with literature. Even with a couple of English degrees I really felt like I’ve missed out on so many of Bechdel’s literary references (and jokes). However, the literary references don’t feel pretentious and are not necessary for understanding the novel. Pervasive literature and funeral home escapades add to the dark humor of the novel and break up the tragedies present throughout (Bechdel does subtitle Fun Home “A Family Tragicomic” after all).

 4. Graphic novel form

Although I’m a graphic novel beginner, I believe Fun Home is an excellent example of the form. The illustrations are as realistic and detailed—which can be useful for a memoir—and there is such a feeling of movement to them. The panel order is easily to follow and the shapes and types are varied well for storytelling effect. Bechdel uses an exclusively black, white, and blue color scheme, reminiscent of flashbacks in movies. This limited color palette suggests the complication of memoir: it is difficult to remember all of the details clearly, even of one’s own past. Bechdel does pay close attention to detail, however, and includes maps, book titles, and funny asides (like confirming that their library did have a giant painting of a cockatoo). Bechdel uses the illustrations to add so much more to her memoir than simple text, and Fun Home is better for it.

 5. Exploration of identity

With the central plot of Fun Home revolving around both Bechdel’s and her father’s sexual identities, it is no surprise that the novel focuses largely on the theme of identity. However, this is also a coming-of-age story for Bechdel’s character and a bit of a mystery novel as she works to uncover her father’s secrets. The genre blending of this novel enables a multifaceted exploration of identity. The reader sees Bechdel as an observant child, a neurotic adolescent, and a courageous young adult; yet, it is not until the third section of the novel that her character even becomes a focus of the story. The beginning of the novel is more concerned with her father, whose character is sometimes difficult to pin down even with all of the details that Bechdel provides. As the novel progresses, the stories of Bechdel and her father are woven together as she reflects on both her father’s life and her own journey of self-discovery.

 

Even with the specific and unique situation of her life, Alison Bechdel creates a beautiful memoir that resonates with her reader and asks important questions of identity. I highly recommend Fun Home whether or not you are familiar with Bechdel or have ever read a graphic novel before.

 

 

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A Burnable Book: a Medieval Manuscript Mystery

A mysterious manuscript that is said to prophesy the death of the King of England is hunted by noblemen, religious men, literary men, and prostitutes in Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book. Set in Chaucer’s medieval England, this novel is a historically realistic mystery story with plenty of entertaining characters and thrilling action.

A Burnable Book

Bruce Holsinger

Originally published: 2014, US

436 pages (read ebook version)


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Rating: 3 – Worth A Try

 

Summary:

In medieval London, John Gower—a poet whose currency is blackmail and secrets—is tasked by his friend Geoffrey Chaucer with finding a manuscript. When a woman connected to it is found dead on the moors, Gower learns that this book is much more dangerous than Chaucer let on. Said to contain a prophecy of the young king’s death, this book is hunted by more people than Gower—including a few maudlyns (or, prostitutes)—and is written as a riddle to be puzzled out. Will Gower find the book and discover its meaning before the king is harmed?

 

What Worked:

  • History

Holsinger is a medieval scholar who did a lot of research to make this text accurate to the time period. He also tried to keep some historical accuracy (more than most “historical fiction”). He discusses the research some in the afterward, and I was pleased to discover that the character of Eleanor/Edgar (a maudlyn who dresses as either a man or woman when it pleases) was based on a real type of person who existed at the time. I found her/his profession believable (since sex has hardly been only vanilla in the past), and it was good to have that confirmation. It can be easy sometimes to look at the past and think that people or events were only one way; I like that Holsinger causes the reader to rethink some of their notions about the medieval period.

  • Playing with agency

An excellent example of Holsinger busting the reader’s notions of medieval England is the agency he gives to characters who we like to think had none. Modern readers often forget that though women’s position in society was different during the time of kings and serfs, they were not without some (though limited) power. Holsinger has characters who are business owners (shopkeepers and the women who run the maudlyns), consorts of noblemen, leaders of religious orders, and even the maudlyns themselves have large parts to play in drama of the manuscript. The agency of the maudlyns is still problematic and there are examples of violence against women, but Holsinger’s female characters are not flat, defeated women. Eleanor/Edgar was also interestingly able to be both a woman with no agency (and a maudlyn at that) and a man with some (though still a poor, common man of no profession). I could write much more about this topic, but I do like Holsinger’s portrayal of women in this novel on the whole.

