The Gone-Away World

gone away worldI’m in a dilemma, and I blame Jeanne, the non-necromancer, almost entirely. My problem is this: Jeanne read Nick Harkaway’s stunningly great book The Gone-Away World years ago, and has been steadily plugging along at convincing the rest of us to read it ever since. I finally thought, Oh well, why not — not actually believing it would be that great, to be honest — and was made, within a couple of chapters, into a complete convert. This book went all in to be funny and skewed and angry and surprising and weird and suspenseful and interesting about human relationships, and I got caught in the slipstream and didn’t want to surface until I’d finished it (and it’s something of a door-stopper, too, at nearly 600 pages.)

My dilemma is that I can’t seem to describe it in a way that makes other people want to read it. It’s so purely enjoyable that I can’t be as analytical as I’d like, and then I sound all gushy, but it’s a strange enough scenario (and a loose enough plot) that I can’t seem to describe it appealingly for people who don’t usually read this sort of thing. Let me try, though: I’ve put it off long enough, and honestly I’m dying for more people to read this novel.

Imagine a world in which we had invented a weapon that didn’t kill our enemies, exactly — it simply made them go away, erasing chunks of reality by stripping matter and energy of its organizing principle, information. Great idea, right? (I’m shaking my head vigorously. No. Not a great idea.) The book opens in a near-future post-apocalyptic scenario in which the Go-Away War has created monsters: matter and energy seek whatever information they can find to re-organize, and terrible, painful, sometimes murderous mutations result. The narrator and his friends, including the charismatic Gonzo Lubitch, have been  given the task of fixing the Jorgmund Pipe, which sprays a chemical onto the Gone Away areas, protecting the “real” world from the mutants.

But there’s more to the Pipe, and to the Jorgmund company, and to the Go Away War, and to the narrator and his friends, than it may seem. Once the world is established, Harkaway takes us back in time: the boys’ lifelong friendship, their time at university, their military service, marriage, the war, and more. (More, you ought to know, includes kung fu masters, ninjas, arson, mimes, spies, killer bees, love affairs, and pirates, and I’m not exaggerating and I’m probably forgetting something and it mostly all makes sense. The digressions are at least half the pleasure in this book.)

There’s more to this book than the almost incredible pile of plot of it, too. The Gone-Away World is fiercely angry about corporations and committee decisions about human life: the more you’re invested in them, it says, the less you are an individual, and the less you care about anything but the company’s interests. This book urges you, as a reader, to take up anything — any interest at all, from kung fu to killer bees — that makes you a better individual and better able to make your own moral decisions under unbearable pressure. It’s about honor, and sacrifice, and longing, but it’s also about grifting an impossibly expensive suit so you can fit in at a high-level corporate meeting with your… um… suit-fu.

Harkway’s prose is a total delight. I would never have believed that I could read a 600-page post-apocalyptic anti-war anti-corporation novel about university and mutants and the reality of human interaction and love, infused with a kung fu/ mime/ pirate sensibility, and feel as if some combination of Vonnegut and P.G. Wodehouse had written it. It was funny as hell, and also poignant, and able to see things in a fresh way, and I just don’t ask for much more.

This book surprised me. The plot surprised me: there’s a moment when there’s a Big Reveal and I hadn’t seen it coming even a tiny bit, and I just had to sit and laugh and cry a little and go “Wow,” and that’s rare. And the glorious prose surprised me, and I was surprised how often I laughed. I wanted to recommend it to everyone, but I can’t seem to pique anyone’s interest. Read it. READ IT. You won’t be sorry — it’s so interesting — and you might be as glad as I was; it’ll certainly make my top 5 of the year. So — actually — am I blaming Jeanne, or thanking her? Thanking her, I think. Thank you, Jeanne.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 24 Comments

Claire of the Sea Light

Claire of the Sea LightAlthough marketed as a novel, Edwidge Danticat’s newest book reads more like a collection of linked stories. Each of the stories could stand almost entirely on its own, but together, the stories are more powerful than they would be apart.

