Tag Archives: fiction
“At Night We Walk in Circles: A Novel” by Daniel Alarcon
This novel takes place in an unnamed South American country during and after a civil war about three decades ago.
The most prominent feature of this novel is its “play within a play” structure. Everyone has a “real” identity, a “political” identity, a “theatrical” identity and maybe more. And NO ONE knows what’s going on, how to live, what he wants. Blunders and confusion abound. One comment I heard (in a book group) was “Where are the adults?” Maybe protracted warfare had completely destroyed any hope of “normal” life.
Two characters suffer unjust imprisonment. One is traumatized beyond recovery. We don’t learn the fate of the other.
One character is almost a blank. He’s there, for most of the action, but we never learn much about him. Sancho Panza?
Another structural feature of the novel is that the omniscient narrator gradually turns into a participant in the plot. Some readers found this too “cute” or a bit manipulative.
Alarcon (a Peruvian born US citizen, age 45, MacArthur Fellowship recipient) is a very vivid and dramatic writer, and I recommend him to anyone seeking to read outside the general run of recent American and European literature.
“The Last White Rose – a Novel of Elizabeth of York” by Alison Weir
Historical fiction is my guilty pleasure, and I’ve read extensively about the Wars of Roses and the Protestant Reformation in England. Elizabeth of York married Henry VII of the House of Lancaster, establishing the Tudor line through their son Henry VIII. Why read this when I know the outcome? Guess I’m just a sucker for royalty, castles, etc.
One controversy about Elizabeth of York is whether she was a reigning Queen (hence her husband’s equal) or a Queen consort. By blood, it can be argued that her claim to the throne was a strong as her husband’s, and that she should be considered Queen Elizabeth I. Royal sons and daughters weren’t considered equally in matters of succession.
Reading this book is a reminder that dirty tricks, political betrayal and “alternative facts” are nothing new in public life. The consequences were unpredictable – some turncoats were pardoned, others were tortured to death. Some disappeared. And the innocent suffered. The so called “Princes in the Tower” disappeared in 1483, aged 9 and 12 years old. Their deaths remain a mystery to historians. Much about this historical period is uncertain.
Girls and women were pawns, married (sometimes as infants) and sometimes divorced for reasons of political expediency. England was trying to establish itself as an international power, not merely a northern fringe country.
The relationship of church to government was complex. A church might offer “sanctuary” under various circumstances, to criminals or potential targets of political kidnapping. Royalty were presumed to rule by the grace of God. God was assumed to determine the outcome of battle.
In the absence of science, superstition ruled in medicine and in agriculture.
Want something entertaining to read on vacation? This is it. Somewhat long winded. Not as good as Philippa Gregory, but enjoyable.
“The Vanishing Half” by Britt Bennett
I received this book as a Christmas gift, and I loved it!
It’s about race, about “passing”, about identity and community. The very pretty twin Vignes sisters are identical, and can “pass” for white, but their daughters are opposites, one dark skinned and the other light.
With its detailed portrayal of a small town and its complex, well developed characters (male as well as female), The Vanishing Half reminded me of Marilynne Robinson and her four-book Gilead series, some of the best literary fiction I have ever read.
“Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir
I loved The Martian and skipped Artemis (which seems to be available only in electronic format), so I was optimistic about enjoying Project Hail Mary. And, yes, I liked it!
SPOILER ALERT! If you’re sensitive about plot and plan to read the book, stop here.
The assumptions made in Project Hail Mary are even more extreme (silly) than those on which The Martian was based, but Weir writes a very engaging adventure story. I particularly like the description of his protagonist Ryland Grace learning to speak the language of the space alien he nicknames Rocky. Rocky’s language is musical.
Once one can speak to an alien, cultural issues arise. Weir takes on two big ones, food and sleep. Humans socialize over food. Not so the alien in this story! Humans can sleep alone, but Rocky considers that frightening. Initally, Grace is confused by Rocky’s offer to “observe” his sleep. It turns out the aliens can’t be roused while sleeping, and may need help.
In what ways does Project Hail Mary (published in 2021) reflect our contemporary experience of Covid? Both our human protagonist and his alien buddy are ALONE in space. Each has lost his crewmates. Each is from a planet suffering an existential threat. Their life support requirements are radically different, but they find ways to be “together”.
After finishing Project Hail Mary, I went back to the beginning to see how it “felt” from that perspective. Fifteen minutes later, I realized I had been, briefly, completely unaware of my surroundings. Weir can really get me engaged!
“The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek” by Kim Michelle Richardson
I loved this book! For starters, it has a stunning setting, beautifully described – remotest Kentucky, hilly and wild. The story takes place during the Great Depression.