  • Fast-paced action

A Burnable Book has a slew of characters and plot points that cover time and geography, but Holsinger manages to keep the plot moving at a rapid clip. In the beginning it is difficult to keep the characters straight (this also depends on how quickly the reader catches on about Eleanor/Edgar), but the reader sorts everyone out just in time for the plot to speed up. I would describe the plot as a series of spirals with a common center and a line cutting straight down from one side to the center. The spirals begin with each of the characters (Gower, Eleanor/Edgar, Agnes, and some minor ones) who all make their way to a common center (the resolution of the plot). The line cutting through is the letter which the reader encounters one piece at a time on their journey to understanding the mystery; sections of it are included every few chapters. This may sound disorienting but it is merely a mystery with multiple people trying to solve it, which keeps the plot moving quickly as puzzles and riddles must be solved.

 

What Didn’t Work:

  • First person POV use

John Gower is the central character in A Burnable Book, and Holsinger writes his sections in the first person. I understand this choice since there are so many characters and using first person for one of them makes Gower stand out. However, when the text would focus on another character for a while (like Agnes, Millicent or Eleanor/Edgar) and then switch back to Gower, it was jarring. I would have rather Holsinger stick with a third person point of view. Though Gower’s mind was the only one the reader really got inside of, anytime the narrative switched to him I had to remind myself who “I” was.

  • Some mystery plot repetition

Toward the end of the novel, Gower pieces many mysterious things together which the reader already has done. Unlike Gower, the reader has access to a letter which is placed in pieces throughout the text and explains many things that Gower doesn’t learn about until near the end. By the time Gower figures out the missing information, the reader knows all. I skimmed those pages since Gower was resolving plot threads I already knew the ending to. Not only did it make it seem like Holsinger wasn’t giving the reader enough credit for putting things together on their own, but it made the ending slow and a bit dissatisfying.

 

Overall:

If you’re a sucker for historical fiction—or just like a good mystery—look no further than Bruce Holsinger’s very realistic and entertaining A Burnable Book.

 

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That Hideous Strength: Lewis’ Space Trilogy Comes to Earth

A young couple, Mark and Jane, both encounter strange events and face difficult choices in this final novel of C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength. Mark finds himself involved with a strange institute (named N.I.C.E.), who use seemingly rational means to justify their diabolical plans for humanity. While Mark deals with the N.I.C.E., Jane is haunted by nightmarish visions that may be the key for a secret society working to defeat evil.

That Hideous Strength

C.S. Lewis

Originally published: 1945, UK

380 pages

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Rating: 5 – Personal Classic

 

If you have already read my reviews of Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra, you should since they are the previous two books in this trilogy.

 

Summary:

Mark, a Senior Fellow in Sociology, is offered work at the National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.) which has recently come to town. Guided by Lord Feverstone, Mark visits the institute and meets a colleague, who is later found murdered after rejecting a position at the N.I.C.E. Other strange events occur as Mark starts to feel trapped into working for the institute, and he must decide how far he will go once he learns the true motives of the N.I.C.E. Meanwhile, Mark’s wife Jane—a Donne scholar who feels confined by her new role as housewife—begins having strange dreams. She is urged to visit a mysterious Miss Ironwood who lives in a large, secluded house and is told that her dreams are really important visions. Jane must decide if she believes she has clairvoyant powers and if she will join the community at Miss Ironwood’s estate, who all seem to believe that a battle of universal proportions is coming and Jane’s dreams are their key to winning it.

 

What Works:

  • Well-paced plot

Compared to the previous two novels of the Space Trilogy, That Hideous Strength is action-packed. In the preface, Lewis writes that this novel is “a fairy-tale” so that readers expecting fantasy won’t be disappointed by the focus on everyday people in the beginning. While the characters in this novel are more “down to Earth” (ha! It’s a pun!), this novel certainly still belongs in the Space Trilogy since it continues the same mythos as before. Another common thread in the series is the presence of evil which plays an increasingly larger role, culminating in the systemic evil of this novel. Though the evil in That Hideous Strength is not as frightening as it is in Perelandra, it is certainly more high stakes here which is enjoyable. In terms of plot pacing, That Hideous Strength covers a fair amount of ground without seeming overwhelming; Lewis is nothing if not an economical writer. There are even some surprises for the reader, who often knows more than the characters especially Mark.

