Thursday, June 30, 2011

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

This is the first Neil Gaiman book I have ever read, and judging from it, I consider him an author of great imagination, despite lacking in cohesive narration and characterization. I had to be patient with American Gods, because the pacing left something to be desired; however, the novel serves to entertain.

American Gods tells the story of an ex-convict known only as Shadow who, upon his release from prison and the death of his wife, is hired to work for the mysterious Wednesday, an elderly man who is the Norse god Odin in disguise. Shadow is led into a labyrinthine world populated by ancient gods who walk among us in human form: Slavic gods Czernoborg and the Zorya; Germanic goddess Eostre; Egyptian gods Thoth, Anubis and the seductive Bast, to name a few. Gods thrive on the belief of human beings, and as faith in these gods diminish, their powers begin to wane, calling forth a battle for dominion in which Shadow discovers the fate meant for him since his birth.

These gods represent the ancient cultures that were lost to the Americanization of immigrants, and they have thus been abandoned and are seeking retribution. For example, it is easy to sympathize with Eostre, the earth goddess that was the origin of Easter, lost to commercialization of the holiday and peoples’ lack of knowledge of its pre-Christian roots. For how far human beings have advanced, their gods have been neglected and replaced as forms of technology are worshipped in their place.

The novel’s flaws lie partly in the lack of development of Shadow, who, true to his name, is merely a bystander for most of the time, only springing into action at the eleventh hour. This is a man who is never surprised, shocked, skeptical or has any reaction to the supernatural occurrences that follow him throughout his post-prison life. While Gaiman may have meant his character to be taciturn and mysterious, I found him to be simply bland and void.

Gaiman fans who trust him as a writer may have more patience than I did, waiting for the story to pick up. The plot tends to meander with no purpose in sight, at times when Gaiman loses his train of thought and just throws various pieces against the wall to see what sticks. In times like this, American Gods seems to be merely a showcase of gods of various origins. Gaiman does keep readers engaged with striking visuals and the mystery and suspense of Shadow’s predicament of whom he can trust and who is a god in disguise, though it all leads up to a rather implausible and anticlimactic end.

While American Gods is bogged down by its meandering narrative and lack of direction, it should appeal to fantasy and mythology lovers, as well as to any Neil Gaiman fan. Just don’t expect clear-cut answers when the book wraps up; readers seem to be expected to fill in the blanks themselves.

Monday, June 27, 2011

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Given that A Thousand Splendid Suns is a well-intentioned attempt—made by Afghan author Khaled Hosseini—to pay homage to the women of Afghanistan and the trials they face within the confines of war and patriarchy, one almost feels guilty to admit to not liking it. While the subject matter is unquestionably relevant, I can’t award Hosseini an A for effort.

The novel, spanning from the 1970s to 2003, chronicles the lives of two Afghan women who represent polar opposite sides of Afghan culture: Mariam, a bastard child shunned by her relatives and married off to an abusive man thirty years her senior, who makes her wear a burqa; and Laila, a teenage girl born into a loving, progressive family, experiencing the tribulations of adolescence and early adulthood, as well as the political unrest of her home country. United by tragedy and trying circumstances, Mariam and Laila come to rely on each other for survival during the power struggles of the Mujahedeen and the Taliban, as well as their personal struggles with domestic violence.

While the writing style is engaging and the story serves to entertain and educate readers about the various political issues in Afghanistan, ultimately the novel never attains depth. It is safe to say that Hosseini’s priority was to depict the lives of Afghan women and the hardships they face instead of taking the time to develop characters and add dimension. When I pick up a war novel, I want the human side to the story that goes beyond the war headlines, and all I got from A Thousand Splendid Suns was the outline of the story, with little substance. If I wanted to read a journalist’s account of the lives of Afghan women, I would Google that.

