Monday, June 25, 2012

Attention, readers: we've moved!

Update your bookmarks and say goodbye to Blogger - Zeitgeist Reviews has been moved to WordPress!

For future reviews, head to this new domain!

Friday, June 22, 2012

How to Change the World by David Bornstein

While many a novel that’s promoted as “inspirational” turns out to be a bunch of hot air, it’s certainly not the case with How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, a collection of case studies compiled by author, journalist and philanthropist David Bornstein; a compelling, insightful and genuinely moving book that will definitely serve as a call to action for many a reader seeking incentive to act upon their idealistic notions.

The book opens with a forward that details the history of Ashoka, a global organization that sponsors and promotes social entrepreneurs, thereby promoting social justice worldwide. Since it was founded by Bill Drayton in India in 1980, Ashoka has expanded to over 60 countries, and served a wide variety of causes; ranging from providing solar energy to a village to Brazil to helping AIDS patients in South Africa to funding college educations for underprivileged students in the United States. Using examples such as Gandhi and Florence Nightingale, Bornstein uses this forward to identify common traits and practices of social entrepreneurs, their means of fulfilling their goals, and the lasting impressions they made not only in their chosen causes but on the minds of future generations of dedicated activists.

These remarkable true stories feature philanthropists not only from all around the world, but from all walks of life. Some pursue their charitable businesses as full-time professions, such as Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum; some acquire wealth and then pursue worthwhile causes, such as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet; others go into it out of necessity, such as Erzsébet Szekeres, a single mother in communist Hungary who fought to provide a better life for her handicapped son. Yet they are all determined and admirable individuals united under Ashoka by the common goal of making a difference, and in that they are at once familiar and relatable.

According to Bornstein, the prospects of the field of social entreuprenuership are optimistic, as it has seen a drastic increase in the past twenty years, and will only continue to expand. Currently, over 250 colleges and universities—including Harvard, Yale, Stanford and NYU—offer courses in the subject. Indeed, the Acumen Fund, which supports aspiring social entrepreneurs, has received over one thousand applications within the past two years, as have many similar organizations.

If you’re a reader looking for inspiration, David Bornstein is certainly a writer worth following. He’s also the author of The Price of a Dream: The Story of the Grameen Bank; and his articles have appeared in publications such as Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times. He has co-written To Our Credit, a PBS documentary about combating poverty, and has founded, a website dedicated to discovering new entrepreneurs, and encouraging many more.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Fantasy and sci-fi lovers alike ought to be happily acquainted with Philip Pullman, a master genre-bender who boldly takes readers on a kaleidoscopic magical odyssey, complete with talking animals and portals to other worlds. The Golden Compass—also known by its British title, Northern Lights—is a stunning work of creative vision, and as intellectually engaging as it is fun and exciting.

Twelve-year-old Lyra Belacqua inhabits a world in which human souls manifest themselves outside their bodies in the form of dæmons: shape-shifters who take on animal forms. She and her dæmon, Pantalaimon, grow up in Jordan College, raised by scholars, professors, and servants, until the arrival of her enigmatic uncle, Lord Asriel, an explorer who experiments in theology. Upon overhearing a secret meeting involving a quest for mysterious magic particles known as Dust, Lyra is given a golden compass-like device called an alethiometer—or a “truth teller” with prophetic powers—and introduced to the beautiful and mysterious Ms. Coulter, a scholar whose arrives at the college around the time children in the area begin to disappear. When Lyra’s friend Roger goes missing, she sets out to find him and is soon drawn into a dangerous and complicated scheme involving secret experiments that transcend time and space; a journey that takes her around the world on boats, zeppelins, hot air balloons, and the back of an armored bear.

Just as Pullman’s magical world draws comprehensively on a multitude of sources—mythology, theology, astronomy, magic, and politics—it also offers a diverse cast of characters. There are tribes of witches, including the witch queen Serafina Pekkala; a nomadic ethic group known as gyptians, whom Lyra travels with for a time; and talking armored bears known as panserbjørne; which includes the bear prince, Iorek Byrnison, who becomes Lyra’s trusted companion. The villainous ones in the assorted collection are the members of the General Oblation Board, known as the Gobblers, who kidnap children and perform experiments on them in the name of religion.

The compelling driving force of the narrative is Lyra, a willful, vivacious tomboy whose brazen disregard of authority serve her well on a journey that tests her courage and resolve; yet she’s also equal parts clever and compassionate. Fittingly, her talent for lying—which gets her out of many a life-threatening situation—eventually earns her the nickname Lyra Silvertongue, bestowed on her by Iorek Byrnison.

A writer like Pullman does not adhere to the confines of genre. Just as Lyra’s expedition transcends time and space, The Golden Compass defies easy categorization, and its audience is certainly not limited to children and young adults. This also applies to the book’s two sequels, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore by Stella Duffy

Although historical figures are often ripe for fiction, doing justice to them often poses a challenge for many an author, thereby making historical fiction somewhat of a hit-or-miss genre. With Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore, British author Stella Duffy sets out to chronicle the life of Theodora, the sixth-century actress and prostitute turned Byzantine Empress, and somehow manages to downgrade a remarkable life story into a cheap, plodding Harlequin novel.

This unabashedly bawdy novel begins with Theodora’s childhood as a destitute young actress and dancer, and chronicles the procession of her career to prostitute to governor’s concubine to, eventually, the wife of Emperor Justinian I. During this time she makes a name for herself as the biggest star of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, travels to Africa, has a spiritual awakening in the middle of the desert, and undertakes secret missions for the Orthodox Church. At times, throughout her ordeals, she must work her way through the various political and religious disputes throughout the Roman Empire, such as the rise of Chalcedonian Christianity, and the clashing of the two political parties: the Greens and the Blues.

Contrary to what the title would have readers believe, we are only granted a look inside her life as an actress and as a whore; not so much as an empress, as the novel comes to a screeching halt with her marriage to Justinian. The majority of the book—which is everything leading up to her marriage—is weighed down by a lack of direction and character development. In portraying several historical figures as one-dimensional cartoons whose actions are purely driven by exposition, Duffy has reduced Theodora—who was perhaps the most influential and powerful woman in the history of the Roman Empire—into a lifeless, generic tart.