  • Reasonable characters

Even with the fantastical elements of this novel, Lewis creates characters who are realistic and react sensibly to their world. Mark and Jane, the central characters, are markedly different in personality but are both easy to relate to. Everyone has felt sometimes lonely and alienated like Jane or wanted to be part of an elite group like Mark. Although the reader can easily identify Mark and Jane’s central conflicts, neither of them are hollow stereotypes. Likewise, the villains in the novel are not reduced to stereotypes, even when many are politicians. Some of the creepiness of Weston (from Perelandra) is also present in the villains of this novel; however, their humanity is more obvious which makes them frightening precisely because they could exist in our world today. The main character of the previous books, Ransom, is present in this one as well but in a different capacity. He is not the “fish out of water” in a new world, instead he is in control and a leader of others. Ransom seems more mature in this last novel but his wonder at the Oyéresu is still intact.

  • Arthurian elements

In addition to using the Oyéresu mythos of the first two novels, this book also includes some Arthurian legend—a very English thing to do. The inclusion of the legendary wizard Merlin was surprising, but his presence melds well with the existence of the Oyéresu. Merlin is such a larger-than-life character and Lewis infuses the right amount of humor into his presence in the 20th century to offer some comic relief without reducing Merlin’s imposing character. I think people who read That Hideous Strength without reading the rest of the trilogy will find the mythos of this novel difficult to follow, but for the trilogy reader who already knows about the Oyéresu, adding the Arthurian legend is not overwhelming.

 

 

What Doesn’t Work:

  • Balance

While the plot is excellent, I did expect there to be more battle after such a large buildup throughout the novel. I also imagined something more global since there are universal beings involved in a struggle staged on Earth. Keeping the conflict local was a particularly interesting choice seeing as how Lewis wrote That Hideous Strength during WWII. Perhaps a global war would have seemed like too much for a reader at the time (or for a writer for that matter), or perhaps it would be more the way of universal beings to settle matters in one small town in England instead of overtaking the world. The small scope of the battles is explained somewhat toward the end of the novel when Ransom tells his friends that there are different good and evil forces in different countries. In the reality of the novel there have been, are, and will be battles between the good and evil forces in every country on Earth. Since the majority of the novel builds up the impending conflict, I would have liked to see a bit more action when it came time (although what Lewis does include is fantastic—I won’t spoil it but the dining hall scene is unforgettable).

 

The Space Trilogy Overall:

I did not really know what to expect from this trilogy, even though I’ve read some Lewis before, and I was so pleasantly surprised. In most of the other Lewis I’ve read he has created an imaginary world, which he does brilliantly in the first two novels of the Space Trilogy. That Hideous Strength is set in post WWII England, and even with the familiar place he is able to make the mystical and spiritual feel completely at home. There is an authenticity to each of the novels—the characters and the action seem plausible—which is one of Lewis’ strengths. Like Narnia, the worlds of the Space Trilogy seems like places the reader could actually visit. Each of the novels in this trilogy has a different feel to it, which keeps the reader on his or her toes and prevents the series from feeling stale or repetitive.

For the reader who already loves Lewis or has yet to read any of his work, I heartily recommend the Space Trilogy. If you only have time for one, give That Hideous Strength a try.

 

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5 Reasons Why You Should Read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina

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“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky)

With these now famous opening lines of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy introduces the reader to the complexities of a family story and hints at the tragic title character, Anna. This novel is hailed as a classic and a masterpiece, but why should you read it? Hopefully these five reasons will convince you to pick it up (even if it is a bit heavy).

1. Anna

Simply read the book’s cover and you know that the central character is Anna. The reader first encounters her as a beautiful, confident society woman and follows her on the journey that leads her to suicide. Where Tolstoy could have crafted Anna as a hollow lesson for young girls about the dangers of adultery, he instead creates a fully fleshed out, complicated modern woman who is torn between her desires and the restrictions of society. Anna is not blameless in her actions, but whether she is pitied by the reader or not, she is understood. Tolstoy makes Anna the focus of the liaison, not Vronsky. She is not a broken, desperate character when they meet, but an unhappy woman. Vronsky does not seduce her any more than she wants to be with him. Her combination of brashness and venerability has helped Anna Karenina to become one of the most intriguing women of fiction. She is intelligent, beautiful, passionate, charming, has excellent taste, and is devoted to her son. The flaws of her character lie in jealousy that is inflated by idleness and self-reflection.

