Monthly Archives: September 2012

Remembering Childhood’s End

Not long ago, I read Jo Walton’s Among Others, a Hugo-winning novel that brilliantly describes the sanctuary books can provide. Morwenna is in hiding from her dangerous mother, who happens to be a witch, and mourning the loss of her twin. She seeks shelter in the mind-expanding world of science fiction and finds companionship in a group of like-minded readers.

Reading Among Others brought back vivid memories of afternoons spent at our small local library, combing the shelves for books by Isaac Asimov, Frederik Pohl, Anne McCaffrey and Robert Silverberg. These books seemed to promise that anything was possible in the universe beyond my little Kentucky town. This was in the days before the internet–my first computer was a Commodore 64–and it’s impossible to overstate the mind-expanding influence these books had on me.

Among Others referenced so many classic works of science fiction that I had never read, and Morwenna’s enthusiasm inspired me to add the occasional vintage SF novel into my usual jumbled reading mix of genres and styles. I picked up a few old paperbacks while on vacation in California this summer, and finally got around to reading Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke this week.

Within the first twenty pages, I knew I’d read it before. The general scenario is this: aliens have arrived on Earth. They take control of the planet, bringing harmony and peace to the world, but they refuse to show themselves. No one knows what they look like.

I instantly remembered why their appearance had to remain hidden for fifty years and why they had come to Earth. Normally, I never re-read. There are so many books in this world, I’ll never be able to read them all, so why waste time reading the same book twice? In this case, I made an exception. I was intrigued, because this was a book I’d read at least 25 years ago, probably while still in junior high. What details had I forgotten?

Reading the story as an adult was a completely different experience. Although I remembered roughly what the aliens would preside over, I had forgotten a key detail [spoiler alert! –this book was published in 1953, but if you haven’t read it, you may want to stop here!] The traumatic event that had seared the aliens’ image in human memory so strongly that it rippled backward in time was the loss of all humanity’s children to an Overmind beyond normal human comprehension. This may have been shocking to me as a kid; I don’t remember. Now, as a parent, Childhood’s End is a horror story of change and loss. The image of an infant plugged in to an alien mind, telekinetically waving her rattle, her parents forgotten and unnecessary–that’s the image that will stay with me now.

It makes me wonder what I’ve forgotten from all those other books I read as a voracious kid, prowling the stacks for something new, something more, and what the person I am now owes to the books I read then.

Review: Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Remember Eliza Dushku and Kirsten Dunst in Bring It On? Well, Beth would have eaten them both for breakfast, if she actually ate solid food. Beth is the captain of the varsity cheer squad and Addy Hanlon, the narrator of Dare Me, is her bad lieutenant, her wingman since grade school. Until a new coach arrives, a pretty, young and absolutely unflappable woman who poses a serious threat to Beth’s reign. As Addy’s allegiances shift, Beth ups the stakes, with shocking consequences.

Addy wants to be a good friend and a good cheerleader, she wants to assuage Beth and please Coach French, she wants to be loved. She doesn’t, she claims, want to be the Top Girl, the flyer, the cheerleader launched into the air in the most dangerous stunt in the squad’s routine. There’s nothing I love more than an unreliable narrator; with Addy, you have to wonder if we are all unreliable narrators, even–or especially–when we are telling stories to ourselves.

This novel also works on another level, as a terrifying cautionary tale for parents: see what influence a trusted adult in a position of authority might have on your impressionable child? Yet Coach is also a tragic figure. She is excellent at what she does, if only she were using her power for the good. I couldn’t help but think of the Coach on Friday Night Lights, the influence he wielded and the way he tried to give his players what they needed to be better people, not just better football players. Coach French, unfortunately, has an aching vacuum inside her where her moral compass should be; she is not in a position to offer guidance on any subject beyond how to finally master that standing back tuck. It was painful to watch Addy seek the approval and attention of Coach French, and it made me wonder how her parents could be so absent in her life.

Abbott conjures up the emotional riptides inside her teenage narrator with such finesse and skill that it was dizzying to come up for air and realize I had four kids and needed to make something for dinner. My only regret is not starting this book on a weekend when I could have read it straight through, with no breaks for reality.

Genre: Psychological thriller about teenagers you’ll want to hide from your teenager.

Read it if:  You loved Gone, Girl by Gillian Flynn, you love writing that sizzles, you were a cheerleader, or you were never a cheerleader.

Skip it if: You have a teenage daughter who’s a cheerleader and you’re on any sort of heart medication.<

Movie-worthy: Yes! This would make a great movie. I recommend a little Sleigh Bells on the soundtrack.

Why I Love: Paolo Bacigalupi

When I first read The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi’s extraordinary novel set in a dystopian future Bangkok, I couldn’t believe how original and astonishing it was. I lived in Bangkok for three years and had just left the city for a two-year stint in the U.S. when this book was published. Reading it was like returning to Thailand, not to the city as I’d left it, but to a terrifyingly plausible vision of the future.

Imagine a world where elephants power machinery, where foot-treadle computers are the norm, where multinational corporations control the patent on almost every crop known to humanity. Bacigalupi perfectly captures the Thai sense of pride in never having been colonized; here the Thai people are a last refuge of hoarded genetically unique crops. One of the principle characters, an expat Calorie Man searching for unknown specimens, spots rambutan for sale on the street. I loved the specificity of that exotic fruit; it brought back memories of how my lips would go numb whenever I to eat the interior of a rambutan without removing it from its outer casing first.