Duffy’s writing style is long-winded and digressive, as she makes excessive use of run-on sentences as a means of prose construction. That, coupled with the fact that she seems to be making it up as she goes along, turns the novel into a rambling sequence of events with a contrived, tacked-on ending that leaves loose threads untied, and questions about Theodora’s life unanswered.

In short, this pulpy romance novel does not do justice to the intriguing historical figure that is Theodora. Those interested in her story may be better off seeking nonfiction works such as The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by 18th-century British historian Edward Gibbon, or the more recent Women in Purple: Rulers of Medieval Byzantium by King’s College London professor Judith Herrin.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman

While I personally am not a fan of the self-indulgent memoir and more in favor of memoirists who balance personal divulgence with cohesive storytelling, indulgence can be forgiven in the hands of a self-deprecating, dryly humorous author like Chuck Klosterman. An author, essayist, and rock critic with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop culture, Klosterman makes Killing Yourself to Live: 85% of a True Story an honest, amusing and at times thought-provoking existential treatise on the rock stars whose fame only peaked once they kicked the bucket.

Upon being given an assignment to write an article for Spin magazine on society’s relationship with dead rock stars, Klosterman embarks on a three-week road trip that takes him everywhere from the big cities of New York and Minneapolis to the countryside of Montana and Mississippi, visiting the historic death sites of rock stars. During this time, Klosterman juggles relationships with three different women, does some recreational drugs—at some point snorting cocaine at the site of the Station nightclub fire in Rhode Island—and wonders whether he has Cotard’s syndrome, a rare mental disorder that deludes a person into believing they’re dead. Along the way he meets some colorful characters, such as Kurt Cobain devotees who maintain the belief that he was murdered, a drunken Uma Thurman lookalike who climbs on the roof of a building in heels, and a Cracker Barrel waitress who likes Franz Kafka.

Among Klosterman’s philosophical musings on the deaths of rock stars—whether by accident (Duane Allman) or suicide (Kurt Cobain), during a time of career success (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s plane crash) or fading popularity (Elvis Presley’s overdose)—are his commentaries on social hypocrisy; his meditations on what song he’d like to play while committing suicide; and an outlandish theory about Radiohead’s album Kid A unintentionally predicting the events of 9/11. Needless to say this guy is all over the place, and for every insight he offers, there’s twice as many ruminations on an unrelated topic.

While a lack of direction, as well as the absence of any conclusion, pervades the memoir, its saving grace is that Klosterman never pretends his narrative is anything more than it is. His unpretentious, self-deprecatory tone and willingness to admit his faults as a memoirist—and as a person—gives it a sort of charm, and makes him a relatable and entertaining narrator, with plenty of humor and wit to move the story along.

In short, don’t go looking for any profound insight on life, death, and rock’n’roll; just for a steady 256 pages of travel, philosophizing, and an endless sea of pop culture references. For those wanting more, Klosterman is also the author of the nonfiction book Fargo Rock City: A Heavy Metal Odyssey in Rural North Dakota; a collection of essays entitled Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto; and two novels, Downtown Owl and The Visible Man; to name a few. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

Son of the Shadows by Juliet Marillier

Continuing the legacy started with Sorcha, the resilient heroine of Daughter of the Forest, Juliet Marillier returns us to the enchanted land of Sevenwaters with this spellbinding second installment, Son of the Shadows, a historical fantasy novel with elements of a war epic, as well as a stirring love story set in the midst of warfare between Irish and British chieftains.

The heroine of this novel is Sorcha’s youngest daughter Liadan, who grows up in Sevenwaters with her sister Niamh and twin brother Sean, and has inherited her mother’s skills in the healing arts, as well as the family gift of the ability to see the future. When her family’s allies return from the battlefield, they bring with them stories of a murderous band of mercenaries and their ruthless leader known as the Painted Man. These stories come true for Liadan when, while riding through the forest, she’s kidnapped by these outlaws and made to use her healing abilities to save the life of their injured blacksmith. Over time, Liadan bonds with the men and begins to question her loyalties, all while falling in love with the Painted Man, and eventually finds herself in the midst of fulfilling an ancient prophecy that will drastically alter the fate of Sevenwaters.

Celtic mythology and folklore have a strong presence within the novel, such as the legends of the ancient races of the Túatha Dé Danann (the Fair Folk) and the Fomhóire (the Old Ones); both of whom guide Liadan throughout her odyssey of both mind and body. Also included are the ancient seasonal festivals, such as Samhaim, Imbolc and Beltaine, which—though Marillier’s extensive research—play their part in creating a fully realized cultural backdrop of the story at hand.

Similar to its predecessor, Son of the Shadows also touches upon the gender politics of ninth-century Ireland, such as the marriage market and the expectations placed on a wife to serve her husband. In particular, the tragic plight of Liadan’s sister Niamh—namely, her marriage to an abusive chieftain, arranged for the sake of military alliance—serves to poignantly represent the treatment of women as livestock during that era; a haunting subplot that leaves its mark on the reader’s consciousness, and provides some foreshadowing for the next installment of the Sevenwaters saga.

Once again, Marillier succeeds in concocting a thoroughly rewarding read with her skilled blend of history, fantasy and romance, and her fans should not be disappointed with Son of the Shadows. Chances are they will eagerly pick up the next book in the series soon after finishing this one.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Nim Chimpsky by Elizabeth Hess

Hindsight is 20/20, especially when it comes to scientific studies that are revealed to have been miscalculated only in retrospect. Such is the true story behind Project Nim, an experiment that revealed the long-term consequences of exploiting a primate for research. A result of interviews and historical records collected by journalist Elizabeth Hess, Nim Chimpsky: The Chimp Who Would Be Human is a tragic, funny and maddening story of misguided attempts at scientific advances resulting in animal cruelty, and a character study of a much loved yet much mistreated chimp.

