Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

So I apparently have book club fever and am now a member of two book clubs. This one, I'm running, so it's a bit of a different experience.

Second Book Club, Book #1

Powerful. This is the most powerful book I've read in a long time. To call this book good isn't doing it proper justice, but I'd put it on my 'Must Read' list without question. 

The tragic and disturbing stories of four siblings, given a terrible gift that ultimately leads to serious consequences for each, are so well-told, so intense, you don't even pause to search for a nugget of positivity to pull you out of some dark places. You live their lives beside them, and they feel real and severe in all the ways you want fictional characters to be.

We meet the four Gold siblings on the cusp of the 1970's, while still in their youth. A typical, lower-middle class, northeastern, Jewish family until word of the arrival of a mystical woman who can tell you the day you'll die draws the children in, forever changing their lives. The knowledge they're each given individually clearly affects life choices, often to their detriment, but they all go on and live as long as they can. 

Among the nagging finality of knowing your death day, the author frames out other important elements. Somehow drawn out by the crux of the novel, gaining this information nobody should ever have, each sibling experiences some form of mental illness. With these character developments comes a subtle commentary on the topic, branching out into the necessity of human connection, the importance of experiencing love, and the horror of obsession.

Again, powerful comes to mind in how all these elements made me feel, how they combined to drive the story forward.

Prepare yourself for an intense read, but don't ignore this book. It has the goods.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

Book Club Book #3

While it's deeper within the fantasy genre than what I'd normally gravitate toward, Spinning Silver is an entertaining (yet wordy) read. Truthfully, it could have kept its impact, and been just as good, minus about 150 pages.

The book focuses on three women experiencing very different lives in what I assume is feudal Russia. The area is lorded over by a Czar, cities are walled for protection, and everyone still gets around by horse and carriage. Interspersed within the mundane is the Staryk Road, which magically appears, bringing a frozen and icy race to the area who seem to trade in violence and aggression.

Into this world fate interlocks the lives of these women as they struggle to preserve their families and the people they care about. Miryem is the daughter of an ineffective moneylender who develops a talent for turning silver to gold. Wanda is the oldest of a poor family, helmed by an abusive father. Irina, the cunning daughter of a Duke, works to find her place being given a larger dose of brains than looks. Everyone eventually comes together to battle the encroaching winter, that's lasting too long, along with a surprising demon of fire hidden in plain site.

Fantastical elements aside, this book is a story about strong, brave, and resourceful women who take what life hands them and fights to become the heroines of their own stories. Visions of Rumpelstiltskin and Little Red Riding Hood are conjured as the story weaves its complicated tale.

At time slow and verbose, the book overall is very entertaining and exciting. It's definitely an appropriate winter book to read sitting beside the fire.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Born A Crime by Trevor Noah

Book Club Book #2

There's a scene in the book where a teenage Noah and his buddies end up in front of kids and teachers in a Jewish school for a performance. One of the kids performing is named Hitler. You'll have to read the book to see how awkward things get, but it all happened because Noah had never learned that the "original" Hitler was a bad man. He had no idea, at that time, what had occurred during the war. Additionally, the magnitude of WWII was felt on a totally different level being raised in a country where being the lesser ethnic group was standard for so long.

It's just a snippet from the book, but one that clearly illustrates the difference in Noah's childhood. It also was a point that hit me personally, I know as much about life in apartheid South Africa as he knew about WWII.

Having always known people from South Africa, it struck me as odd that I had no concept of life in the country. Then, I couldn't help wondering about the specific stories of the South Africans I knew. They're all Jewish, they're all white. Did they identify with the white community because life was based on skin color, or did our history as a people create a kinship with those suffering? It's a completely separate issue, one that I might need to find a book on to learn more.

As far as Born A Crime goes, it was an intense and enlightening read. Noah takes his extremely personal reflections and pulls back the curtain on this unique society. My own experiences make his life look very hard, very sad, yet within the community he builds through own stories, he always seems to have an edge to support him doing more with this life than adhering to the status quo. Even if it took a while for him to get there, his perspective felt unique compared to the other people he associates with as he grows up.

This is in part thanks to his mother. She's definitely a gift in his life. He never paints her as such, but takes an almost casual observer approach to her resourcefulness and unwillingness to conform. Although not the focus of his stories, Noah gives his mom a lot of "page" time and she's quite an impressive lady. I hope he thanks her for all she taught him, even if the lessons were rough.

The book focuses solely on his childhood in South Africa. Stories aren't totally chronological, but they do come together to tell the story of how Noah's life began. He basically lived in two different worlds because of his parentage, but Noah never takes a "poor me" tone to his stories; he never asks you to appreciate all that he's overcome. He seems to look at his life as just what happened and prides himself on how he figured things out to keep going forward. And, I guess that is what you'd have to do living in a world entrenched in seeing how everyone else is different rather than trying to come together because we're all simply people. 

As an outside, Noah's life is so very interesting. The sheer will to dig out of a situation forced on you by people who simply decided they were better than you is fascinating, and sad. The book took me through so many different emotions, but I feel like I know more now about my world's history than I did before, and understanding the past is the only way to prevent if from happening in the future. Read this book!

Monday, October 29, 2018

The Globe: The Science of Discworld II by Terry Pratchett

Thinking this book was going to further expand on our planet's evolutionary history -- from the title -- I dived into the second volume in this comical/scientific series. 

That's totally not what it's about.

On the fun, fictional side of things, the Discworld wizards have come to Earth to prevent an invasion of elves from essentially taking over the minds of humanity as we develop as a species. We're talking centuries ago, at the birth of man's ability to think creatively. 

Scientifically and historically, this book studies humanity's dependence on narrative thought. Our innate desire to tell stories, to fixate on the stories of others, and how our ability to depict characters and events through stories has impacted our connection to the unknown.

The "globe" referenced in the title is in dedication to someone who Pratchett very clearly values as the pinnacle of creative thought...William Shakespeare. Transferring the unseen into real characters is deftly done in A Midsummer Night's Dream as fairies are given names and personalities. This tactic, the book speculates, demystifies the mystical to a point that they're no longer revered or feared; they no longer have the same power. It becomes the greatest weapon the magicians have against the elves. Their "real" power is essentially dumbed down to a flitting fairy of no consequence through Shakespeare's play, turning them into an ineffective foe regardless of what abilities they actually possess.

This fictional clash in creativity aside, the real concepts discussed in this book are fascinating. Are we really the Great Ape we've named ourselves or just the ones who've mastered storytelling? What impact on belief does putting a face to a name really have when talking about mystical, spiritual, or magical beings? How does humanity's obsession with stories alter our reality? Do we really seek truth or just the next piece of gossip?

I feel like I could talk about the topics in this book forever. They fully peak my interest as a creator of content and as a lover of stories. I would almost suggest skipping volume one, this book is that interesting, but then you'd miss the whole comical setup of Discworld's connection to ours. In true Pratchett style, it's pretty funny. 

This second volume continues to recommend the series as a perfect companion set for all aficionados of the Discworld universe. Happy reading! 

Read this first:
The Science of Discworld (Volume 1)