Sunday, September 17, 2017

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

When Exit West by Mohsin Hamid was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, I knew I finally needed to pick up a copy.  What a wonderful book it is! Simple but thoughtful, post-modern but very approachable.  He makes big ideas, like what it means to travel through time and space, not like Doctor Who but just like humans living, so understandable, and he makes the immigrant experience, particularly the immigrant who escapes horror and harm, as thank god I have not, nevertheless relatable.

Hamid's characters, Nadia and Saeed, are living in a country that suddenly erupts into violence.  They live there as long as they can, but soon discover they need to leave to survive. They immigrate to a refugee camp, where things are in some ways better, some worse; and again, and again. There's a slight magical realism element to the way they travel which reminded me of elements of Salman Rushdie or Gabriel Garcia Marquez - they approach a door which becomes like a portal.  For a while, they're in a nebulous space, and then they emerge in a new land, sometimes sure of their destination, sometimes not. It's really the only fantastical element of the book and it's beautifully effective and an a spot-on way of capturing not just the immigrant experience but I think most air-travel experiences, honestly.

I came to love both Nadia and Saeed - both of whom continued to defy my expectations - the loving and gentle, religious Saeed who wishes his wife wouldn't wear a full-length black robe. Nadia tells Saeed she wears the gown “so men don’t fuck with me”. She smokes pot and likes living alone.

Hamid also introduces other characters in short vignettes. To me these small asides don't serve much purpose aside from offering hope and showing love in a world that seems overwhelmed with hate.  In one rather remarkable two-page "run-on sentence" a young woman rides a train to stand in a human chain to protect migrants from a militant mob.
... it wasn't until she boarded the train and found herself surrounded by men who looked like her brother and her cousins and her father and her uncles, except that they were angry, they were furious, and they were staring at her and at her badges with undisguised hostility, and the rancor of perceived betrayal, and they started to shout at her, and push her, that she left fear, a basic, animal fear, terror, and thought that anything could happen, and then the next station came and she shoved through and off the train, and she worried they might seize her, and stop her, and hurt her, but they didn't, and she made it off, and she stood there after the train had departed, and she was trembling, and she thought for a while, and then she gathered her courage, and she began to walk...
My god! I mean! Could you just!

"We are all migrants through time." Hamid writes this simple sentence near the end of the book, where by then it lands with a thud in your heart, having come by then to think about travelling in a slightly different way. But, it really sunk in for me, the lucky person who's never had to flee her home, during this time where there word "migrant" is loaded with so much controversy.  And it really made me think about how moving forward through time, as most of us experience it, we emulate the migrant experience, sometimes leaving people behind that we love, changing our own goals and aspirations and sometimes modifying what's most important to us.

It was a lovely, lovely book and I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, September 06, 2017

The Power

In Naomi Alderman's new novel, The Power, young women find they can shoot lightning out of their
fingers.  I had only to read a similar summary before scurrying to Amazon UK to order a copy (it releases in the US in October).  Teen girls get the ability first, and they are able to pass it to older women by showing them how to unlock it in themselves.  Very quickly men everywhere start to panic, desperate to reverse or retard the ability in women, but girls become more and more powerful and the power imbalance begins to shift from men to women.

What's interesting in The Power is that women don't become the benevolent leaders many people (including myself) imagine we would be, but rather take on most of the poor qualities men in power possess.  The women and girls use their power to control men, some torturing men for pleasure, many becoming sexual predators.  It's not unusual for the female characters to be overwhelmingly distracted at the inappropriate moments by desire for men's bodies.  They co-opt history and religion to stake their claim to leadership.
On the morning shows, they bring in experts on human biology and prehistoric images. This carved image found in Honduras, dating back more than six thousand years, doesn't that look like a woman with lightning coming from her hands to you, Professor? Well, of course, these carvings often represent mythical and symbolic behaviours. But it could be historical, that is, could represent something that actually happened. It could, maybe. Did you know, in the oldest text, that the God of the Israelites had a sister, Anath, a teenage girl? Did you know that she was the warrior, that she was invincible, that she spoke with the lightning, that in the oldest texts, she killed her own father and took his place? She liked to bathe her feet in the blood of her enemies.
Some Spoilers

So, the book quickly changes from the initial "girl power" excitement to a handful of women who will do anything to have total control and end up, well, tearing society apart.  Although the book was a real page-turner, it caused me a fair amount of internal anguish because I truly believe that women would be fundamentally better leaders than men. Admittedly, the more I thought hey, #notallwomen, the more a teensy little bit of me thought, "OK, maybe there is something there."  A little something.