Project Nim was an attempt on the part of Columbia University psychologist Herbert Terrace to disprove Noam Chomsky’s theory that the capacity for language belongs exclusively to humans. Taken from his mother at birth, Nim was placed in a human family in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and raised as one of the children, while taking lessons in American Sign Language. Yet as human as he was, it soon became clear that Nim’s feral nature could not be contained, and the experiment was subsequently deemed a failure. When Project Nim ended, the chimp was abandoned by the only family he knew, and rotated throughout various facilities, from a chimp breeding farm to a medical research lab. It was his signing ability—along with the fame he amassed as a result of the study—that would save his life.

Given that Project Nim took place during the 70s, the personal dramas of the people involved were influenced by the zeitgeist of the era: a time of increasing political activism, hippie culture, the sexual revolution and women’s liberation. By detailing the cultural backdrop, Hess successfully provides some rhyme and reason to the uninformed and deplorable actions on the part of the researchers, from substance abuse and marital infidelities to punishing Nim with solitary confinement. Additionally, Hess always makes it clear that there are few clear-cut heroes and villains, and that their intentions, whether good or bad, have little bearing on the outcomes.

Hess characterizes Nim himself as not unlike a human child: mischievous, playful, unruly, and endearingly creative in his means of disobedience. But the professionals involved would eventually realize the hard way their own cardinal sin of anthropomorphizing a primate; a fact that became clear during attempts to socialize Nim with other chimpanzees after a lifetime spent with humans. What appears infuriatingly obvious to modern readers was not so to these seemingly intelligent psychologists and linguists whose actions are now considered not only despicable but completely foolish.

Alternately humorous and heartbreaking, Nim Chimpsky is a story that needs to be told; a cautionary tale of the treatment of animals as research subjects, and the unpleasant truth about the price of scientific discovery; as much a morality tale, and a fun, charming story, as it is an educational biography. 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

Gender is an intriguing sociological aspect of the lives of human beings; one that has been extensively studied, challenged and altered throughout history; and, in the case of Jeffrey Eugenides, explored through the medium of storytelling. Narrated by Cal Stephanides, a hermaphroditic man of Greek descent—who lived the first fourteen years of his life as a girl named Calliope—Middlesex is the darkly comic and captivating story of a Greek-American family and their triumphs and failures in their pursuit of the American dream.

Calliope Stephanides, a second-generation American, grows up in suburban Grosse Point, Michigan within the zeitgeist of the 60s and 70s, a time of political turmoil, racial tensions, and the sexual revolution. As narrator, Cal—now an adult man living in Germany –traces his genetic history, starting with his Greek grandparents’ emigration from Turkey during the Greco-Turkish War, and the long-buried family secrets that ultimately lead to him being born intersex—a condition that would go unnoticed until his tumultuous teenage years; and a revelation which, during an adolescence beset with sexual confusion and experimentation, would mark the transition of Calliope’s transformation into Cal.

Throughout the novel, Cal interweaves various historical events with the concurrent storylines, starting with her grandparents fleeing Turkey during the Great Fire of Smyrna and travelling to America during Prohibition—a time during which his grandfather gets involved in bootlegging. The novel then moves forward in time to the courtship and marriage of Cal’s parents during the Vietnam War, and Calliope’s childhood during the Detroit Riot of 1967 and the Watergate scandal of the 70s. With these events serving as backdrops, the issue of gender politics is explored through the relationships of the Stephanides family, and the roles the men and women fulfill within the social and cultural context, as well as the closeted lesbianism of one of Cal’s distant cousins.

Allusions to Greek mythology have a strong presence throughout the novel, such as the symbolism of the Minotaur, the Greek beast that was half-man and half-bull; young Calliope’s identification with the Oracle of Delphi; and her role in her middle school’s production of Sophocles’ Antigone. In a sense, Middlesex also contains elements of Homer’s The Odyssey, as it tells of a family’s epic journey that spans cultures, continents, and times of great social upheaval, in addition to Cal’s coming-of-age journey, and his struggle to come to terms with his identity as a man.

Long story short, Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize for a reason. The novel succeeds on many levels: as a family saga, a bildungsroman, an historical chronicle, and a modern-day Greek epic, with the occasional bit of mythology thrown in; simply put, an impressive accomplishment in the art of storytelling. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

A beautiful book cover can be quite seductive, much like the dreamlike spectacle of the circus. However, just as the circus is ultimately an illusion designed for frivolous entertainment, so is Erin Morgenstern’s glitzy but ultimately hollow attempt at a fantasy novel. While rich in visual imagery, The Night Circus is an insipid and tedious read that is all flash and no substance, and has more to offer in common gimmicks than in plot coherence and characterization.

Narrated in a nonlinear fashion, The Night Circus takes place in Victorian London, where a magical touring circus only comes into being when the sun goes down. At the center of this phenomenon are two apprentices—Celia, daughter of Prospero the Enchanter; and Marco, the adopted protégé of the mysterious Mr. A.H.—who have been trained extensively in magic and the art of show business in order to settle a rivalry between their mentors. Along with their intersecting storylines, we have a vast menagerie of performers and patrons, including the M. Chandresh Lefèvre, the ringleader; Tsukiko, the contortionist, Herr Frederick Thiessen, the German clockmaker; the teenage twin psychics, Poppet and Widget, and their friend, a curious young circus enthusiast named Bailey, who turns to the circus to escape his family problems.

Morgenstern clearly enjoys introducing new characters and incorporating new plot threads, which she does in excess. However, she fails to do them justice, as she lacks the ability the construct a coherent narrative. The world she conjures never achieves depth, being populated by one-dimensional characters and meandering subplots that don’t go anywhere. The vivid descriptions and striking visuals only serve to please readers on a superficial level; take that away and all that’s left is a flimsy skeleton of a half-realized, poorly conceived excuse for a novel.

Supposedly, Celia and Marco have been brought up to take part in a magical duel that pits them against each other, despite being unaware of the rules and conditions, and the whole premise of the duel itself being deliberately vague. When the details are finally revealed in the eleventh hour of the novel, the big revelation is completely predictable and anticlimactic, and from there a lazily written ending soon follows that is as ambiguous as it is contrived.