The opening story tells of a 7-year-old girl named Claire Limyè Lanmè Faustin whose mother died when she was born and whose father is now trying to send her to a new home with the wealthy cloth vendor, Madame Gaëlle. But Claire disappears before the move can be finalized, and the book turns to other characters in the seaside town of Ville Rose in Haiti. Everyone in the town seems to know everyone else, and the local radio station, with its gossipy talk shows, shapes much of town life.

In each chapter, we get to know a different character and often come to see with fresh eyes situations previously depicted. The stories are not presented in chronological order, so the book jumps around in time. Often, events depicted in a later chapter transform the reader’s understanding of an earlier one. In that respect, the stories depend on each other for their power. Together, they also allow readers to see many different ways of coping with death and loss. There’s no single Haitian way. These characters are individual, and so are there stories.

Still, although I can see how the combination of perspectives makes each story more powerful, I found myself unable to engage with the book as a whole. It is, I’m sorry to say, one of those dreaded “meh” reads. There was nothing I could put my finger on as a problem, but I couldn’t bring myself to care a great deal about these people. I think the non-chronological order, together with the fragmented nature of the narrative, kept me from feeling immersed in the town’s overall story. I couldn’t keep enough of these people in my mind or watch their development over time. The story felt disjointed, even if the book is thematically coherent with its emphasis on death and loss.

I have read short story collections that I admire quite a lot, so the problem is not that these are stories where I wanted a novel. I think, for me, the issue may be that the book is neither a novel nor a short story collection, and therefore I couldn’t work out how to approach what I was reading. I like Danticat’s writing very much, but I’d be much quicker to recommend her first novel, Breath, Eyes, Memory, over this one.

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The Passion of New Eve

Passion of New EveEvelyn is an Englishman in a violent, rat-infested New York, a city nothing like his dreams:

The first thing I saw when I came out of the Air Terminal was, in a shop window, an obese plaster gnome squatly perched on a plaster toadstool as it gnawed a giant plaster pie. Welcome to the country where Mouth is King, the land of comestibles! The next thing I saw were rats, black as buboes, gnawing at a heap of garbage. And the third thing was a black man running down the middle of the road as fast as he could go, screaming and clutching his throat; an unstoppable cravat, red in colour and sticky, mortal, flowed out from beneath his fingers. A burst of gunfire; he falls on his face. The rats abandon their feast and scamper towards him, screaming.

Instead of the glamorous film star of his dreams, Tristesse de St. Ange, Evelyn finds a woman who draws him to her room. There this succubus, Leilah, takes the punishment Evelyn believes she deserves, the victimization she was born for. Their brief relationship, with its ongoing exchanges of power (or so Evelyn says) ends with pain and blood and a baleful triumph as Evelyn takes off for a drive across the country.

That drive takes Evelyn to an underground desert land called Beulah, where a woman who has made herself a goddess called Mother decides to make Evelyn the bearer of her new world. Redubbed Eve, our protagonist must consider a fate previously unimaginable.

To say this novel by Angela Carter is strange is putting it mildly. Eve’s odyssey through her new identity and the new version of America keeps readers in a state of unease throughout. I’m struggling to even know how to describe the central character, sometimes Evelyn and sometimes Eve, sometimes he and sometimes she, both and neither. At first, Evelyn doesn’t know how to explain his (her?) identity either:

I would say that, at this time, I was literally in two minds; my transformation was both perfect and imperfect. All of New Eve’s experience came through two channels of sensation, her own fleshly ones and his mental ones.

What happens to Eve is different from merely making a man feel a woman’s experiences. Eve still has Evelyn’s mind. Yet living in his new Eve’s body causes changes in that mind.

Although I was a woman, I was now also passing for a woman, but, then, many women born spend their whole lives in just such imitations.

To what extent do our performances of gender constitute passing? The pressure to conform to gender norms is strong, so strong that many will conform despite their inclination. I’m sure there are some fascinating trans readings of this book, but this sense of passing resonates from a cis perspective as well, inasmuch as we might conform to social expectations of our gender even when we don’t feel naturally inclined to. Gender, in this book, seems to be very much about our relationship to others—but the book is unclear about the extent to which this is so. Calling a person a man doesn’t make that person a man, but can making a person act like a man make that person a man? I don’t think Carter answers any of these questions definitively, but she seems to allow for some degree of fluidity in gender. I like that she doesn’t nail her view down. Given that the book was written in 1977, the discussion doesn’t feel altogether dated as awareness of trans people is growing. The book seems like it can shift with the times as understandings change.

