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Thursday, October 17, 2019

Book Review: The Immortalists

The Immortalists, by Chloe Benjamin

Great books tell a great story. This one tells four.

How would you live if you knew the day you would die? Would it affect your lifestyle or career choice? Would you be more brazen or more cautious? How would your relationships change?

These are some of the questions the children of Saul and Gertie Gold must grapple with after they visit a fortune teller, who gives them the specific date of their deaths. Chloe Benjamin tells us their stories.

And geez, most are well told. I will admit, the novel dragged a bit in the middle, but that part gave readers lots of information about the family dynamics.

Varya, the oldest; Daniel, the practical one; Karla, the dreamer; and Simon, the lover of life, are the children of Jewish immigrants, growing up on the Lower East Side during the 1960s. One day, they hear about and visit the woman on Hester Street, who is said to be able to give you the date of your death. The children, in varying degrees, want to know their futures.

The book then delves into their lives, their choices, and their destinies. It explores how they face, or don't face, the world, and how they draw away from, and occasionally return to, their family and its rituals.

Some of the stories are a bit predictable. And sometimes, an exposition fairy magically reappears at just the right literary time to fill in the details.

But the high points of the book, and their emotive telling, easily overshadow these trivial complaints.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Book Review: Last Night in Montreal

Last Night in Montreal, by Emily St. John Mandel

This is a sad book about a lost soul, and about people whose ability to cope consists of running away. 

Back when she was a child, Lilia Albert's father abducted her. Well, perhaps abduct is too strong a word. Actually, he showed up at her house in the middle of the night, she went with him willingly, and both disappeared.

They spent their days driving around the United States and Canada, briefly living in motels and campgrounds, before heading out again. They lived on the road, changing their names and identities, rarely staying anywhere for more than a few days at a time. Lilia's father taught her wile he cruised the backroads. Freedom, to both of them, meant driving away.

Why this happened is not yet explained.

Then we fast-forward to the present day, and Lilia is living the hipster life in Brooklyn with Eli, an academic who is losing his taste for academia. One day, Lilia tells Eli she is going to the grocery store. As is her wont, she never returns. Eli, after getting word she is in Montreal, goes after her.

Thus, the scene is set for back-and-forth flashbacks of Lilia on the road, Eli trying to find her, the emerging backstory of her disappearance and years growing up, and the arrival of a private investigator with a growing obsession about finding her. It's a daring way to write a novel, stopping one character's perspective to bring in a second, then a third, and a fourth. But soon, you see them coming together to form a cohesive, compelling narrative.

It's a thoughtful tale about lonely people who only think about leaving, driving off, or running away. It's what they do. It's what they must do. It's not a coincidence that the book references Icarus, who, when given wings to fly, responded by taking it too far -- both literally and figuratively. Icarus, of course, met his end of getting too close to the sun, and suffering the consequences.

Lilia, Eli, and other characters, all of whom have taken a good idea too far, also meet the various consequences of their actions.

Saturday, October 5, 2019

Book Review: The Testaments

The Testaments, by Margaret Atwood

If you were riveted by The Handmaid's Tale, its sequel also will enthrall you.

I'm not sure I like the word sequel, which carries the inference of being somewhat lesser than the original. So consider this not a sequel, but a continuance of the first novel. Think of it as Part 2, the later years.

Because that's a better description of it.

I read The Handmaid's Tale back in the long, long ago, and saw the original movie. I have not watched the TV series for a number of reasons. But I remember the first book, which had a huge impact on me.

The Testaments provides a backstory as to how and why Gilead came into existence. It's setting is years into the Gilead regime, which solidified its control of the country once known as the United States. Opposition to the regime, both from Canada -- its neighbor to the north and the author of these novels -- and among the states that split off from the regime after various civil wars, has intensified.

This is today's story.

It is told in a multitude of voices, from a top aunt in the organization to members of the resistance, both inside and outside the country. Some of the voices are those of children, who only know Gilead after the revolution, as they are taught little about the previous life.

Those voices alternate in the book. Together, they tell a complete tale, but the individual accounts are compelling in their own right. What happens is you get into one person's story; the chapter ends, and you move into another's story. You immediately want to find out more about the story you were reading, but wind up so engrossed in the new one you get upset when that chapter ends, and a third story moves in, or a previous one returns.

So you find yourself staying up late into the evening to learn the next verse of each story, which together tell a complete tale.

Atwood is a wonderful story-teller and a top-notch writer. It's no wonder this book was short-listed for the Booker Prize. We'll know who wins the prize later this month.

My bet is on Atwood. Besides, anyone who quotes a William Blake poem is OK with me.

Saturday, September 28, 2019

Book Review: The Institute

The Institute, By Stephen King

The beginning of this book is wonderful, if a bit drawn out. It's the backstory of a guy who will return later in the tale, and you just know he's gonna be a good guy.