I would strongly advise readers not to waste their time with such a weak, muddled mess of cheap spectacle masquerading as a story. There are very few redeeming qualities in this one, so don’t let the pretty cover entice you into this nonsensical vortex.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Shakespeare's Wife by Germaine Greer

Despite little being known of the Bard’s mysterious wife, over the years she has been much maligned by Shakespearean scholars, who are convinced beyond doubt that she was little more than an untamed shrew and a thorn in the side of their exalted dramatist. Yet noted feminist Germaine Greer, armed with extensive historical records and a keen understanding of the cultural zeitgeist of Elizabethan England, provides a revisionist assessment with Shakespeare’s Wife, a meticulously researched and vividly written show of support for the much misunderstood Ann Hathaway.

 The family trees of both Ann and William Shakespeare are thoroughly traced and examined, as are the social mores of Stratford-Upon-Avon during the 16th and 17th centuries, negating the various myths that have surrounded the courtship of eighteen-year-old Will and twenty-seven-year-old Ann. Due to the couple’s age difference, scholars have long speculated that Ann was a manipulative “old maid” who seduced an impressionable young man and ensnared him in a discontented marriage. Historical as well as fictional portrayals of Ann Shakespeare, from Thomas De Quincey’s Shakespeare: A Biography to Anthony Burgess’s Nothing Like the Sun, depict her as homely and opportunistic, even depraved and desperate for a husband. In playing the part of Ann Shakespeare’s advocate, Greer suggests what no scholar has dared contemplate before: that young Will initiated the relationship, wooed the future Mrs. Shakespeare with his poetry, and that love was present in their marriage.

Due to the lack of hard facts regarding both the Bard and his wife, Greer structures her theories based on the social context of their lifetime. For example, while Shakespeare was off in London, pursuing his career, Greer believes Ann may have earned wages as a knitter or a spinner, as business in those fields was booming during that era. By the time the Shakespeare family gained money and status, Ann could have very well have taken up brewing ale, another prevalent business venture in that time and place. Greer also provides multiple answers for various questions raised, such as whether Ann could read and write; the health and condition of their ill-fated son, Hamnet; and Shakespeare’s reasons for omitting his wife from his will.

Always consistent with her citations of court and tax records, church records, deeds, charters and other such sources, Greer provides ample support for the many theories presented, and in doing so argues a persuasive, compelling and insightful case in Ann Hathaway’s favor. Various excerpts from Shakespeare’s works—both his plays and his poems—are also analyzed for possible clues as to certain aspects of the Bard’s life as well as his marriage.

Shakespeare’s Wife is an ambitious and commendable piece of work; a book of painstaking detail, shrewd commentary, and an eloquent and credible literary voice. Needless to say Germaine Greer has succeeded in righting the wrongs done to the wife of England’s greatest playwright, and lending a voice to one of history’s underdogs.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown

Besides being one of history’s highest esteemed Renaissance men, Leonardo Da Vinci is also a figure shrouded in the mystery he left behind in his work; mysteries that thriller novelist Dan Brown made use of to write The Da Vinci Code, an entertaining and at times thought-provoking whodunit that somehow manages to be a light read despite all the extensive research that has gone into it.

The murder mystery begins in the Musée du Louvre, where the curator, Jacques Saunière, has been shot to death, his body laid out in the pose of Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. During the final minutes of his life, Saunière managed to leave behind a cryptic message, and the police summon Harvard professor Robert Langdon—described as looking like Harrison Ford—and cryptographer Sophie Neveu—who happens to be Saunière’s estranged granddaughter—to decode it. What they discover leads them to dealings with Opus Dei and the Priory of Sion, Westminster Abbey in England, the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland, and eventually to revelations about Jesus Christ and the Holy Grail that the Vatican has been keeping secret for centuries.

An effective method Brown has of keeping the pages turning is his short chapters—some as short as a page or less—most of them ending in cliffhangers. He knows how to keep the suspense going with twists, turns and new revelations. Readers who hold an interest in art history and theology ought to have plenty to relish, and more to discover. Though not always accurate, Brown’s assessment of secret societies and their enigmatic rituals should appeal the curiosity of the masses.

Besides the interesting theories, the history lesson made fun, and a good amount of suspense and action, The Da Vinci Code does not offer much more in the way of substance. The characters are underdeveloped and forgettable, the ending anticlimactic, and the writing style lackluster. While readers can expect to have a good time, they should not be setting their standards too high for Brown, as his creative vision only goes so far.

In a nutshell, The Da Vinci Code is a fun, gimmicky romp involving secret societies, conspiracy theories and a pseudo-Indiana Jones. Those who enjoyed this one should probably pick up Angels and Demons and The Lost Symbol, two similar thrillers also featuring the protagonist Robert Langdon.

Friday, March 30, 2012

The Sight by David Clement-Davies

Being a travel writer has surely granted David Clement-Davies the extensive knowledge needed to write of the social dynamics of a wolf pack within the barren winter of ancient Transylvania; a setting that’s brimming with folklore, superstition and dark forces. The Sight is both a thrilling fantasy and a war epic in allegorical form, grand in scale and raw in its portrayal of the destructive powers of fear and prejudice and their contribution to warfare.

A wolf pack living in Transylvania, led by the alpha male Huttser and his mate, Palla, is haunted by the unwelcome presence of Palla’s ostracized sister, Morgra, a lone wolf who travels with a raven on a journey to wield the dark arts and harness the power of the Sight, the ability to see into the minds of other animals, and to see the future. By contrast, the pack maintains belief in the ancient wolf gods, Tor and Fenris. Two pups are born to Huttser and Palla: the snow-white Larka and her black-furred brother, Fell; a birth that sets into motion an ancient prophecy that spells doom for the pack and an all-encompassing crisis of faith and survival for all animals in nature, merging the worlds of man and beast and blurring the line between the living and the dead.

Far more than just a fantasy involving wolves, The Sight takes on social issues that are relevant to human society as well, such as the way evildoers like Morgra are driven to violence by bigotry and alienation, and how belief in a higher power has equal capacity for harmony and destruction. The struggle for power, thirst for vengeance and ideology of dominance are also present in this anthropomorphized natural world for an in-depth exploration of the human condition, as are themes of redemption, forgiveness, and rebirth after spiritual death.