The gender issues the book raises are what makes the book work for me, but the depiction of a dystopian America at war is less successful. I couldn’t wrap my brain around what Carter was doing here. As Eve takes her odyssey around the western U.S., she has experiences that feel like they’re supposed to mean something, but they don’t go anywhere. It’s just one set of oddball images after another. A revolving house, a band of young soldiers headed to California, and old woman on a beach. Her descriptions are potent, but I’m not sure what the potion is supposed to do. The last few chapters of the book were occupied with these images, plus a much too on-the-nose bit of birth imagery, and the good stuff was left behind.

Yet even in those muddy final pages, I found myself thinking of William Butler Yeats’s “The Second Coming,” a poem (one of my all-time favorites) in which “things fall apart” and “the center cannot hold.” Evelyn becomes Eve—the categories many consider basic seem to be slipping—and “mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” As Eve rises out of the desert, is there a “rough beast” that “slouches toward Bethlehem to be born?”

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 5 Comments

The Orphan Master’s Son

Orphan masters sonMy literary journey through North Korea continues, this time with a novel, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son. Part memoir, part biography, and part propaganda, the novel takes readers to the center of power in North Korea, as it follows Pak Jun Do from the Long Tomorrows orphanage and work camp to the underground offices of Kim Jong-il.

The story of Jun Do’s early years makes up the first half of the book. It’s a seemingly straightforward telling, although Jun Do rarely seems to understand just what he’s doing and why. He’s plucked from a work detail and trained to become a kidnapper, then a radio operator at a listening post on a boat, and finally a member of a diplomatic mission to Texas. At each assignment, Jun Do does what he’s asked and tries to avoid trouble—or at least that’s the story he tells. For Jun Do, the right story is the key to survival. That’s how things work in North Korea. Dr. Song, one of Jun Do’s companions on the journey to Texas, explains:

“Where we are from,” he said, “stories are factual. If a farmer is declared a music virtuoso by the state, everyone had better start calling him maestro. And secretly, he’d be wise to start practicing the piano. For us, the story is more important than the person. If a man and his story are in conflict, it is the man who must change.” Here, Dr. Song took a sip of juice, and the finger he lifted trembled slightly. “But in America, it is the man who matters. Perhaps they will believe your story and perhaps not, but you, Jun Do, they will believe you.”

Jun Do’s gift is being able to adapt to the stories being told around and about him and even guide the story in a direction of his choosing. The state decides he’s a kidnapper, so he is. He and his shipmates decide he’s a hero, and the state approves, so he’s a hero.

In the last half of the book, though, we see the story change. Here, a North Korean interrogator begins telling the story of a man named Commander Ga, a Taekwondo champion, husband of North Korea’s greatest actress, and friend of Kim Jong-il. Commander Ga is now in the interrogator’s chair… or is he? Our narrator cannot be sure. His colleagues insist that the man is an imposter, but their note stating “Is not Commander Ga” gets an immediate answer that says just “Is Commander Ga.” So the interrogator proceeds to extract “Commander Ga’s” story from him—and this story picks up where Jun Do’s left off.

The interrogator’s account is interspersed with chapters breathlessly addressed to “Citizens!” These daily announcements are the venue for sharing the year’s “Best North Korean Story.” This “true story of love and sorrow, of faith and redemption, and of the Dear Leader’s unending dedication to even the lowliest citizen of this great nation” stars none other than Commander Ga.

The drama of the book becomes not just what will happen to the characters but which story will win out. In fact, part of the book’s cleverness rests in how it’s not clear which victory is most important. If a good man lives, but his story is co-opted by the state, is it a victory? Is there a way for a citizen to control the story?

