Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Adam Felber, there is no way to describe my love for you

It's rather fitting that I finally finished Adam Felber's Schrodinger's Ball today. Leap Day--a day of the strange--or as Brown students and alumni know it, Josiah Carbury Day. (Professor Carbury is the beloved, fictitious professor of psychoceramics... think about it.) And Schrodinger's Ball is nothing if not a celebration of the academic and strange.

The novel is not so much about quantum mechanics as it is a quantum mechanic novel. I know of no other way to explain it. It embodies the principles of the theory in its storytelling and, in a way, it is a story about quantum mechanics, too. 

Normally, I'm not a quantum mechanical kind of girl. I'm much more about string theory. Quantum mechanics makes me scrunch up my face with distaste for the paradoxes and holes when string theory makes me want to swim in it. Felber changed my mind, if only for his book.

In parallel story lines that must needs connect by the end, Dr. Schrodinger is an unwanted house guest to a narrator who uses the first person plural, a young man exists in a state of simultaneously being dead and not, a homeless lunatic rewrites history, the President of Montana abdicates his responsibilities, the maybe-dead guys' friend moons over a girl, and a hungry rat searches for a meal. It is worthy of a monumental eye roll except that Felber is brilliant. Brilliant. The plot and the structure pack so much into the brief novel, so much more than the sum of its parts. It is a zipped file of a novel. (Sorry, that metaphor even hurt me but I can't say it any better.)

Read it. Now. There is a computer error in the book. It made me laugh out loud and yet it is poignant and smart. Felber's writing is unlike any other and I can find no other book to compare Ball with. 

I'm keeping this post short so you can go read it now. Right now.

(PS. You might be wondering why I haven't posted in a while. You might also wonder why I referenced "finally" finishing a brief and brilliant book. I began reading Schrodinger's Ball on November 13, 2011. Coincidentally, I now how a 3 1/2 month-old son.)

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

the hilarity of child soldiers and sex slaves

Read Jane Bussman's The Worst Date Ever. Now. Go read it.

I had particular interest in Bussman's subject--the international aid organization I work for sent me to northern Uganda a few years ago, so the place is dear to my heart. I recognize that this will not be true for most readers. I also realize that I now have a fairly high tolerance for the details of human atrocities. One of the perks of my job. (It took a while before I realized that my friends had not developed this threshold along with me and that there are some things you don't talk about at dinner. When they ask about my work I should say it is "interesting," "busy," or "rewarding" without giving any details about the report I was writing on rape in DRC.)
(Why yes, this is a photo I took in Uganda of a midwife bandaging a child's machete wound in a "health clinic" with no electricity, water, or drugs but plenty of moldy 2x4s.)

Occasionally I bring reports home with me to read or edit and occasionally these documents have photos. I consider the piece a failure if my husband asks me to read in the other room because the images are disturbing him. If your audience looks away, they are not getting your message.

Bussman writes about a horrific war wherein children were kidnapped to become child soldiers or sex slaves. She writes about interviewing victims of mutilation. She writes about governments' complacency because of the cash cow that such a war can be. This book is a hard sell.

But what makes Bussman different from and better than almost any account I have read is that the book is hilarious. Which means my anger and disgust was tempered. I did not put the book down; I kept reading. And while I know I am not the average potential reader for this book, I think The Worst Date Ever is even better for the more squeamish audience than it was for me. Because through her humor, Bussman keeps the reader from getting too upset and looking away. And since you don't need to put the book down, you learn about a truth that more people need to learn about.

Jane Bussman bares witness to the victims of a horrible war. She does it with dignity and anger. But unbelievably, with humor. Go read it. Now.

Monday, July 11, 2011

bravery in Hunger Games

In the course of about one week, I read Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. Admittedly, this means I now need to go back and reread Mockingjay so that I feel like I really caught everything. I've also purchased The Girl Who Was on Fire to read at a later date.

Of course I loved them. But I was surprised by just how bravely written they were. 

Um. Spoilers below.

After reading enough YA, I was not surprised by the violence or that two of my favorite principle characters (Cinna and Finnick) died. What did surprise me was the way both of those deaths were written. Finnick's death (as well as Prim's) was so barely present within Katniss's more urgent focus that I almost missed it. And this felt real and true to me in a way that more heroic death scenes rarely do. While I think YA is long past the point where I would call killing off beloved characters "brave," the--what's the right word? insignificance? fleeting notice?--of Suzanne Collins killing of Finnick and Prim felt brave in its honesty. The world does not stop for death. People you love die and it takes a moment for you to even see that above the noise of the rest of your life.

The love triangle that wasn't. I applaud you, Ms. Collins. While I often have a preference when reading books that involve love triangles, I rarely think that there is really no contest. The triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale did not strike me as a matter of romantic choice or as a matter of Katniss deciding who she wants to be as most love triangles are. To me, there was never any choice. Instead, I watched Katniss realize who she is. This wasn't a choice, but a developing awareness. It can be difficult to recognize and accept who you truly are, and it is a powerful story to watch unfold. So while I don't think Gale was ever actually in the running, I thought use of a pseudo love triangle as a means of self analysis was fresh.

