Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Bonobo and the Atheist : Frans de Waal

The Bonobo and the Atheist
By Frans de Waal

Enjoyable and interesting.   de Waal discusses research on how bonobos, chimps and other animals empathize and live by social behavior rules, which ensure smooth social relationships.  He posits that human ethics/morality developed in a bottom-up fashion, evolving from emotions and good day-to-day social interaction behaviors, rather than in a top-down approach of religion dictating good ethical behavior.  In this manner, he argues that ethical and moral behavior existed long before any organized religion and can therefore exist in a society without any central religion.

I found his description of the research on animal behavior to be the most interesting.  He particularly focuses on bonobos, since they are unusual for the ape family: the groups are led by females, and bonobos are comparatively peaceful (i.e. unlike chimps, who are highly territorial and will brutally kill others, it's possible for two separate groups of bonobos to merge or coexist with one another.)  However, he does describe experiments and anecdotes with a number of varying animals, which demonstrate psychology and social traits, which are very familiar to us.

For example, a story of how bonobos care about the social welfare of others:
Apes do seem to worry about the possible death of others... Upon hearing sudden screams in the swamp forest, fieldworkers found a male, Malusu, crouching with a metal snare around his hand... Other bonobos unfastened the snare from the lianas, and tried to remove it from Malusu's hand. He kept getting stuck, however, and was left behind while the others traveled to the dry forest where they usually slept. The next morning, these bonobos did something never observed before: they returned over a mile distance straight to the same spot where they had last seen Malusu. Once there, they slowed down and searched around. Given their knowledge of snares, the bonobos may have made the connection with the loss of a group member. They failed to find Malusu, but a month later he rejoined the community.  Despite a permanently mangled hand, he had survived his ordeal.
Some of their experiments demonstrate that apes have a psychological sense of fairness:
This became an immensely popular experiment in which one [capuchin] monkey received cucumber slices while another received grapes for the same task.  The monkeys had no trouble performing if both of them received identical rewards of whatever quality, but rejected unequal outcomes with such vehemence that there could be little doubt about their feelings... The monkey receiving a cucumber contentedly munches on her first slice, yet throws a tantrum after she notices that her companion is getting grapes. From then on, she ditches her measly cucumber slices and starts shaking the testing chamber with such agitation that it threatens to break apart.
He also gets into the environment of scientific testing and specifically, how scientist bias in believing that humans are unique, negatively influences research:
This bias was ignored not too long ago when humans were considered good at face recognition. Apes had done poorly on the same tests as applied to humans with the same stimuli, which meant that the apes had been tested on human faces. I call this the "anthropocentric bias" in ape research, which is responsible for much misinformation.  When one of my co-workers in Atlanta, Lisa Parr, used the hundreds of photographs I had shot in Arnhem to test chimpanzees on portraits of their own species, they excelled at it. Seeing the portraits on a computer screen, they were even able to tell which juveniles were offspring of which females, doing so without personally knowing the pictured chimps.
His intention in bringing up research into empathy, social behavior and fairness of bonobos and chimps is to make the link that humans may have similarly developed their sense of ethics and morals from being in a social communities, well before organized religion.  I found this linkage to be rather weak.  As de Waal's focus is in animal research, he does not go into any similar human psychology experiments, which would make this point more explicit.

With that being said, he does have some nuanced thoughts on the current atheist vs believer and science vs religion 'war' taking place in American media/society.  His thinking goes along the line that it's completely feasible for a society to be ethical and moral without organized religion.  He, however, disagrees with neo-atheists' view that 1) those who believe in religion should be mocked and 2) religion should be replaced with science and rationality:
Science isn't the answer to everything. As a student, I learned about the "naturalistic fallacy" and how it would be the zenith of arrogance for scientists to think that their work could illuminate the distinction between right and wrong. This was not long after World War II, mind you, which had brought us massive evil justified by a scientific theory of self-directed evolution. Scientists had been very much involved in the genocidal machine... Children had been sown together to create conjoined twins, live humans had been operated on without anesthesia... I have never forgotten this dark postwar period, during which every scientist who spoke with a German accent was suspect.  American and British scientists were not innocent, however, because they were the ones who earlier in the century had brought us eugenics...
  ...As a biologist myself, I am glad those acrimonious days are over, but at the same time I wonder how anyone could forget this past and hail science as our moral savior... While I do welcome a science of morality, I can't fathom calls for science to determine human values. Is pseudoscience something of the past? Are modern scientists free from moral biases? ... I am profoundly skeptical of the moral purity of science, and feel that its role should never exceed that of morality's handmaiden.
Lastly, I should mention that de Waal also refers to the works of the artist, Hieronymus Bosch, frequently throughout the book.  He mentions on the first page: "I was born in Den Bosch, the Dutch city after which Hieronymus Bosch named himself", so clearly the works of Bosch seem personally special to him.  However, his descriptions of the works and his attempts to link to the other topics were both weak and distracting to me, particularly without being able to see the works being described.