The previous books I’ve read about North Korea show how important the control of information is to controlling the people. The characters in this book seem to have a tacit understanding of what’s going on. Some of this is due to their station in society. If you’ve been to Japan, it’s not hard to figure out there was no Arduous March there. But it’s easier to believe there was. Even those who aren’t so get glimmers of the truth, but it’s hard to hold onto it. Parents will quietly share reassuring stories of inner rebellion with their children, but years of not being able to speak those stories aloud make it easy to forget them when those children are adults.

As readers, immersed in multiple, conflicting stories, we’re left uncertain of which events happened and which events are true. Events that actually happened may not be remembered, and events so preposterous they could not have happened may become implanted in people’s minds. So which story is true? In a topsy-turvy way, this book is a testament to the power of story. Stories shape the truth—and not just in North Korea.

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Among Others

Among_OthersJo Walton’s Among Others is the 1979 diary of Mori, a 15-year-old Welsh girl. As we gradually pick up bits of her history (because who would write down an entire narrative in a private diary?), we learn that she and her twin sister stopped her mentally-ill mother from ruling the world through black fairy magic, but that they suffered an accident in which Mori’s sister was killed and her own leg was severely injured. We also learn that Mori is a constant reader, mostly science fiction and fantasy but also history and classic literature. And that those two things — the fairy magic and the books — are equally important, equally serious, equally real — in her life.

As the book opens, Mori has been sent to an English boarding school, because her mother is no longer fit to care for her (if she ever was.) She has hours free to read, because she can’t participate in games and her lessons are easy for her, and many of her diary entries consist of brief analyses of the SF books she’s consuming wholesale. (There are never any plot summaries — only social, ethical, and stylistic questions that arise. If you haven’t read the book she’s discussing, you’re very much invited to.) But she’s an outsider, and completely alone, not knowing how to access her familiar magic (in Wales, fairies speak Welsh, but they won’t speak to her here in England at all) or how to make friends or where to look for people who like the same things she does. She needs wisdom and protection, and at first she finds it nowhere. Eventually, through magic (or not — this is left completely ambiguous), Mori finds a community, advisors, and new strength, but she still has to count on her own power to serve her in a final conflict with her mother’s dark forces.


I was trying to think through the difference between magic and not-magic in this book. It’s a bit tricky to determine. It’s not as if, for instance, books are “real life” and magic is separate from that. Walton establishes firmly that magic doesn’t exist without a deep connection to the real world: food you’ve cooked yourself, for instance, or blood, or trees and plants, or wild land that hasn’t been turned into a regulated common. It also has to do with language and belief; so, obviously, do books. Books are a solace and a joy in an otherwise isolated life. They are proof that there are authors whose minds happily meet our own, and proof that there must be other readers, too, who love the same books for the same reasons we do. That real connection is the same kind of connection we have with food, or blood, or land. So is it a sort of magic? Walton offers, I think, the idea that both writing and reading are magic, in a way, and reach back down to a rootedness and connectedness that can refresh and save us, however strong or isolated we are. Yet fairies aren’t actually people, and neither are books. We do need both (books and people, I mean, not fairies and books.)

I didn’t think this novel was flawless. Walton did maybe too good a job making the fairy magic seem ordinary and everyday to us, since it was something Mori grew up with. Then when we came on a really dramatic moment, such as at Halloween or at the end, the strangeness seemed over-the-top: why now? Why wouldn’t Mori know how to handle it? I really liked the discussion of the ethics of magic, but it seemed interestingly out of context for fairy magic, since (as far as I know) fairies have no ethics. I’d have liked to see some discussion of that. And (perhaps on a smaller scale) was Mori’s book-loving boyfriend, Wim, supposed to be a good guy? I thought he was kind of a jerk. Hang in there, Mori, you can do better.