The “book woman” of the title, Cussy Mary Carter, is part of a tiny and persecuted minority, the blue-skinned people of Kentucky. Victims of an unknown genetic disorder, they suffered persecution because people feared that their strange condition was contagious. Racially, blue people were classified as “colored”.
Cussy Mary’s family is desperately poor. Her father is a coal miner. After her mother dies, her father, trying to protect her, forces Cussy Mary into marriage to a violent, thuggish man who promptly dies. Cussy Mary takes advantage of a New Deal program called the Pack Horse Library Project to earn a much needed salary and satisfy her love of books and reading. She carries books, magazines and even “scrapbooks” to isolated homes and schools, where children and most adults are avidly hungry for the printed word.
Improbably, The Book Woman has an animal as a major character. Cussy Mary inherits a mule she names Junia, that had been starved and beaten by her deceased husband. Nursed back to good health, Junia trusts only Cussy Mary, tolerates women and children and simply HATES men, kicking and biting them at any opportunity. We meet Junia in the first sentence of the book. Cussy Mary takes advantage of Junia’s acute senses and instincts, and together they survive shocking challenges.
Ultimately, Cussy Mary meets a man who sees beyond her obvious differentness and comes to love her. It’s a very bad time and place for the improbable pair.
Amazon classifies The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek as historical fiction, but it could be grouped with action/adventure, as it moves very quickly.
I read The Book Woman fast because the plot captivated me. When I went back over parts of it, I realized it is stunningly well written, crisp and passionate. Maybe this book will be recognized as literature.
I briefly searched on line for information on methemoglobinemia and the blue skinned people of Kentucky and learned that, contrary to what Cussy Mary thought, the “blues” did not die out, and now, in the age of genetic testing and internet genealogy, these people are finding one another and sharing family histories and memories. Most people who show the characteristic blue skin of methemoglobinemia are otherwise in normal health and live an average lifespan. Treatment is now available. Clusters of the people with the condition have been documented in Alaska and Ireland. The recessive (unexpressed) gene persists.
Eight pages of pictures and historical details about the Pack Horse Library Project complete this book. I recommend it without reservation.
“Trust Me on This – Book 1 of 2: Sara and Jack” by Donald E. Westlake
This book is a kick. The characters are over the top – exaggerated in ways that made me cringe and laugh at the same time.
“Sara Joslyn is fresh from journalism school and ready to take on the world. Unfortunately, she has to settle for the galaxy—the Weekly Galaxy, to be precise, the sensational gossip rag where no low is too low, and no story is too outlandish to print.”
Perfect beach or travel reading, with just enough romance. And a primer in dysfunctional workplace dynamics! You’ll probably recognize some of the characters.
“A Bone from a Dry Sea” by Peter Dickenson
Okay, call me absent minded! I overlooked the fact that this is my second Young Adult book by Peter Dickenson. See review dated April 23, 2021. It shares the slightly didactic character that shows up in much YA literature (imho).
I had to force my way through most of this book. There are two plots, both involving young females. An English teenager goes on a paleontology expedition with her father and finds a (potentially important) bone. The other plot tells us how the bone ended up where it was later found.
Issues of racism and sexism arise, but are not handled in depth. The scientists in this book are portrayed as unpleasant, quarrelsome egotists. I feel that this stereotypical representation feeds the anti-science attitudes that are making our lives so difficult now. If scientists are a bunch of jerks, it’s easier to reject their recommendations measures like vaccination. I’m not saying scientists are all “nice”, but gratuitous fictional portrayals of scientific infighting aren’t helpful.
There’s a real and intellectually interesting controversy behind this book, the question of whether human evolution included an aquatic stage. Why Dickenson chose this as the basis for a YA novel baffles me. But, as I’ve said before, I usually don’t like “fictionalized” versions of real and important people and events. That a bias of mine.
The best part of this book was a BIG plot twist near the end. I totally didn’t see it coming, and I found it completely believable. Yes, life does throw the occasional major league curve ball. (Nobody got killed.) The book ends without telling us how the “victim” will choose to put his life back together.
This book should be examined in courses on Science and Society.
If you want a non-fiction look a major scientific squabble, read Noble Savages by Napoleon Chagnon, cultural anthropologist. I remembered Chagnon as I read Dickenson’s imagined description of the lives of early pre-humans. Chagnon made enough behavioral observations to speculate about questions like how many people can live in a “tribe” before it ends up splitting into two tribes, a possibility Dickinson hints at in A Bone from a Dry Sea.
Another non-fiction account of science and scientific controversy is The Double Helix by James Watson, about the structure of DNA. Later editions include his apology for his dismissive, sexist comments about distinguished chemist Rosalind Franklin.