Unquestionably, Alderman is an Atwood fan - they actually published a zombie novella together on Wattpad a few years ago called The Happy Zombie Sunrise Home, and Atwood blurbed The Power with a groan-worthy "Electrifying!"  Alderman bookends her novel in a trĂ©s-Atwood style, fashioning the text as a history submitted to his publisher by Neil Adam Armon (pay close attention to those letters). The publisher, a women, is hilariously patronizing while Neil's obsequious grovelling is painfully familiar.  Throughout the book are illustrations that, at least to me, didn't make sense until the very end.  These game-like elements in the book signal Alderman's other specialty - she's the creator of a very popular app called Zombies, Run! which motivates runners to move because (you guessed it) zombies are chasing them.

The Power has already won The Bailey's Womens Prize for Fiction and I have a feeling will find considerable popularity in the US.  At this moment in history, it's feels like a bit of an odd argument to be making, and undoubtedly this novel is making a strong statement about power and what people (regardless of gender) will do to get it and what they'll do to keep it.  Perhaps when she was writing it under Theresa May, with Clinton running for president and expected to win (it was published in 2016) it was a conversation Alderman wanted more people to confront in the existing zeitgeist. Now, with the bleak politics and masculine posturing between two idiots like Trump and Kim Jong Un making nuclear war seem unbearably possible, I wish more than ever we had more women in power.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Feed, by Mira Grant

Many times reading Mira Grant's novel I thought about how eerily similar the tone was to our current political climate. It doesn't speak well for us that her story of a journalist covering a presidential candidate takes place well into zombie apocalypse.  The year is 2039 and zombies have roamed the earth since approx 2012 - our heroine, Georgia, has known no other reality.  Georgia and her brother, Shaun, are bloggers - more respected than the "traditional" journalists of the day because bloggers were quicker to catch on to the zombie outbreak and provide real tips for survival. They've been chosen (with their partner, Buffy) to follow the favored Republican presidential candidate. I'm curious why she wrote the candidate as a Republican, he doesn't seem to have any particular agenda - although some of his colleagues espouse the politics of the religious right and sorAt of extreme measures when it comes to land management and well... zombie management.  For example, some politicians want to burn and bleach the national parks to rid all infestation of animals (any animal over 40 pounds can carry and pass the virus.)

Grant, the nom de plume of Seanan McGuire, is obviously an epidemiology geek and, I suspect, something of a policy wonk and allows the space in Feed to really dive into the details of what her zombie universe looks like - how the virus developed, how society would change and what kind of laws would exist in such a world.  She goes deep into adaptions in technology to detect the virus, and architectural changes to coral and isolate.  If the idea of delving hard core into the inner workings of the CDC during a zombie apocalypse sounds fascinating to you, my friend, this is Your Book.  There are three books in the "Newsflesh" series.  I'll probably take a pass on the next two, but I was definitely entertained for a few hours with Feed.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Devil in a Blue Dress

Devil in a Blue Dress is the birthing of a detective.  Easy Rawlins accepts a job to find a woman because he needs the money, and finds that the steps he needs to follow to track her down come naturally to him.  It's a detektivlerroman - a word I possibly just made up, sure, but accurate.

I used to read a lot of Dashiell Hammett but finally got tired of the racism and called it quits. Raymond Chandler is also, basically, unreadable, being ridiculous.  As the attendant reader of the blog knows, my mysteries are British, and written by ladies.  But, I heard this great interview on NPR with Walter Mosley and knew I had to give it a try.

Although first published in 1990, Devil in a Blue Dress takes place in 1948 Los Angeles and Mosley perfectly captures the "hardboiled" style of early detective novels (minus the racism and misogyny!) His hero, Easy, grew up a sharecropper, then entered the army and fought in WWII.  He and his fellow black soldiers were relegated to office jobs well behind the front line ("I was trained how to kill men but white men weren't anxious to see a gun in my hands."); the white soldiers called them cowards so he volunteered for combat. After the war, he managed to buy a very small house, his prized place of security.  The love of domicile allowed him to take a dubious job for a shady white dude.

Actually, there is racism in Mosley's novel - Easy confronts it constantly. He's accosted and abused by the police twice, he talks about the need to walk slowly in the dark, so he won't be considered suspicious. White people he encounters call him "boy" and "son".  And, when he meets a very wealthy white man, he has a slightly different experience.
    "I mean, there I was, a Negro in a rich white man's office, talking to him like we were best friends - even closer. I could tell that he didn't have the fear or contempt that most white people showed when they dealt with me.
    It was a strange experience but I had seen it before. Mr Todd Carter was so rich that he didn't even consider me in human terms. He could tell me anything. I could have been a prized dog that he knelt to and hugged when he felt low.
    It was the worst kind of racism. The fact that he didn't even recognize our difference showed that he didn't care one damn about me."