Overall, however, I thought this was a wonderful novel. The tone was perfect, and it was such a joy to see all the books Mori was reading, and her eventual shift from someone alone, isolated by circumstance and pain, to someone connected to a larger community of friends and family, and all through books. It felt like a myth: Persephone coming through hell to be mostly safe on the other side, just a little pomegranate juice on her sleeve. I’m very glad I read it, and I still feel the happy resonance.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 20 Comments

The Taste of Sorrow

Taste of SorrowNow that I’ve read all seven novels by the Brontë sisters, I am proceeding to books about them. First up is Jude Morgan’s wonderful novel about their lives. As far as I can tell, not having read any biographies of the sisters, Morgan hews closely to the known facts about the Brontës, but this book feels like a novel, not a biography. (I’ve seen it called a “fictional biography,” a term that seems like a contradiction, yet fits this book perfectly.)

Morgan begins with the death of Maria Branwell Brontë, mother of six children and wife of Patrick, an Anglican clergyman from Ireland who is now left with a family he can’t quite figure out how to manage:

Six motherless children to be educated and provided for; five of them girls, with no money to entice husbands. A dark lake of future, and sailing we cannot see the banks.

The three eldest daughters, Maria, Elizabeth, and Charlotte, are sent to a charity school for clergyman’s daughters at Cowan Bridge, later to be followed by Emily. Those who’ve read Jane Eyre will recognize the place immediately. Later, Charlotte will remark that the girls at Cowan Bridge had no voice, but years later, she could speak for them in her depiction of Lowood. Only at Lowood, we watch only one child die. Charlotte lost both her older sisters through a typhus outbreak at the school.

Other echoes from the novels appear throughout Morgan’s book, but Morgan wisely does not attempt to manufacture real-life models for all of the people and events in the novels. The echoes here are known pieces of the sisters’ biographies. We recognize Constantin Héger as Charlotte’s Professor and one of Anne’s charges as Agnes Grey’s Tom Broomfield. But there’s no obvious Edward Rochester or Heathcliff analogue. Neither is Charlotte a precise copy of Jane Eyre or Lucy Snowe or Emily of Catherine Earnshaw. Readers who know the novels well may spot a reference to a tree split down the middle or a mention of madness being like an attic, but these moments are treated as asides, as mere Easter eggs for those in the know to see and smile at. The focus instead is on the minds that created Jane and Catherine and Shirley and Helen Graham of Wildfell Hall.

And these are great minds, each one different from the other. That is something else Morgan does well. The three sisters—and their brother Branwell—are all individuals, and Morgan’s imagining of their personalities fits the works they produce. Charlotte worries over doing the right thing and fears for all their futures. Emily wants nothing other than to be alone. And Anne just does the right thing, even when it’s painful, without putting up a fuss. Charlotte’s view dominates, perhaps because she lived the longest and was more open about her story, but each sister is significant. Anne and Emily get roughly equal attention, and Branwell nearly as much. (The U.S. publishers made the mistake of renaming the novel Charlotte and Emily, sidelining Anne in a way that Morgan does not. I’m glad I got my copy in England, so I can have a copy with the more appropriate title.)

The sisters are individuals, but they influenced each other, as anyone who’s read their books could see. This is not a story of three individuals but of a family of writers. Watching their writing develop from fantasy play to a vague idea in the back of Charlotte’s mind to a genuine secret plan was a great pleasure. Morgan takes his time getting to this point, and there are years of separation between those early tales of Angria and Gondal and their first steps toward publication. As they gather around the table, sharing poems with an eye toward possibly making a collection, they have no idea how momentous the moment is:

At first, an incredible shyness—as if they are thrown back to being children and seeing each other undressed or bathing. They say nothing, or they say nothings; that’s a pretty line, that’s a sad one. And then they truly begin to talk, because they have to, because they have always had to since the days of the Twelves and the Genii, whenever words and images and dreams are at stake.

Emily’s so powerful. Almost oppressively so sometimes: you seem to feel the weight of the thought like a slab across you. Well: Emily not displeased. (Emily almost forgiving Charlotte but still determined that this sharing is the end of sharing, that they take this exposure no further. Charlotte tacitly acquiescing, but still prodding and shepherding along.) In Anne’s, such melancholy. It disturbs, knowing her quietness, her straightness of regard, all the time, this, unsuspected—but why didn’t one feel the shudder, hear the sigh? Well, sometimes in writing one takes oneself off like a garment, says Anne. Not so Charlotte. She knows it. Her work is bulbous and misshapen with self, as she sees it. Sometimes it shines, but sometimes the shine is the scaly glimmer of decay.