I wish the fun and excitement of science showed more clearly in Dickenson’s books. Field scientists have crazy adventures!
“The Blood Card – A Magic Man Mystery” by Elly Griffiths
I read Elly Griffiths’ other mystery series (about forensic anthropologist Ruth Galloway) in it’s entirety, but had dropped the Magic Man series because I didn’t like the first book that much.
I picked up The Blood Card (aka Brighton Mysteries Book 3) by mistake, but totally enjoyed it.
It takes place in 1952, during the days leading up to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. Griffiths makes much of the emerging role of TV in this event. Post war England was embroiled in controversy. Should a woman ascend to the throne? Who needed monarchy, anyway? Why were the rich SO rich, while the commoners who had fought and won World War II struggled with rationing? Who was a communist? WHAT was an anarchist? And how was the entertainment world going to cope with “home entertainment”, aka television?
Having constructed a pleasingly eccentric cast of characters (including a gypsy fortune teller) and drawn them all to a big, old London theatre, Griffiths lets us know that the threat of an anarchist bombing is serious and immediate. Ultimately, the bomb itself is on stage in front of the audience.
At this point, I had absolutely NO IDEA how the plot would be resolved and the book would end! Who was the bad guy? I was engaged and delighted. Reading The Blood Card was so much fun!
Rather than stay up and rush through it (very tempting), I went to bed and saved the end for the following day. It was highly satisfying.
“Eva” by Peter Dickinson
This book was loaned to me by a friend, who asked for my opinion of it. Sometimes this means my “scientific” opinion, since I am a scientist. I earned a Master of Science in Chemistry in 1973.
My academic degree is no particular help in evaluating this book, but I have relevant informal experience. I’m married to an ecologist well versed in evolution, who taught an undergraduate course called “Animal and Human”. That course focused on the research of Jane Goodall and other primatologists. Our home bookshelf includes works by Goodall, Frans de Waal and others. I particularly like de Waal’s Good Natured – the origins of right and wrong in humans and other animals.
Back to the book… Eva is a 13 year old girl who suffers devastating physical injuries in an auto accident. Her (less damaged) brain is transplanted into the body of a young female chimpanzee. (No, I don’t think will happen in my lifetime, despite rapid advances in neuroscience.) Against all odds, Eva survives, the first (and only) member of a new life form. Everything about Eva is novel and much is unexpected – to her, her family and the doctors and scientists who made her treatment possible.
Eva turns out to be more chimpanzee than human. She feels more at home in a chimpanzee colony called “the pool” than with her parents or school friends. Their habitat destroyed by human overpopulation, all surviving chimps live in “the pool”, a zoo-like urban setting where chimps face one of three fates. Some are sold to corporations or universities for research. Others are kept in a zoo, for the (paying) public to see and appreciate them. The luckiest ones live mostly undisturbed in a private compound, observed (remotely) by scientists who want to understand their biology and behavior. Even that is not a “good” or “natural” life for a chimpanzee, and they have lost skills, including the ability to forage for food. Eva, the daughter of one of the scientists, played with chimps as a child and felt positive towards them. This helps her survive the shock of “waking up” in a chimpanzee body.
Eva wants a more natural setting for herself and the other chimps, and, against the odds and at great risk, she gets it. A chimp colony is established (in Madagascar). Eva attempts re-teach chimps “wild” life skills and to import a few human behaviors into the colony (tying knots, for example). She breeds only with chimps she considers intelligent and socially cooperative. She dies (of old age) hoping “her” chimp descendants will thrive in the future at a time when humans seem doomed.
My opinion? Highly entertaining. Dystopian fiction, however, is not a genre I like. It can be cynical and broadly antisocial (imho). Is Eva anti-science? Borderline. If you’re looking for “bad” scientists, you can find them. I don’t consider this a trivial issue. Not while climate change deniers and anti-vaxxers show up in my own community. If we reject science across the board, we humans are doomed, and may destroy other species as well.
This book was published in 1989. Peter Dickinson died in 2015. It is categorized as Young Adult fiction. Dickinson doesn’t talk down to his readers. If anything marks it as YA oriented, it’s the emphasis on plot (over character, setting or reflection) and the brisk pace. One category of YA is “dystopian YA fiction”. Eva might qualify. The future world depicted is overcrowded, polluted and gloomy.
If someone wants to critique the portrayal of chimps in Eva, I suggest they check the publication dates of the books mentioned above to see what information was available to Dickenson when he wrote Eva. I think, overall, that he did a good job.
Jane Goodall wrote Reason for Hope in 1999. She is now 87 years old. You can check her out at www.news.janegoodall.org. She still has hope.