It really is remarkable that this is Walter Mosley's first novel - it reads like it was penned by a seasoned mystery writer.  I'll be reading a lot more of his work!  What really slayed me while reading Devil in a Blue Dress was how Mosley was hitting all these high notes nearly 20 years ago in his first goddamn book - the things he addresses in this book are so topical today - institutionalized racism, police brutality, identity ... although, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that as a white reader, like many others, I've been blind to that rather obvious signals of pervasive racism that the Black Lives Matter movement has brought to the forefront.  I'm sorry it's taken us so long to get here.

Friday, May 05, 2017

The Handmaid's Tale

I wish I could remember the first time I read The Handmaid's Tale (I remember how it made me feel, just not when it was). It must have been approximately 20 (!) years ago and, conservatively, I've read it at least 5-6 times.  It is My Favorite Book.  Margaret Atwood is My Favorite Author. And it is this book against which I judge all books.

It's recently come to my attention that not everyone KNOWS about The Handmaid's Tale book (WHAT) so, a brief synopsis: written by Canada's National Treasure, Margaret Atwood, who didn't include any details in this dystopian fiction that didn't have a historical precedent. The Handmaid's Tale is about a woman, Offred, living in Gilead in the former United States.  Handmaids are fertile woman who are impregnated for leaders of the Gilead community because a variety of causes have led to widespread infertility. 

I reread it last weekend because it's been a few years and also the show is on Hulu and also we're living in a dystopian nightmare and also why not.  Every time I read it I find something new, and, as I get older, the way I engage with it changes as well.  This time I noticed the repeated motif of eggs - how many eggs Offred eats, how she notices eggs, how she is a walking ovum, ready to be fertilized.  Atwood spends an incredible page and a half describing Offred's soft-boiled egg breakfast. They are words of singular beauty and elegance.

Earlier this year I saw this tweet that really made me laugh but is also true:
Offred isn't waging a revolution - she wants to survive and stay alive, so she's not sticking her neck out.  What's interesting in Offred's point of view that she knew what life was like before (similar to life now) and is experiencing the first wave of this new society.  The Aunts keep telling them "This may not seem ordinary to you now, but after a time it will. It will become ordinary."  I think one of the reasons people are so drawn to this book at this time in history is how quickly and quietly the citizens of the US rolled over and allowed the new regime to take over - first everyone was eager to allow for decreased freedoms in the wake of a terrorist account for the sake of "safety" (as we saw after 9/11) and then there came a point when protesters were simply killed - a terrifying tipping point of which the precipice feels ever closer.
image from the 2017 Women's March

There were hardly any notes in my 1986 hardback, signed (!!!!) edition (maybe 3rd?), but I tentatively put some in, in pencil, after explaining to M that it was my most prized possession and needed to be pulled in case of fire (my fiction books are obviously organized by last name.)

A Few Spoilers Below

One of my favorite parts of the book is the end, the "Historical Notes" which I didn't read for a few days after finishing the book the first time because I thought they were just the sort of boring notes that are sometimes included at the end of a book.  While the entirety of the preceding pages is from Offred's POV, suddenly the language and tone changes abruptly to some time in the future (the year 2195, actually) at a keynote session at a conference in Nunavit (Northern Canada) where is is revealed there are "Gilead" and "Caucasian" studies, those concepts being, presumably, inexistent by that time.  The speaker discusses the difficulty in authenticating the narrative (contained on a series of cassette tapes, in a bit of charming anachronism), and with what feels like agonizing academic distance, considering what we've just gone through with Offred, discusses the possible fates that awaited her, if indeed the tapes were truly authentic.

What jumped out at me this reading was how the male speaker, presumably of Inuit heritage (his name is Professor James Darcy Pieixoto), in the year 2195 (for fucksake), is still subtly undermining the female experience.  For example, he says that the title is a pun, "... having to do with the archaic vulgar signification of the word tail, that being, to some extent, the bone, as it were, of contention, that phase of Gileadean society of which our saga treats."  Similarly, he refers to "The Underground Femaleroad" as "The Underground Frailroad."  What Atwood does, again and again, is remind the reader there is no safe place. Inuit academics several hundred years in the future are not benevolent truth-tellers, they are just slightly sympathetic historians who crack dumb jokes. All women are not victims in this story - some women are the horrible propagators of terror and state-sponsored rape.