Of course, Charlotte does manage to convince Emily to take their writing public, but with the pseudonyms Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. At each step, future success seems near impossible, but they persevere, and so some of the greatest novels in the English language were written. I admit to tearing up a bit when Charlotte, after seeing her first novel rejected, sits by her father’s bedside after surgery and comes up with the idea for Jane Eyre: “Time to make a noise,” she thinks. And what a noise they made!

Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction | 10 Comments

The Murder Farm

Murder FarmThis novel by German author Andrea Maria Schenkel and translated by Anthea Bell begins with a foreword in which an unnamed narrator writes of spending the summer after the war with relatives in the country:

During those weeks, that village seemed to me an island of peace. One of the last places to have survived intact after the great storm that we had just weathered.

Years later, when life had gone back to normal and that summer was only a happy memory, I read about the same village in the paper.

My village had become the home of “the murder farm,” and I couldn’t get the story out of my mind.

With mixed feelings, I went back.

The book that follows is made up of the recollections of people the unnamed narrator spoke to about the Danner farm, now the notorious murder farm. Neighbors remember the family that lived there and what they saw in the days leading up to the tragic event that gave the farm its new name. Other chapters show the events as they happened, as experienced by the people who were there. Only gradually do we, the readers, learn what happened.

The novel is based on a real-life unsolved crime in rural Bavaria in the 1920s. Schenkel keeps the farm in Bavaria, but in the fictional village of Tannöd (the German title of the novel). And instead of setting it in the 1920s, she places it in the 1950s, which allows her to incorporate the characters’ musings on the recent war and the horrors they experienced then into the story.

It’s a short novel, taut and suspenseful and possible to read in just one or two sittings. Its structure is ingenious, building slowly toward revealing exactly what the crime was and how it happened. The gruesome details about the murders are doled out carefully, often beginning with a character disappearing behind a door, not to be seen again for many chapters. The doom feels certain, but is it? What did happen? Interspersed among the chapters are selections from a prayer book, adding weight with its pleas for God to “Be merciful unto them! Spare them, O Lord!” We cry along with the prayers as we watch a child walk down a hallway or a young maid going to bed. Could there be hope for them?

The family at the center of the novel was not well liked. The family was the subject of gossip, and it seems that there was good reason. Old Danner was said to have been cruel to the Polish girl who was assigned to their farm as a foreign worker and committed suicide in their barn. There were rumors of incest, and the paternity of daughter Barbara’s two children was murky. The prayers start to feel different. Frau Danner held a worn old prayer book in her hands and says her faith is the only thing that kept her going. Are these her prayers?

This is a chilling book, dark, disturbing, and delicious. It’s the first of Schenkel’s novels and has just been published in the United States. Four of her five novels have been translated into English and published (or about to be published) in the UK. I hope more of them make their way here quickly.

Review copy received through Netgalley

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 15 Comments

By Blood We Live

by blood we liveBy Blood We Live is the third in Glen Duncan’s massively entertaining, literate, philosophical, funny, heart-stoppingly suspenseful, sexy trilogy about vampires and werewolves. (You can find here on this very site my reviews of The Last Werewolf and Talulla Rising.) This book picks up at the very moment the last left off, as if we had only paused between novels to take a long, shuddering, gasping breath between bloody bites of a werewolf’s meal, and then the plot immediately explodes into silver bullets and long-awaited destiny and magical cures and Militi Christi (a branch of the Catholic Church devoted to killing vampires and werewolves, because of course) and dreams literally coming true and kidnappings and and and.

Once again, this book is frantically fast-paced, not leaving us an instant to rest, and like every good horror novel, it’s frightening. But Duncan has done a mind-blowingly great job at causing us to root for the team of monsters and murderers, not quite without reflecting on it, but because we understand them. Rarely are they unsympathetic, except when they’re selfish or greedy or indifferent to each other, just as anyone might be. They may not be exactly human, but they’re as human as un-humans will ever be.