Clement-Davies is extremely comprehensive in the ancient myths and stories he draws upon: everything from the mythical founders of Rome—Remus and Romulus—to Little Red Riding Hood, Christianity and werewolf mythology. His beautifully vivid descriptions also bring the story’s natural and historical background to life, adding to the ill-omened yet magnificent atmosphere of this great and perilous landscape.

The Sight is a powerfully written cautionary tale about the far-reaching consequences of intolerance and betrayal, and an allegory meant to provoke introspection of the failings within our own society. For a fantasy novel that succeeds on several different levels, I highly recommend this one.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Solar by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan created a tough act to follow with his magnum opus, Atonement, in 2001, so one can easily forgive him any lackluster piece that turns up short of such excellence. Although meticulously well researched in its portrayal of science, Solar lacks direction, as well as the flowing narrative, psychological complexity and humanistic quality of McEwan’s previous works.

A character study of an utterly unlikeable character, Solar tells the story of Michael Beard, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who runs the gamut of the Seven Deadly Sins, particularly Lust, Sloth and Gluttony, and whose personal life has fared from dismal to catastrophic. An overweight sex addict and heavy drinker, Beard has four failed marriages under his belt due to his compulsive womanizing; however, he’s met his match with his fifth wife, who begins an affair of her own in retaliation. Due to grave errors in judgment on both sides, a tragicomic accident climactically sets a fresh start in motion for Beard, in which he takes on the issue of global warming and travels the world in pursuit of new heights to his career.

Although it’s been categorized as a satire, I found the novel to be so episodic and uneven in tone that it seemed it couldn’t decide its purpose, or what it was meant to satirize. While it takes on various issues such as global warming, metaphysics, gender politics, misanthropy, addiction and subjective morality, by the time it reaches its anticlimactic and inconclusive end, it becomes little more than a circus sideshow that puts the most pathetic aspects of human nature on display. Freud would have a field day with Beard and the foolish, juvenile swarm of women who inexplicably flock to him. Ultimately Solar falls flat because it tries to do too many things at once, and it becomes mere guilty pleasure to stick with it until the end.

Although it fails to hold together as a story, Solar could be ripe for book club discussions on a variety of topics beyond the chief issues of the science and politics of climate change. Moral and philosophical debates could arise from Beard’s amorality, his views on women, the philosophy of solipsism and other metaphysical ways of thinking that are explored throughout the novel.

Needless to say this is not McEwan’s best work. Any potential it has falls flat due to lack of direction and an unclear purpose to the story, as well as the absence of any reason for readers to bother themselves with the exploits of the characters. Even so, I remain a committed fan and eagerly await his upcoming works, provided they do not involve the jinxed sexual exploits of another tiresome cad.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua

Those who have wondered at the stereotype of high-achieving Asian children need look no further than Amy Chua’s sharp, self-deprecating account of raising her own straight-A, musically gifted daughters in a rigid, authoritarian manner—otherwise known as the Chinese way. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a darkly funny, cringe-inducing and at times deeply moving story of a family’s journey between two clashing cultures.

This is the saga of an intensely strict mother who believes she has all the answers, only to have her extremism backfire on her. Though narrated in a balanced, perceptive, humble manner, Chua is characterized throughout the events of the novel as being part mother and part army drill sergeant; a fiercely ambitious woman with noble motives and merciless methods, which involve no play dates, sleepovers or school plays, no television or video games, no choice in extracurricular activities, and long hours of music practice. Though she characterizes her older daughter Sophia as naturally studious, diligent, and positively responsive to her disciplinary procedures, readers can’t help but cheer when the Tiger Mother gets her comeuppance in the form of her younger daughter Lulu’s rebellion, which climactically triggers a revelation and reevaluation of the methods she had always sworn by.

While Western parents may view the traditionalist Chinese parent as needlessly harsh, high-handed and self-serving, the other side’s perspective is that the Western model is spineless and overindulgent. Pre-rebellion Chua boasts of her high ambitions for her children, as well as her unwavering faith in them that drives her to push them beyond their limits, all while locking horns with her feisty daughters. Yet the perspective she eventually gains leads her to recognize the flaws in the Chinese method, and the worthwhile qualities in the Western model.

I know of few books currently on the market that are more insightful and thought-provoking, or any that elicit such levels of introspection. Whether they agree or disagree with the Tiger Mother’s methods, readers will surely find themselves questioning their own upbringings and ways of life, and their manner of raising their own children. What does it mean to be a good parent? Are we really doing all we can for our kids? Is there a price for having one’s child reach their full potential? Where do we draw the line between helping our children succeed and letting them choose their own path?

For an intimate anthropological study of parents and children and the trials of child-rearing, look no further than Amy Chua’s cleverly written chronicle of her conversion from staunchly traditional Chinese parent to democratic advocate of a hybrid between the Chinese and Western models—or, as she calls it, the best of both worlds—and all the awkward laughs, tough love, and mother-daughter shout-fests in between.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Must Love Dogs by Claire Cook

Romantic comedies are rarely as well done and as charming as Must Love Dogs by Claire Cook, a fun, light read with warmth as well as wit. Though rom-coms typically do not appeal to me, I found this one to be a highly enjoyable tale of a midlife crisis and the trials and tribulations of courtship.

Must Love Dogs tells the story of preschool teacher Sarah Hurlihy, who, having tired of spending evenings at home watching The Brady Bunch, attempts to venture back into the dating scene after her divorce. Hilarity ensues when her bossy older sister places a personal ad for her behind her back that, to her dismay, reads, “Voluptuous, sensuous, alluring and fun. Barely 40 DWF seeks special man to share starlit nights. Must love dogs.” Before long, Sarah finds herself juggling more men than she can handle—each more quirky and questionable than the last—while getting caught in the middle of the romantic escapades of her widowed father, and the entrance of a Saint Bernard puppy into her life.