Throughout Offred's entire awful experience, her most violent reaction is to the sight of Aunt Lydia.  Not learning about her mother's death, not watching a child taken straight from a women's vagina to another woman, not seeing people hanging in the streets or the nauseating "Salvaging" in which the handmaids are forced to share complicity with netted punishment.  "I've begun to shiver. Hatred fills my mouth like spit."  That's what the sight of Aunt Lydia does to her.  I think it's the active cruelty of Aunt Lydia to the handmaids, specifically as a woman to other women, that causes this visceral reaction in Offred.  Cruelty of women towards women is a not uncommon theme in Atwood's books, and it serves a cold reminder that, unfortunately, some women don't support their sisters they way they should.  The side-effects of a paternalist society, say I - although I'm not entirely sure Atwood would agree with me.  For a long time, Atwood was reticent to call herself or the book "feminist" (although I think she's finally come around on that) and she certainly doesn't like to refer to the book as "science fiction" but rather "speculative fiction."  Fair enough, she's 77 years old and she's written one of the greatest books of the 20th century.  She can do what she wants. 

Monday, April 24, 2017


Cara Hoffman's new novel, Running, is set in Athens, Greece and the main characters are "runners" - itinerant people who board trains and try to convince hapless travellers to follow them back to shitty hotels.  In exchange, they get a place to sleep and a few dollars to keep them high or drunk.  It's a rough life for Bridley, an American girl, who made her way to Europe and holds only the high aspiration of sleeping inside at night.  Focused only on the necessities, she doesn't have the luxury of kindness or thoughtfulness. "People think they need things. Money or respect or clean sheets. But they don't. You can wash your hair and brush your teeth with hand soap. You can sleep outside. You can eat whatever's there."

Bridley has been living by her wits for most of her life, abandoned by her parents at 11 and half-raised by a "prepper" uncle, so being semi-homeless in Athens is neither a shock nor much of an adjustment.  She falls in with two British boy/men and shares a room with a half-blasted out wall with a romantic view of the far-away Acropolis. The threesome is sharp, mean and terribly bright - their squat is full of pilfered books and their expressions of true intelligence shock those who get close enough to observe it.  The seeming contradiction of a homeless teenager with brains doesn't compute - much like the brilliant John McLamore from the S-Town podcast takes a minute to process - how could that hillbilly also be a genius?  

Much like Hoffman's So Much Pretty (2013) and Be Safe, I Love You (2014), she moves forward and back in the narrative, teasing out a mystery about what happened in the late eighties in Athens to one of the British boy's current life in present-day New York, where he's an award-winning poet and a visiting artist at a college, unable to adjust to living in a lovely apartment, more at home sleeping on a bench in the park.

Running has many layers, in the title alone - and more I fear I missed.  It's a fine and strong addition to Hoffman's small oeuvre and probably will benefit from multiple readings.  Hoffman has a delicate hand at pulling in current events (violence toward women, PSD in soldiers, terrorism) and the universal and applying them to the individual.  I love her work.  

Sunday, March 12, 2017

All About Emily

The Rockettes made the news around the inauguration because, the story goes, they were told they would perform for Trump and lose their jobs if they refused.  Management denied that story and said they were free to perform or not as they chose. Ah, those were simpler and more amusing times when it was fun to at least laugh about how no one wanted to perform for or be a part of the inauguration "festivities" - before we realized that the Tangerine-tinted Trash Can Fire was going to do a lot more damage than we even thought possible.

Anyway, around that time, Connie Willis wrote a blog post about the Rockettes and how they have long stood up for what they thought was right.  In 2011, Willis wrote a novella called All About Emily featuring the Rockettes and she always does her research.   It took me a little while to get my hands on a copy and it's a fun, quick read about a robot (an "artificial") who wants to be a Rockette after seeing a performance at Radio City Music Hall.  She befriends an older actress who is happy to help her as long as Emily is going after her job.  The artificial manufacturers are conducting a campaign to convince the public that the robots are not going to take any desired jobs away, which is a bit of a problem when a perpetually young, perfect robot that doesn't eat or need health insurance wants one of the most coveted dancing jobs in America.

There's a bit of an All About Eve angle going on and there are some funny bits about the not-so-distant future, like Shiloh Jolie-Pitt and Justin Bieber Jr doing a play together on Broadway and Twilight The Musical.  Per usual Willis's future might have a dramatic new technology but otherwise life remains recognizable. Sweet ending, great little read if you can find it.