Then we hear about the Institute, a dark and shadowy (we never really learn) ... company? ... government entity? ... military operation? ... that kidnaps children for its own nefarious reasons. And we meet Luke Ellis, a 12-year-old genius from the Twin Cities, who is about to start attending MIT in Cambridge and nearby Emerson College in Boston to pursue separate degrees simultaneously. In a rare trope reversal, Luke is emotionally well adjusted and has perfect vision, without the need for dorky glasses. But Luke does have one outstanding characteristic -- a mild form of telekinesis, which means he sometimes can move things around by thinking about it. He's not great at it, but that could change.

Luke is kidnapped and taken to the Institute, where he meets and befriends the kids -- Kalisha, Nick, George, Iris, and others -- already there, who fill him in as best they can on what is going down. All of them are subjected to various physical and mental tests -- Stasi Lights, shots for dots, the kids call some of them -- for unknown reasons. Sometimes, the kids disappear to the Back Half of the building, but we are told little about that.

But about halfway through, things start to get thrillery, as the good guys and the bad guys run and chase the other. Kings displays some great writing, as usual, even when you feel a need to roll your eyes at some of the plot twists. He also depends on stereotypes -- even as he delights in pointing out some of his anti-stereotypes.

Slotting The Institute in the final place
 on the bottom shelf of my SK bookcase.
For instance, during a gun battle in a small southern town, residents come out of their houses, all carrying guns, and they know how to use them. "This is the South," they said.

And this King story continues to dabble in various conspiracy theories about the government, businesses, and the people -- although no one knows exactly who they are -- who are really running the country and controlling the world.

All in all, it's a basic King book. Not his best, and far from his worst. It has good writing -- if a bit overdone. It has decent characters, if a bit lazily developed. And it has a fine story -- even if you have sneaking suspicion that King wrote parts of it for his other books.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Book Review: The Woman Who Died A Lot

The Woman Who Died a Lot, by Jasper Fforde

This is Jasper Fforde at his best and his worst.

The writing is witty and wonderful. The story arcs are wild and unpredictable. The characters are well-drawn and seem exceedingly normal is an unnatural world.

The plot, is, well, bizarrely Ffordeian

This is book seven in the Thursday Next/Bookworld series. I've read them all, but my mistake was finding book number six, One of  Our Thursdays is Missing, and reading it first. That was a long time ago, and over the years, have read them in order. So I had a background before cracking this one open.

In some ways, it's a little too much Fforde. The plot is all over the place. So much is going on that trying to determine what is happening at any given moment is a special challenge. It's just better to let it all ride. Let me try to sort it out.

Thursday Next is home recuperating, in a forced retirement, after an assassination attempt at the end of the last book. But Thursday doesn't taken lying down lying down. God, now known as the one and only Global Diety, has come out of hiding and has been smiting towns (because he can). Thursday's hometown of Swindon is next on his list, so her daughter, Tuesday, a young scientific genius, is preparing an anti-smiting shield that may or may not work. (Ut depends on something called the Unentanglement Constant.) Thursday's son, Friday, has lost out on his future job as head of the force that polices time-travel because travelers to the future discover that time travel is impossible. Friday also knows he is destined to murder someone within a week and thus will spend most of his future in prison.

Meanwhile, lots of synthetic Thursdays keep showing up and replacing her. Also meanwhile, representatives of Goliath -- the company that either runs everything in this world or wants to -- keeps stealing obscure 13th century manuscripts. Thursday, in her prestigious (really) new job as chief librarian of Swindon's All-You-Can-Eat at Fatso's Drink Not Included Library, meets one of the thieves, Jack Schitt -- her nemesis throughout this seven-book series -- in her office. It leads to this conversation:

"'We don't often see any Goliath high-fliers in Swindon,' I added. 'What position are you on the ladder these days?'
'Ninety-one. The corporation rewards loyalty.'
'So? Starbucks rewards loyalty -- and they're not out to take over the world. Okay, that was a bad example. Tesco's rewards loyalty, and they're not out to ... Okay, that's a bad example, too. But you know what I mean.'"
Such is an example of the Welsh author's off-beat sense of humor. Here's another: Angry God's smiting of Swindon will center on the town cathedral. The City Council wonders how it will be replaced: "'The price of cathedrals is simply shocking these days, and insurance is impossible, as you know.' 'The "Act of God" clause?' 'Right'"

The town also takes its libraries seriously. Libraries have their own police forces, and the uniform includes combat fatigues, "replete with the distinctive camouflage pattern of book spines for blending into library spaces." Its chief in Swindon begged Thursday to sanction pre-dawn raids to collect on overdue books.

Like I said, sometimes a bit overdone. But don't worry. Fforde wraps things up nicely, although I am not sure if the series is ending -- this book was published in 2012, and Fforde has gone on to other books.

But you never know.