The novel is plot-driven and the characters lack personality, and are mere representations of the issues they represent. Mariam is the abused Afghan wife; her husband Rasheed is the controlling Afghan man; beautiful, intelligent Laila represents the promise of Afghanistan’s youth; her love interest, Tariq, is simply every teenage girl’s dream. These cardboard cutouts are mere vessels through which Hosseini expresses his social and political standpoints. They are confined by the roles they play in the story, never developing their own characteristics, and are thereby difficult to connect with.

I don’t want archetypes or stock characters, and I don’t want a theme-based story. I want a character-driven story about real, flawed women dealing with their hardships their own way, not so we can go, “Oh, those poor Afghan women,” but so we can relate to them and empathize with their plight. I want believable dialogue, characters with likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. In short, I want more than what A Thousand Splendid Suns gave me. In order to truly empathize with women in war-torn regions, one must look beyond the bigger world of politics to see the humanity behind it all.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Atonement by Ian McEwan

Let it be known that Ian McEwan has a new and very devoted fan. I devoured Atonement in all its devastatingly eloquent prose and impeccable characterizations against the backdrop of stunning visuals from the England countryside to the World War II battlefield in France. But the true beauty is in the landscape of the human condition, the inner workings of the human mind and its vices of social hypocrisy and self-destruction.

The book opens in 1935 within the rich fantasy life of Briony Tallis, a thirteen-year-old girl living in an upper-class home in the English countryside. She is an aspiring writer who molds her own reality so that they resemble her stories, and when she witnesses the courtship between her older sister, Cecilia, and the servant’s son, Robbie, her incomprehension of adult behavior, coupled with her imagination, leads her to accuse Robbie of a crime he didn’t commit. The novel goes on to chronicle the far-reaching repercussions and Briony’s lifelong repentance, both of which transport the characters to the frontlines of World War II.

With the poetic grittiness of Tennessee Williams and the shrewdness of Oscar Wilde, McEwan paints a vivid portrait of the dysfunctional Tallis family: parental neglect, petty sibling jealousy that spans decades, the scandal of divorce and willful manipulation driven by resentment and class prejudices, all simmering beneath a refined and cultured exterior. The only show of familial love is the sibling bond between Cecilia and her brother Leon, which is put to the test as Briony’s accusation tears the family apart at the loosened seams.

Briony, part narrator and part character, draws readers in with her multifaceted personality: relatable yet despicable, narcissistic yet conscientious, and childlike in her desire to live in a world of her own creation. It is through her that McEwan delves into the very nature of writing; the ability of storytellers to create their own reality, and the destructive collision between reality and fantasy. Within this he also entwines an exploration of the nature of redemption and forgiveness, and the insight that comes with age and maturity, as Briony grows older and realizes the consequences of her actions.

McEwan’s seamless narration takes us from young Briony’s little world to the carnage that Robbie faces as a soldier and the restrictive environment of war nurses in training, and just as impressive as his mastery of the English language is his keen understanding of human nature. Not since Dostoevsky have I read a more intuitive and psychologically sound character study. Among his many talents is his ability to make his characters vivid and real, and they emerge fully formed from the page as human beings, thereby heightening the experience of reading the novel and following them on their journeys to attain personal fulfillment in the aftermath of a child’s lie.

Needless to say if you are not reading Ian McEwan, you are surely missing out. Atonement enthralled me from beginning to end. It’s the full package of style and substance, and I strongly advise anyone and everyone to pick up a copy ASAP.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory

It’s no secret that Philippa Gregory novels are all the range these days, especially given the success of her novel The Other Boleyn Girl. I figured it was high time I gave Gregory a chance. Having lacked access to The Other Boleyn Girl, I chose instead to borrow a copy of The Queen’s Fool to satisfy my growing interest in historical fiction.