The windup girl of the title is a Japanese-engineered automaton, a toy for the pleasure of wealthy businessmen. Stranded in Bangkok, she is a sideshow act at a seedy Thai bar, property despite her sentience. The designers included a herky-jerky stutter-stop motion in her movement so that no one will ever mistake her for human.

Books like The Windup Girl are the reason I read: to explore what it means to be human, to see the world I know in even the most foreign fictional universe, to be changed by another person’s vision. I can honestly say I will never forget this book. Bacigalupi’s more recent YA fiction, Shipbreaker and The Drowned Cities, share a dystopian setting, a future in which rising tides have changed the face of the world. Shipbreaker depicts a society in which children must risk their lives to salvage valuable materials from wrecked ships; The Drowned Cities imagines an America where partisan violence is the norm, and children are both soldiers and victims. Bacigalupi brilliantly takes the terrible realities that some children in the developing world face today and transposes them onto more familiar terrain, distorted but recognizable. I can’t wait to see what this author will imagine next.

Review: Fobbit by David Abrams

War viewed from a distance focuses only on the headline-making events, the clip on CNN, the returned soldier greeting his family, the death toll ticking inexorably upward. In his new comic novel set during the second war in Iraq, David Abrams follows the example set by Joseph Heller in Catch-22 and shows us another side of war: the absurdity, the relentless bureaucracy, the lose-lose situation. In other words, the view from inside a Forward Operating Base.

“Fobbits” work within the relative safety of the U.S. Army compound. Yet even there, death can still come screaming from the sky at any moment. The Fobbits experience the anxiety of genuine risk without earning any of the respect reserved for the “doorkickers” who regularly venture beyond the confines of the base to interact with the local population. Staff Sergeant Chance Gooding, Jr., who works in the public affairs office, is described as the “Fobbitiest” soldier on the base. He churns out meaningless press releases that have little effect on the tidal action of media coverage and spends every day sorting through accounts of casualties and deaths, his only goal to finish his deployment and leave Iraq alive. Meanwhile his pathetic superior officer, Lt Col Harkleroad, writes lengthy letters home to his mother, extolling his own (fictional) bravery and planning his welcome home parade.

Unlike Harkleroad, Lt Col Vic Duret has no interest in glamorizing his service in Iraq. He is tormented by vicious migraines and visions of his brother-in-law’s horrific death on 9/11. Every atom of his being is focused on keeping it together until he can return home to his wife and his dog. He holds on to their images as he alternates between meaningless meetings in air-conditioned rooms and adrenalin-charged missions outside the walls of the FOB.

And then there’s Abe Shrinkle. Captain Shrinkle is chock full of patriotism and meaningless aphorisms, but also completely incompetent and unworthy of the soldiers under his command. His actions and failures drive the plot; everyone around him has to deal with the consequences of his haplessness and ineptitude.

Abrams masterfully captures the jargon of military life and maintains a comic tone that keeps the tragic events of the novel bearable. His most amazing accomplishment is that he paints a picture of the war in Iraq that is both funny and painfully real, absurd and yet all too believable.

Genre: Modern war comedy of the absurd

Read it if: You thought The Hurt Locker should have been funnier.

Skip it if: You dislike references to the digestive tract, orifices, severed limbs, cursing, etc, or if your favorite movie of all time is John Wayne in The Green Berets (not ironically.)

Movie-worthy: Maybe if the Coen brothers directed…

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Review: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Last week I casually mentioned on Facebook that I hadn’t read The Shadow of the Wind, and within 24 hours friends from every stage of my life chimed in to express their disbelief. How could I, known bibliophile, not have read this book? Sensing my avid reader street cred was on the line, I dug through my to-be-read piles until I found the battered copy of the book I’d picked up in Bangkok five years ago. Would it really live up to the expectations raised by my friends’ enthusiastic comments?

For the most part, yes. A gothic, twisty tale set in post-war Barcelona, The Shadow of the Wind has it all: mystery, tragedy, romance, and just a touch of the supernatural. The hand of fate is at work when young Daniel Sempere first entersa secret library known as the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and chooses a volume entitled The Shadow of the Wind from the shelf. His quest to discover more about the author, Julian Carax, embroils him in a decades-old story of lost love and seething vengeance. It is not for nothing that an exquisite pen featured in the plot is said to have belonged to Victor Hugo; the plot clearly draws inspiration from Hugo’s work.

Lyrical descriptions and a story infused with the love of books made The Shadow of the Wind nearly irresistible. I could have wished for a slightly more final ending, however. Instead, the end of the novel reminded me of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace; okay, it’s over, no wait, not yet, now it’s over, nope, wrong again. Drawing out the end may have been intended to fake out the reader as to the fate of a particular character, but if so, it didn’t work for me.

That leaves the final question: what is the shadow of the wind? I suspect it’s meant to suggest the unseen forces at work in our lives, invisible but powerful, casting a shadow on the lives of future generations. The title also has the unfortunate effect of triggering the theme song from Pocahantas in my head every time I hear it. (Yes, I know that’s “Colors of the Wind,” but that’s just how my brain works.)

In short, I’m glad I finally read this book and I sincerely wish I’d read it before I knew it was supposed to be amazing. I think I would have enjoyed it even more.

Genre: Twisty gothic bibliophile mystery

Read it if: You love reading books about books; your favorite books are The Hunchback of Notre Dame or The Name of the Rose; or you don’t want to lose face in front of your bookish friends.

Skip it if: You have trouble keeping track of lots of characters with foreign-sounding names, you are easily confused, or you want everyone to have a happy ending.

Movie-worthy: Possibly. It would probably be a baffling, artsy movie with subtitles. Everyone would say the book was better.

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