Sarah’s rapport with her large Irish-American family—which includes five siblings—ought to be painfully familiar to those who have experienced the constant meddling, lack of privacy, and general wackiness that comes with a claustrophobic family environment. Sarah, ever the multi-tasker, often finds herself the mediator between her sister and her rebellious niece, as well as between her roguish father and his girlfriend, all while attempting to comfort her brother throughout his marital problems. Meanwhile, every failed date, faux pas and awkward situation she endures provides fodder for embarrassing stories at future Thanksgivings.

In a culture that idealizes youth and has many a novel out there about young people falling in star-crossed love, a 40-year-old divorcee for a heroine—with all the imperfections and insecurities as any woman her age, in her position—is a breath of fresh air. A dryly witty, self-depreciating narrator, Sarah is relatable enough for readers to feel as though they’re having lunch with her at a café, listening to her funny stories of romantic entanglements and familial mayhem.

Must Love Dogs ought to strike a familiar chord with readers with large families or tumultuous love lives, or those who just enjoy a good laugh. It would allow one to take a break from the drama of their daily life and enjoy someone else’s for a change.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Fire Bringer by David Clement-Davies

Allegory is a powerful storytelling tool, as author David Clement-Davies proves with this formidable fable of hierarchy, warfare, and religious faith, conveyed through the backdrop of the animal kingdom. A skillful blend of history, mythology, and a travel writer’s observations of nature, Fire Bringer is a wonderfully compelling anthropomorphic fantasy that should appeal to fans of authors such as Richard Adams and Philip Pullman.

Set in ancient Scotland during the throes of Norse invasion, a red deer named Rannoch is born the night his father, the Lord of the Herd, is murdered, and bears a white spot on his brow in the shape of an oaken leaf; a mark which, according to a prophecy, identifies him as savior and liberator of his herd. When the tyrannical Lord Sgorr’s reign of terror intensifies, Rannoch flees the herd and begins a treacherous odyssey that pits him against all his natural predators, while he grapples with his faith in the deer god Herne. Gifted with visions of the future, and the ability to speak to other animal species, Rannoch also embarks on a spiritual journey proves to be as enthralling as his struggle for survival and mission to restore the natural order; all of which build and culminate into a resonant finale.

Far from depicting the generic good versus evil dichotomy, Fire Bringer does not shy away from moral ambiguity. For instance, the villainous Sgorr remains sympathetic throughout the novel, as he is driven to violence by exile and persecution. Adding to the story’s complexity is Rannoch’s internal struggle as he transgresses the line between predator and prey, befriending human beings and even a wolf during his travels.

Clement-Davies is a skilled wordsmith who favors lush descriptions and yet is never excessive. He conjures vivid images of the natural world and its beauty and peril, and unflinchingly portrays both its triumphs and tragedies; meaning there’s no shortage of blood and gore, and readers should brace themselves for the deaths of characters they grow attached to, especially during the final battle scene where the aforementioned prophecy comes full circle.

Fire Bringer should appeal to a variety range of audiences, such as fantasy lovers, fans of historical fiction, and those who enjoy a good war epic. Needless to say it satisfies on many different levels and, as Clement-Davies’ first novel, surely helps him succeed at making a name for himself.

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Tattooed Girl by Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer and John-Henri Holmberg

Love it or hate it, Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series has a ubiquitous presence not only in pop culture but also in political theory, feminist theory and Swedish tourism, as illustrated by The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time. Complied by Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer and Larsson’s friend and colleague John-Henri Holmberg, this ought to be required reading for fans of the series, as it not only provides trivia behind the publication and translation of the three novels; it also explores in depth the social and political context in which they were written.

Made up of essays and critical evaluations, the book is divided into four parts: “The Man Who Conquered the World,” about Larsson himself; “The Climate is Cold, the Nights are Long, the Liquor is Hard and the Curtains are Drawn,” which is about the history of Scandinavian crime noir and its integration into Western markets; “How Stig Became Stieg: An Intimate Portrait,” which details significant events of Larsson’s life, including his changing his name; and “The Millennium Files,” which summarizes various themes and motifs within the series and concludes the book with a timeline of Larsson’s life and career. The many contributing authors are journalists, feminists, book critics, editors, interviewers, and close friends of Larsson, covering a wide range of contextual material within scholarly and philosophical treatises.

Several essays reveal Larsson’s lifelong love of science fiction, and one provides summaries of his earlier writings: short stories published in sci-fi magazines long before the Millennium trilogy came into being. Many essays contain polarizing views, such as those providing both praise and criticism for the feminist sensibilities of Larsson’s work. One essayist analyzes the translated versions from Swedish to English, which leave out key passages and thereby shortchange a large part of the fan base. Still others assess the portrayal of the infamous Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish film adaptations, and contemplate what her popularity among readers bodes for a future of strong female characters.

Larsson himself is consistently portrayed as a deeply committed and socially conscious journalist dedicated to exposing corruption and fighting injustice at the risk of his life, as he was often a target of Neo-Nazis and other extremist groups. Firsthand accounts of his vivacious personality and passion for social justice reveal the elements of his belief system and political leanings that were integrated into his written work.

In short, fans of Lisbeth Salander should not miss this one, for they have only skimmed the surface of an endlessly multifaceted series that is both aesthetically and socially relevant. Also recommended is the fan blog based on the book, which provides the latest information on the upcoming films, and other such updates:

Friday, February 10, 2012

Cell by Stephen King

I admit to not being a Stephen King fan, and Cell did little to change that. Any premise that involves cell phones turning people into zombies involves some risk to pull off. What could have been a biting, darkly humorous satire on society’s fixation with technology instead turns into typical zombie fare and general absurdity, though fans of King and of horror novels in general shouldn’t be disappointed.

The novel starts off with a bang in Boston, where Clayton Riddell, an artist and soon-to-be graphic novelist—and obvious mouthpiece for King’s disdain for cell phones—is waiting in line at an ice cream truck suddenly the woman standing in line before him, having been talking on her phone a second earlier, lunges at a teenage girl and rips her throat out with her teeth. Not far from this incident, a man in a business suit bites a Labrador retriever’s ear off. Clayton evades the sudden uprising of “phone-crazies” by taking cover in a nearby library, where he teams up with a man named Tom and a teenage girl, Alice, who accompany him on a dangerous odyssey to Maine to locate his ex-wife and son. During their journey they come to realize that a brain-altering phone signal known as the Pulse is responsible for morphing the population into flesh-eating, telekinetic zombies.