Lastly, I loved how fucked up Katniss and Peeta are by the end. This is not the story of two heroes that motivated a revolution. This is the story of two kids who are the collateral damage of other people's machinations. And I loved it. I can see where some readers might be left dissatisfied with the ending, but I thought this was so brave and so right.

Thank you, Suzanne Collins, for a fun and courageous series.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

real live axe ad

This photo was taken during the Vancouver riots on June 15. There are no words for how much I'm in love.
Photo by Rich Lam/Getty Images

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

stepping into that same river again, or not

I first read Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake perhaps five years ago. A stunning experience. As I neared the end of the book, I could not escape the feeling that once I looked up from the last page, I would see a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Snowman's world. My reading would make it so. Fortunately, that did not happen. Instead, Oryx and Crake earned its place in my top all-time reading experiences.

So it took me until a few weeks ago to pick up The Year of the Flood, Atwood's companion book. How could it be anything but a disappointment after my visceral awe at Oryx and Crake? Having completed it I must say it was not as extraordinary. How could it? But it was still brilliant.

The Year of the Flood follows two protagonists who--similar to Snowman/Jimmy--bounce back and forth between their current post-pandemic survival and their lives before the world ended. Seemingly random main characters in the beginning, as the book continues, the reader realizes these two, Ren and Toby, were both part of an environmentalist religious cult before the "waterless flood." As the narrative continues, the reader realizes that they were both on the periphery of Jimmy/Snowman and Crake's lives. I went back to reread Oryx and Crake so that I could appreciate those tiny tossed away sentences that were all that Ren and Toby (not even named in the original book) contributed to Jimmy's life.

Much of the book centers around the cult, God's Gardeners. Despite the pages of ink dedicated to them one cannot in the end know if they are a force behind Crake's plague or lucky survivalists. And again, this mirrors
Oryx and Crake. Are the leaders of God's Gardeners MaddAdam? How much does Oryx know.

And I must say, perhaps my favorite part of the book was when Ren and Toby see Snowman. Despite all of the voices in his head throughout Oryx and Crake, I never thought of him as crazy. It seemed a perfectly natural reaction to being the last human alive, guardian to a new race and pawn of your best friend. It was only after reading Flood that I saw he was insane. And it broke my heart. It made the rereading of Oryx and Crake so much sadder, lushly pathetic.

Lots of parallels, but plenty of divergent plot and themes to make The Year of the Flood a masterpiece in its own right. A true companion to the first.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

i feel like less-than for not having loved it

Maybe all of that that commercial, YA, and paranormal reading has finally gotten to me.  I read Lorrie Moore's A Gate at the Stairs and didn't love it.

I hang my head in shame.

Maybe I need to give back my elitist card.

Did I find it interesting? Mostly? Engaging? I guess. Beautifully worded? Of course. A striking commentary on post-9/11 America? Yes.

But. But... For the first third of the book I did not realize that the narrative was supposed to be written by Tassie (the MC) as an older woman. So I was incredibly frustrated by how wise and mature and paced the narrative voice was. Beautiful but inappropriate to a 20 year-old. I got over that about 120 pages in, but there should have been some earlier signpost for me.

Also, I hated Tassie. And not in that way where it is fun to hate characters. In that way where I didn't give a crap about her at all. I didn't like her and so having to watch her live her life for a few hundred pages made me hate her.

The vegetation. So much description of vegetation--natural, cultivated, and cooked. You could have cut 30 pages from the book by editing down the vegetation.

So what did I like?

The stories. All three. Mary-Emma's, Reynaldo's and her brother's. They wove together beautifully. The parts of the book that really told their stories made me so happy. I sank into the book at those moments.

And now, I feel like a literary snob failure. Like having read Stephenie Meyer and Charlaine Harris and Carrie Ryan has destroyed my capacity to appreciate "real literature" (though I don't believe that). I was supposed to love this book.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

gaslight anthem is inspiring me today

When it comes to music, I'm a singer-songwriter kind of girl. Matt Nathanson, Tallest Man on Earth, and Dar Williams crowd my playlists. Occasional outliers like the White Stripes and Talking Heads make their appearance. But I am not a rock 'n' roll kind of girl, nor am I into punk. So when I fell in fast love with Gaslight Anthem some two years ago, I was somewhat confused. For those of you who don't know them, Gaslight Anthem is like Bruce Springsteen's punky nephews. And though I'm not one for punk or for Bruce Springsteen, Gaslight Anthem speaks to me like few musicians ever have.

Their upbeat songs (being most of them) have a kind of desperate joy about them. Like they know happiness isn't something you can hold onto in this world but they have it in their grasps for just this moment and the fleetingness does not lessen the joy at all. Makes it more manic perhaps, but also more meaningful.

The slower songs have a gritty beauty made more poignant by Brian Fallon's raspy voice.

I once told a friend that the innermost unchanging part of me has Gaslight Anthem as it's soundtrack. I hope that's true

For a bit of their desperate joy:

And a touch of their gritty beauty: