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.