Needless to say King wastes no time in getting to the zombie action, which will have young fans itching to go battle zombies in their video games. Though the over-the-top nature of it all veers towards satire at times, Cell never quite decides what it wants to be: a parody with social commentary, a survival drama or a generic zombie thriller. Equally inconsistent are the characters, which are thinly drawn and lack depth beyond the archetypes of the Everyman, the Token Gay Guy and the Precocious Teen.

To his credit, King does have a knack for readability, and Cell’s 384 pages zip by pretty quickly. I would recommend this for a light read, mainly for the good use of suspense and the enjoyable action sequences involving a good bout of blood and gore. Even so, be warned that the ending has drawn much criticism for being a deus ex machina, therefore is anticlimactic and thoroughly unsatisfying.

Overall Cell is not my idea of a good time, though I’m sure many readers will find it fun and entertaining. I know zombies are all the rage now (though I still struggle to understand why), and I imagine this book would make a good blockbuster film; perhaps directed by ever-indulgent Michael Bay, who is currently involved in a film by the name of Robots vs. Zombies.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Such is the enduring power of fairy tales that they can be retold time and again and still retain their quality. An example is Grimm’s fairy tale “Six Swans”—the story of young girl who breaks a curse inflicted on her brothers—which has been redone in various languages and by writers such as Hans Christian Anderson and Andrew Lang. With Daughter of the Forest, Juliet Marillier takes readers on a thrilling magical odyssey with a fresh and captivating spin on the classic tale, set in ninth-century Ireland in the midst of land feuds between the Irish and the British.

Sorcha, a preteen girl in the novel’s beginning, lives with her six older brothers in the land of Sevenwaters, where they are at harmony with nature, practicing pagan rituals and maintaining a belief in the mythical Fair Folk. Their serene life is upset by the return of their father, Lord Colum, whose new wife, the seductive sorceress Lady Oonagh, turns his sons into swans. Sorcha flees into the wilderness and, guided by the Fair Folk, begins the arduous process of sewing six shirts out of nettle plants to turn her brothers back into humans, all while maintaining a vow of silence. During this time she is taken hostage by a British lord—Hugh of Harrowfield, also known as Red—and finds herself an unwanted foreigner in enemy territory; a situation complicated by her falling in love with Red.

Although Marillier herself has confirmed that the novel offers more by way of fantasy than historical accuracy, the cultural elements of ninth-century Britain and Ireland, such as the customs of hierarchy, patriarchy and laws of primogeniture, nonetheless have their place. This provides an authentic quality to the novel’s setting, as do the elements of Celtic paganism and the early risings of Christianity in Ireland.

Though Sorcha remains an absorbing narrator throughout the novel, at times the pacing drags and may test readers’ patience. Marillier proves to be fond of lush descriptions of the natural world, and indulges in details such as the names of flowers and trees and the shifting colors of the sky from dawn till dusk; sometimes excessively so. Though the novel ultimately delivers—maintaining strong dramatic tension and culminating in a satisfying climax—readers shouldn’t expect to get swept up in the action within the first couple chapters, which are more devoted to developing characters and fleshing out the setting.

Marillier has crafted a sound and solid story out of the basics provided by the original tale. The good news for fans is that this is just the first in the Sevenwaters series, which currently includes four other books; all of which have a tough act to follow.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay

I believe Holocaust novels are a double-edged sword in mainstream literature. Certainly they are ripe for good drama and would appeal to masses that way; however, they are certainly not feel-good reads, which may put a damper on sales. With Sarah’s Key, however, Tatiana de Rosnay has crafted a beautifully bittersweet story that is part mystery, part tragedy and overall an absorbing and suspenseful read.

Julia Jarmond is a journalist living in Paris, readying herself to move into an old apartment that her husband has inherited. When she is assigned to write an article about the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup—a Nazi-decreed raid and mass arrest that took place in Paris in July 1942—she discovers that the apartment was inhabited by her in-laws, the Tezacs, after the previous residents, a Jewish family, were arrested. Her investigation leads her to uncover secrets buried by the Tezac family for generations, and she develops an insatiable fascination with the Jewish family’s daughter, Sarah Starzynski, who was just ten at the time of the Roundup and disappeared without a trace, never confirmed dead or alive in concentration camp records.

The novel tells Sarah’s and Julia’s stories simultaneously, cross-cutting between time periods; from the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup to Julia’s personal and journalistic endeavors. This method effectively generates suspense for Sarah’s storyline, though Julia’s takes a while to pick up the pace and become as absorbing as the former. While Julia’s story begins with the inspection of her new apartment, Sarah’s begins with being woken up on that fateful night in 1942 by the French police; the inciting incident that draws readers in immediately.

At times the novel suffers from occasional plot contrivance and drama-provoking gimmicks, which are needless, as the story is fairly strong enough on its own. There are also times when predictability dampens whatever power the plot twists and sudden turns of events carry. When a writer has engaging characters and a methodically conceived plot, there is no need for dramatic stunts and affectations to keep readers turning the page.

Sarah’s Key is a flawed yet worthwhile read; moving, riveting, and successfully maintaining, for the most part, a balancing act between the suspense of a detective novel and the tragic elements that are to be expected of a Holocaust novel. Readers will want discover along with Julia what became of Sarah Starzynski; whether she became a camp statistic or the heroine of her own inspirational story of survival.

Monday, January 16, 2012

There Are Things I Want You to Know About Stieg Larsson and Me

Being one of the millions of readers fervently hoping for a fourth installment of the Millennium series, naturally I took to this memoir for a few answers. Written by the widow of novelist Stieg Larsson—the man behind the notorious Girl With the Dragon TattooThere Are Things I Want You to Know about Stieg Larsson and Me by Eva Gabrielsson is more than the inside story of one of biggest names in crime fiction; it’s a love story of epic proportions; a compelling, intimate portrait of two soul mates with a shared world vision and commitment to fighting for human rights.