In addition to this depth and complexity and the nonstop hailstorm of the plot, Duncan spends time asking some questions about the real meaning of life. In The Last Werewolf, Jake Marlowe (age 201 and counting) was exhausted with simply being, and only wanted to die. In Talulla Rising, Talulla Demetriou has every reason to live, and wants only to know whether she, in her new state as a werewolf, will be so consumed by her irreversible lunar hunger that she’ll be a danger to those she loves. Is there a meaning greater even than natural needs? In this third book, the oldest vampire in the world (20,000 years old, if you were wondering) and Talulla herself, one convinced that there’s greater meaning to life and one convinced that there’s nothing out there but a mathematical void, come together to discover ancient prophecies, transcendent joy, and something bigger than either of them. This larger, philosophical bent to the books, along with their clever literary and cultural references, makes them feel like treasure hunts. They might not be worth reading if they weren’t so well-written, funny and literate. But they are. Their flaws are hardly worth mentioning — a bit of purple prose here and there, a plot that’s a little overstuffed, fairly explicit sex that didn’t bother me but might bother some. Meh. Who cares?

I’m sorry I’m done with this trilogy. I gobbled these up, giggling aloud with pleasure. If this seems like something you might be even faintly interested in, I do heartily recommend  them; they were such a joy.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 4 Comments

Secret Son

SecretSonYoussef El Mekki, the main character in this novel by Laila Lalami, lives in the slums of Casablanca with his mother. His father, a fourth-grade teacher, died when Youssef was only two, so his memories of him are few and faint. He is close to his mother, has friends in the neighborhood, and loves to go see movies in the neighborhood’s makeshift cinema, where old movies were shown and rats scurried about. Whatever was showing, Youssef would see it:

All his life, he had dreamed of becoming an actor. He had performed in the only play his high school had ever put on, a reenactment of the Green March, and he had spent long afternoons playing football, hoping to have the athletic chest that was appropriate for the moment when, shirtless, he would raise the Moroccan flag and lead his fellow civilians to reclaim the Spanish border post in the Sahara. He loved inhabiting the life of the hero, loved feeling his triumph, and when the audience applauded, a surge of euphoria, much like the one he had felt when he had tried hashish with Amin and Maati, ran through him. Of course, Youssef knew that his dream was unachievable—no different than wanting to win the lottery when you can’t even afford to buy a ticket—but it provided a refuge from the more sobering turns he knew he life would, by necessity, have to take: finish high school, go to university, and, with any luck, find a steady job that would finally get his mother and him out of Hay An Najat.

As planned, Youssef qualifies for university, but then his life takes an unexpected turn—or, rather, he learns that his life is never quite what he thought. His mother reveals that his father was actually a lawyer named Nabil Amrani who she met when she was in training to become a nurse. She tells Youssef that he died before they could get married, and she had to leave her training in disgrace. However, Youssef soon learns that wasn’t true—that Nabil Amrani is alive and wealthy. Realizing that his life as Youssef El Mekki is altogether different from the life he could have had as Youssef Amrani, he decides to seek out his father and become the person he was meant to be: “If he could be Youssef Amrani, he would not have to play any part at all. He could be, at long last, himself.

At first, Nabil Amrani welcomes Youssef into his life, or at least into part of it, and Youssef becomes that other person. He lives in a fine apartment, begins working at his father’s hotel, and waits patiently for his father to tell his family about his secret son. Nabil, having just become estranged from his daughter, seems prepared to make Youssef part of his family.

Lalami spends most of her time focusing on Youssef, but we do get glimpses into other characters’ minds. We learn how Nabil really feels about his son, and we spend several chapters with Nabil’s daughter, Malika, who is attending college in America. The characters in this book are trying to take control of their lives, but they cannot. At first glance, it seems that the power differential is about rich versus poor, but that doesn’t quite work. Nabil cannot do what he wants, although the effects are less devastating for him than for people from the slums. Wealth brings options, but it doesn’t bring control.