The synopsis on the back of the book was certainly promising. The protagonist is Hannah Green, a fourteen-year-old Jewish girl fleeing religious persecution in Spain with her father during the mid 1500s. They arrive in England, where her psychic ability, referred to as the Sight, wins over Lord Robert Dudley, who brings her to court to serve Queen Mary as a holy fool. Though her secret duty is to spy on Queen Mary, Hannah finds herself torn between loyalties as she comes to love the queen, while also grappling with her childish infatuation of Lord Robert versus her betrothal to a local peasant boy.

However, the potential of the premise turns up short with one-dimensional characterizations, excruciatingly slow pacing, various instances of deus ex machina, a repetitious writing style and Gregory’s desire to give a history lesson rather than tell an engaging story.

While there was certainly potential in Hannah’s internal struggles, her characterization is bogged down by the shifting of her loyalties at the drop of a hat whenever it’s convenient to the plot. Her blind devotion to various authority figures is both an exasperating trait and a device to move the plot forward. Overall, Hannah is not so much a character as a vessel through which we’re given the historical/fictional accounts of the power struggles within the monarchy, and that leaves the novel as a whole feeling cheap and vapid.

Any one of my English professors could teach Gregory that repetitious dialogue does not successfully drive a point home, and that instead it has the headache-inducing ability of a broken record. During the personal/political battle between the sisters Queen Mary and Princess Elizabeth, you could have made a drinking game out of how many times Mary said the phrase “She is my sister,” or the amount of times Elizabeth repeats the word “whore.” At some point, Elizabeth is stricken with a mysterious illness and is forced to travel, and she repeats, “I am ill” more times than readers would care to be reminded. Either Gregory lacks the ability to write dialogue or her characters just have narrow vocabularies.

Gregory should have just written a history textbook instead of dangling all the potential of a good story before us and then jerking it back to reveal the most slow, monotonous read in recent memory. Which isn’t to say I won’t give The Other Boleyn Girl a chance; but overall my first impression of Gregory is less than favorable.

Monday, June 6, 2011

You Might Be a Zombie, and Other Bad News

While I would generally avoid anything with “zombie” in the title, I’m also one who would get my hands on anything having to do with, a site of great wit, humor and surprising educational value. Having You Might Be a Zombie, and Other Bad News in my possession is like having a pocketful of trivia and hilarity whenever I may go.

You Might Be a Zombie, and Other Bad News is a compilation of humor articles written for by writers of various professions. Not only does it take readers on a whirling roller coaster of little-known trivia, mind-blowing science and enthralling government conspiracies; it also calls bullshit on widely-believed fallacies that the powers that be want you to believe.

You know a book is going to be laugh-out-loud funny when the opening page says, “For refusing to collapse into an earth-devouring black hole under the force of its own staggering density, we dedicate this book to Theodore Roosevelt’s left testicle.” And that pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the book.

In the history category, we have “The Four Most Badass Presidents of All Time” (Roosevelt, not surprisingly, is number one), “The Five Most Ridiculous Lies You Were Taught in History Class” and “The Ten Most Insane Medical Practices in History,” and that’s just the beginning. Mythology lovers will enjoy articles such as “Four Mythological Beasts That Actually Exist” and “The Gruesome Origins of Five Popular Fairy Tales.” Science geeks will love “Six Insane Things Science Might Do With Your Cadaver” and “Five Ways Your Brain is Messing With Your Head.” In short, there’s something there for everyone.

Many writers of are keen on revealing little-known truths behind common misconceptions, and fans of the TV show Mythbusters will enjoy the bubble-bursting social commentary of articles such as “Five Big Inventors Who Stole Their Big Idea” and “The Five Most Frequently Quoted Bullshit Statistics.” Other writers shine light on social injustice with articles such as “The Awful Truth Behind Five Items on Your Grocery List,” which lists out food items produced through slave labor and animal cruelty; and “Five Great Women Buried by Their Boobs,” a list of women who went unrecognized for their great accomplishments due to their gender.

All the best writers of have mastered the art of handling their subject matter in a humorous, sardonic and engaging way, and the result is education made fun. Whether you’re looking for a good laugh or a brush-up on your trivia, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.