The book chronicles Stieg and Eva’s respective childhoods, and how they rose from humble beginnings, met at a political rally in their late teens, and for the next thirty-two years, would be life partners and collaborators; a politically-charged, socially conscious couple and a force to be reckoned with. Stieg incorporated many aspects of his life into his novels, which Eva contributed to. They worked together on their political magazine, Expo, and when Stieg began receiving death threats from ultra-nationalist groups for his writings, the couple took measures to protect themselves, which included avoiding being seen together in public and abstaining from marriage and other such institutions that would legally bind them together.

Details of Stieg’s upbringing provide much enlightenment on the man behind the Millennium trilogy: how he was rejected as an infant by his parents and raised in by his country-dwelling grandparents; and how the traditional values of this older generation shaped his own worldviews. Following Stieg’s death, Gabrielsson would bear the brunt of the bad blood between him and his family, as his father and brother greedily bid to claim his estate and intellectual property and deprive his livelong companion of her share.

Gabrielsson writes with great candor as well as affection for the man she loved for most of her life. Throughout their fights and their estrangements, and despite Stieg’s workaholic tendencies, their bond always endured. She reveals their mutual love of science fiction, their passion for sailing, the locations they travelled together that are featured in his novels, and the dialogue between them that Stieg used for his characters. Through use of examples, Gabrielsson leaves no doubt that she was a significant contributor as well as supporter of Stieg’s literary ambitions.

Fans of the Millennium trilogy will find more than what they’re looking for with this book. More than just a tell-all or an exposé, There Are Things I Want You to Know is a deeply moving homage to a dedicated journalist, activist and remarkable storyteller. With so many falsities being published these days by those wanting to capitalize on his success, Gabrielsson’s account has an authentic and heartfelt quality, and is the one fans should be picking up.

Monday, January 9, 2012

The Telling Pool by David Clement-Davies

Archetypal fantasy novels involving sorcerers, swords and magical odysseys often walk a fine line between having a classic, timeless quality and being generic and cliché. While famed British author David Clement-Davies straddles this line with The Telling Pool, ultimately the novel satisfies with a skilled blend of fantasy, historical fiction and Arthurian legend.

Set in late 12th century England, The Telling Pool tells the coming-of-age story of Rhodri, a young Welsh falconer whose father, Owen, is sent away to join the Third Crusade. During this time, he meets Tantallon, a blind, elderly blacksmith who leads him to a magical pool deep in the forest, where he witnesses the hardships his father endures on the battlefield, and his seduction at the hands of the evil enchantress Homeira. He’s also able to see in the past, and he witnesses the fall of King Arthur and the tryst between Guinevere and Lancelot. When his father returns from war in the grips of a malevolent curse, Rhodri leaves home and embarks on a journey to free him, armed with the legendary sword Excalibur and his trained rock falcon.

Although it contributes to the coming-of-age theme of the novel, and parallels the affairs of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot, too much time is spent relating the love triangle between Rhodri, his friend William and a neighbor girl named Sarah. This subplot quickly becomes tiresome, and the novel’s pacing improves significantly once Owen’s return sets the main plot in motion. The other, more effective uses of archetypes are the Merlin and Morgan le Fay figures of Tantallon and Homeira, respectively.

The strength in the novel’s historical element lies in its educational content regarding the Crusades and the corruption of the Albion Christian Church, which young readers may consider a history lesson made fun. A subplot involving a Jewish girl, Rebecca, fleeing persecution with her father calls attention to the social issues of the time and place. Chances are this would be an effective book for middle and high school students studying British history and/or mythology, and it will likely spur an interest that will lead to reading works such as The Faerie Queen and Gawain and the Green Knight.

If you’re looking for an entertaining escapist fantasy that draws on classic tales, The Telling Pool would provide some degree of satisfaction. David Clement-Davies has written better, yet compared to his other novels, this one is a pretty light read that can be enjoyed at a reader’s leisure.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Chances are this novel’s target audience has not read a book from a dog’s point of view since the children’s classic, The Poky Little Puppy, or Eric Hill’s Spot the Dog series. Nonetheless, The Art of Racing in the Rain is beautifully written, moving, funny and surprisingly philosophical, and its appeal is not limited to dog-lovers. Garth Stein has crafted an exquisite story with an endlessly charming narrator, and provides a deeply affecting look into the mind of a dog with a human soul.

Enzo, an elder dog awaiting the end of his days, lives in Seattle with his beloved owner, Denny Swift, a mechanic and racecar driver, and relates stories of the Swift family’s trials and tribulations over the years. From his adoption as a puppy to Denny’s marriage, the birth of his daughter, his wife’s illness, the tragedy and hardships that follow, and all the racetrack happenings in between, Enzo narrates with the wisdom of a wordless observer, with humanlike clarity and perception, even while bound by basic canine needs. Believing he will someday be reincarnated as a man, Enzo makes it a priority to observe human behavior and gain knowledge to carry with him to his next life.

Stein often uses the racetrack as a metaphorical representation of life itself, as Enzo shares Denny’s passion for racecars and often compares the Swift family’s dysfunction to the challenges faced while racing under trying circumstances. In addition to the mind of a dog, readers get an inside look into the mind and mentality of a racer and the balance they must achieve between stability and the need for speed.

Enzo’s personality adds a whimsical quality to the narration. He’s part crotchety elder, part adventurous youth; both a sworn protector of his family and a dependent house pet; a dog who prides himself on being well-behaved and civilized, yet possesses animal instincts that sometimes drive him to disobedience. His frustration at being unable to speak to humans is palpable, though he assures himself that he compensates by being a good listener. Added for comic relief is his longing for opposable thumbs.

Heartrending yet ultimately uplifting, The Art of Racing in the Rain captivates with its painfully accurate portrait of the joys, tragedies and absurdities of human life, and its meditation on what it means to be human, all shown through the eyes of a winning protagonist. Also by Garth Stein is Racing in the Rain: My Life as a Dog, a children’s adaptation of the story, which younger readers will certainly enjoy.