Information seems to be the real source of power. The poor of Casablanca attempt to improve their lot through demonstrations, but arrests and swift and the media quiet. If no one knows of their demonstrations, do they even matter? But Youssef’s mother, poor as she is, controls Youssef’s fate throughout his life, based on what she chooses to tell and whom she chooses to tell it to. Youssef’s mother is perhaps the most interesting character in the book, and I would have liked more time in her head. Her motivations, guided always by love, seem so pure, but there’s a selfishness in her way of loving. Love, too, is a source of power, and it must be wielded with care.

As the political situation heats up toward the end of the book, the role of knowledge becomes paramount. Those who have knowledge are dangerous—they are targets and potential saviors, depending on your point of view. The final chapters, which focus on Youssef’s growing involvement with political causes, move too swiftly and screech to a too-sudden stop. The family drama, with little warning, becomes a political drama. And one with a tricksy ending. It fits thematically with the whole notion of manipulation and role-playing and knowledge, but there was insufficient lead-up to the final events, and they felt like a tacked-on shock ending. This is a short book, and a few chapters with Youssef’s friends or even with Youssef as his joins their cause would have helped it feel more organic to the story told throughout, more like The Lowland or Half of a Yellow Sun where family drama and political drama coalesce seamlessly. The seam was too evident here.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

Persian Fire

persian fireTom Holland introduces Persian Fire, his amazingly great book about the war between the Persian Empire and Greece, by pointing out that questions about these factions, these ways of being, and these cultures are still relevant today. Osama bin Laden interpreted East-West relations in the light of the Crusades; those Crusades had distant roots in nothing less than the first world empire under Xerxes and its almost-successful attempt to take the nascent democracy of Greece as it had taken so many other lands. Holland points out that great odds defied are always exciting, but even more so when the odds are stupendously high: Greece, at that point, was a ragbag bunch of city-states addicted to fighting each other. To wealthy, cultured, and enormously mighty Persia, the outcome must have looked like a foregone conclusion: the inchoate project of democracy shattered, much that made Greece distinctive gone, Greece’s legacy to Rome altered and diminished.

So how did it happen that a little terrorist fringe state of the Persian Empire fought back and won? Read Holland’s book. He’ll tell you, as if he’s sitting on the edge of his seat and recounting the world’s most interesting story (with footnotes and end notes.) He’ll explain how the Persians went from being a nothing little tribe in southern Iran to being the first enormous world power, over Egypt and Israel and dozens of other wealthy and powerful countries. (Hint: tactical use of religious tolerance.) He’ll tell you about voting in Athens, and the unbelievable weirdness that was Sparta (you should read how proud they were of their disgusting food), and the oracle at Delphi and how that actually worked.

And all of that is fascinating. But it pales in comparison to the moment when the Persians come down like the wolf on the fold, and all the stories Herodotus has to tell us about that. There’s King Leonidas with his 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae, for instance: Xerxes sent to tell him that if he would surrender the pass, he would make him king of all Greece. “So lay down your weapons!” the messengers said. “Come and take them,” said Leonidas. Really. He really said that. And he and his tiny band of warriors held that pass against one of the greatest military forces ever assembled, and held it, and held it, and were finally beaten only by treachery.

Tom Holland tells these stories brilliantly, both as history and as narrative. The only thing that even briefly annoyed me was that he kept talking about privileges (such as voting) that were extended to “all citizens,” such a change for them and so broad-based, and didn’t take the trouble to spell out that citizenship was severely limited. (Only about 30-45,000 of Athenian citizens out of 300,000 people could vote: adult freeborn males who had completed their military training and owed no disqualifying debt to the state.) Perhaps he thought we’d all know that, but I for one found it a little difficult to keep in the forefront of my mind. But this is such a minor complaint that I hesitate even to make it. The structure, the prose, the coruscating interest of the topic, are all such that I absolutely recommend it to everyone who’s even slightly drawn to it. And I am certainly going to read more of Tom Holland’s books.

I got the recommendation for this, years ago, from Jenny at Reading the End. Read her review, partly because Jenny’s reviews are always worth reading, and partly because she gives an outstanding usage of “sodomy” that ought to be more widely adopted. Thank you, Jenny!

Posted in History, Nonfiction | 6 Comments