Anna embodies one of Tolstoy’s larger themes in her struggle to become modern. Her affair is destructive to many people, whereas her brother’s philandering is acceptable for his gender. Anna wants to divorce her husband, but in doing so the law would make her give up her son (and the choice to divorce is really her husband’s anyway). Anna is a character who desires agency and is prevented; it is no wonder her story ends tragically. While you may be familiar with Anna’s story as a modern reader, the context of the late 19th century in Russia adds so much depth to her.

 2. Levin

While the novel may be named for Anna, a convincing argument can be made that Konstantin Levin is Tolstoy’s true central character. Thought to be based largely on Tolstoy himself, Levin is a landowner who cares deeply for the big philosophical questions of life. He is not a man to live carelessly or to have affairs—in fact he largely shuns the society life of the cities—, yet he is not the antithesis of Anna. Levin is a serious thinker and a passionate man. He has little patience for politics and puts great importance on matters of faith, love, and justice. His story is just as interesting as Anna’s, though it is perhaps not one that you have heard of if you have not read the novel.

Levin is not a didactic character, but he is a very moral presence in the book (perhaps more so than Kitty, his wife, who Levin places on a pedestal and is almost too perfect to be believable). While Tolstoy avoids judging Anna and her situation, he plainly sets up Levin’s life as ideal. As a reader, it is nice to take a break from Anna’s drama and hang out with Levin in the country where his concerns are often more intangible.

 3. Re-imagining the domestic novel

The novel largely takes place in the social sphere of wealth in Moscow and St. Petersburg as well as on country estates. Much of the action does occur in the typical domestic novel settings—indoors, mostly in private homes—but the scope is wider. The action takes place inside the minds of the characters also as Tolstoy changes the narration appropriately in order to put the reader into the shoes of each character. The reader watches the races with Alexi, courts Kitty with Levin, and waits with Anna as she wonders what Vronsky is up to at his mother’s house. Tolstoy offers a domestic novel with the benefits of a philosophical themes; this, I am convinced, is the main reason why this novel stands the test of time.

 4. Love stories

As a domestic novel, much of the action is focused on or related to love. There is practically every type of love depicted in Anna Karenina: familial, romantic, and Christian (or spiritual) love. The primary love stories are between Anna and Vronsky and between Levin and Kitty, with minor ones between Stiva and Dolly, Anna and her son Seryozha, and the love of freedom from various situations. All of these relationships are mostly pure (Stiva’s affairs may be the only exception). There is no false love between Anna and with her husband Alexei or her lover Vronsky. Each of the loves depicted in the novel are true at the time they are professed.

Tolstoy’s nonjudgmental approach to the love stories in Anna Karenina is a large part of why this novel is so rewarding to reread, as the reader brings new love experiences to the story. For example, I reread this novel during the process of becoming a mother and the passages about Levin and Kitty’s first child were much more interesting to read this time around. I could empathize with Levin’s uncertainty as to what to feel toward his child as well as Kitty’s delight in seeing her son recognize her for the first time.

 5. Style

On the whole, Anna Karenina does not mark a departure from the literature of the time in form or style, but it does stand out for a couple of reasons. Tolstoy chooses to structure the novel to bring out the conflicting personalities and ideas of his characters (most notably when shifting from Anna to Levin). His penchant for flipping between two main stories is also displayed in his epic War and Peace, and the effect allows him to include more plot and themes.

Tolstoy also provides increasingly more from Anna’s point of view as the novel progresses. In the beginning the reader gets to know her through the other character’s experiences of her, but her perspective slowly grows throughout the novel until it culminates in Part 7, when Tolstoy employs what is considered one of the early uses of stream-of-consciousness writing. This structure not only progresses the central plot of the novel but also helps the reader learn what makes Anna such a wonderfully complex, rich, and intriguing character.

 

*A Note About Film—

If you see one Anna Karenina film (of which there are many), I recommend the Joe Wright version starring Keira Knightly and Jude Law. It is simply beautiful and employs staging to navigate the Russian social spheres. While the plot is streamlined, it still includes the highlights of Levin’s story (played excellently by Domhnall Gleeson) and does justice to Anna’s (though strangely leaves out Vronsky’s attempted suicide—I really don’t understand why).

 


 

With the enticing Anna, the dashing Vronsky, the ponderous Levin, and more set in late 19th century Russia, Tolstoy has created a classic novel with timeless themes that invite even the modern reader to be swept up. Don’t be intimidated by the length of this book or by the Russian names (it is broken into 8 parts and there are plenty of character guides to help you out). Give Anna Karenina a try and the characters will become familiar friends who you can chat with in the drawing room of your mind.

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