Thursday, September 26, 2013

Review: What to Look for in Winter

Ugh, this book took forever to get through. It sounds like it should be fascinating. McWilliam suffers from a rare condition that produces functional blindness-- her eyes can see but her eyelids are unable to open. This condition arrived in middle age, a particularly cruel affliction for a person who lived her life in the world of books. Sudden blindness is a painful blow for a writer and reader.

I expected this to be a memoir about dealing with blindness, but it really is not. This is a memoir that seems to be simultaneously about everything and nothing at all. McWilliam covers the entirety of her life, and jumps around throughout. The memoir is written in stream-of-consciousness format, and the tone is depressing. Certainly McWilliam has experienced difficult and tragedy. Her mother committed suicide, and McWilliam is a recovering alcoholic. Still, the tone is terribly woeful. I've read plenty of memoirs about horrible things, and this one is particularly depressing. Much of the author's time is spent analyzing her relationships with her ex-husbands.

All of this said, McWilliam is quite a writer. She has some beautiful turns of phrase. Her technical writing ability is quite amazing. But this memoir is completely inaccessible. The writer seems to have little awareness of the benefits she reaped from growing up among the intelligentsia. I love the literary world in which McWilliam lives, but I found this memoir to be dull, slow going.

Candia McWilliam, What to Look for in Winter: A Memoir in Blindness (Harper, 2012) ISBN: 0062094505 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: Beyond the Narrow Gate

This book is the story of the author's mother and three of her classmates. Leslie Chang's mother and her family fled to Taiwan during the Cultural Revolution. There she attended Taipei's most elite girls' school. These schoolgirls dreamed of winning scholarships to study in the United States. Four of them managed to do so, but found that life in the United States was not what they had hoped. Marginal colleges were more like finishing schools than serious universities, and none of the women were ever particularly comfortable in their lives in the United States.

Normally I enjoy this sort of book, but I found this one lacking. I felt like the author had difficulty treating her mother as objectively as her other subjects. I found the writing to be, for lack of a better term, tiresome. The author regularly puts thoughts into the heads of her subjects. The book is long-winded, and the chapters seem to ramble on without organization. Some more serious editing might have made this book better. In any case, there are much better books about the immigrant experience and about Asian-American identity.

Leslie Chang, Beyond the Narrow Gate: The Journey of Four Chinese Women from the Middle Kingdom to Middle America (Plume, 2000) ISBN: 0452277612 

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Review: Pyongyang

This is an odd book. It brings together the graphic novel and North Korean austerity. Canadian animator Guy Delisle spent time in North Korea, which has apparently become the new favored source for cheap animation labor. In this book Delisle captures the absurdities of life in Pyongyang, more through pictures than through words. Only one floor of Delisle's massive hotel has electricity, there's bizarre and uninspired food, and minimal recreation activities. Delisle brings a copy of 1984 with him, and North Korea is certainly an Orwellian society.

I think I would have found this book more effective if I didn't really know anything about North Korea. There's nothing really surprising here. I enjoyed Delisle's drawings, but I felt like there was too much drawing and not enough narrative. I think I'd have preferred an art exhibit to a book. Ultimately the book lacks depth, and the illustrations don't make up for what the writing lacks.

Guy Delisle, Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea (Drawn and Quarterly, 2007) ISBN: 1897299214 

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review: Speaking from among the Bones

The Flavia de Luce series keeps getting better and better. This book was the best yet in the series, and it finds Flavia investigating the death of the parish organist. St. Tancred's parish is digging up the remains of their patron saint, and an old corpse is right up Flavia's street (literally and figuratively). When a much newer dead body turns up in the old tomb Flavia is on the case, with her chemistry lab at her service. Flavia spends plenty of time mucking around in the grave dirt to find the killer.

Like other books in the series this one is fast-moving with quirky characters. Bradley continues to develop the de Luce family, and Flavia continues to try and be accepted as a mature colleague by the vicar and the police. Bradley drops a huge bomb at the end of the book. The cliffhanger ending is tremendous. With one final line Bradley has basically ensured that I will go out and buy the next book immediately upon its publication. Well played, Mr. Bradley. I can't wait to see where this is going.

Alan Bradley, Speaking from among the Bones (Delacorte, 2013) ISBN: 0385344031 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Review: Smilla's Sense of Snow

Smilla Jaspersen, daughter of a Greenlandic mother and a Danish father, has never quite adjusted to life in Copenhagen. Raised in the skills of Arctic hunting and survival by her mother, Smilla spends her youth in North Greenland. At twelve she is moved to Copenhagen by her father, a wealthy and famous doctor. While Smilla has become a scientist, she has always longed for Greenland.

When a young neighbor dies from a fall off the apartment building's roof, Smilla knows that something is amiss. The boy is also a Greenlander. Smilla's investigations take her to sea and to the land of her youth. They uncover a conspiracy and secrets of great magnitude.

This is a complex novel with a deeply-hidden mystery. Smilla digs into events that show Danish willingness to exploit the resources of Greenland and Greenlanders. The fallen boy, Isaiah, becomes a symbol of the expendability of Greenlanders. Smilla is able to investigate the case because of her scientific training, but it will be the skills she learned in her youth that will be her salvation. Hoeg's world is a world filled with violence. Smilla's suspicion that she can't trust anyone is fulfilled. The faults of colonialism are laid bare.

Peter Hoeg, Smilla's Sense of Snow (Delta, 1995) ISBN: 0385315147