All in all, the research and points that de Waal does explore and discuss were interesting enough to make this a worthwhile read.

Monday, June 02, 2014

If White Kids Die : Dick J. Reavis

If White Kids Die
By Dick J. Reavis

I met an older Caucasian gentleman in a bar, who to my utter surprise told me that he had participated in the Civil Rights movement in the 1960's.  He ended up recommending this short memoir, written by another Caucasian volunteer in the movement.

From the get-go, Reavis gives a disclaimer that he was simply a foot-soldier in the movement, so while he has some interactions with the more well-known people of the movement, he solely had limited view into what was going on locally.  I actually found this view really refreshing and much more accessible. 

I loved his a first-person perspective on the atmosphere...
On two or three streets, in blocks just east of Strawberry [street], an oddly interracial pattern had evolved. Blacks lived on one side of these blocks, north or south, and whites lived on the other. Late in the afternoons, they'd gaze at each other from their front porches, never crossing the pavements to exchange neighborly news. Those blocks were, I always thought, slices from divided Berlin: wary encampments, living cheek by jowl.
... and the context he's able to provide:
 In the South from Reconstruction until 1964 - and in some places, afterwards - all social arrangements reflected a caste system based on color. Under penalty of law, whites and blacks used separate bathrooms, eateries, water fountains, etc. Blacks weren't permitted to try on clothing at department stores, nor to be on the streets of white residential districts after sundown. The regime was so thorough that the Southern Building Code called for racially separate waiting rooms in bus stations, hospital offices, and the like. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 supposedly removed these barriers, but it couldn't always reach into behaviors governed by custom: blacks weren't customarily permitted to enter the front doors of white people's houses, for example, and no law could give them entry there.
From how other documentaries and history books are written, I don't think one would ever get the sense of how loosely structured the movement was and that were tensions between local and national efforts:

  Then he explained.
  "You see, SCLC has a strategy. SNCC and sometimes some of us call it, 'Local failure, national success.' What that means is that SCLC goes into a place, gets the existing leadership to back its plan, and then creates a crisis that will bring in TV and the press. When they do that, see it puts pressure on the politicians up in Washington to pass the kind of bills that we need."
  I was at last learning the basics, but I didn't like what I heard.
  "Dr. King comes in," he said, "at the point of the crisis, to bring it to a head or to dramatize it. He doesn't stay there afterwards, he doesn't go beforehand. That's not his role."
  "Now, the trouble with the strategy," he continued, "is that it's just what it says, 'local failure, national success.'  People lose their jobs, get evicted, things like that.
  "If you go back there [to Selma] now, you'll find that a lot of people are disgusted with the Movement. They'll feel like that they've been left holding the bag. They'll say, 'Where is Dr. King now? He's run out on us,' because they don't understand.
I think with all the accusations of racism today over people publicly saying inappropriate words, folks may have forgotten that racism isn't solely words.  As described in this memoir, it's a truly awful sense of powerlessness, simply because of your race.
A few days later, Charlie, still a prisoner, was brought to a Linden courtroom for trial. The sheriff, the judge, and his assistants began furtively paging through law books, apparently perplexed. This went on for twenty minutes before Charlie was called to the bench. "Charlie," the judge said, following  the Southern custom of addressing blacks by first names only. "You were brought here on a charge of Peeping Tom. But we can't find any law against being a Peeping Tom. So we're going to change the charge to Public Disturbance. We'll bring you back for trial in two weeks." The bailiffs took Charlie away.
Lastly, there are subtleties and shades of racism (that still exist today). That they had to split hairs when it comes to terrible conditions is pretty gut-wrenching.  
These incidents showed me Cooper's understanding of his role. He saw himself as being the man in charge of stopping or slowing the Movement. That's why he'd ordered the arressts on the driver's license charges, and that's why he had bent the truth in his testimony at my vagrancy trial. He felt that persecuting us was the duty of lawmen - but that it was not a job for uncertified racists, for Klansmen and the like. He was a by-the-book racist. Not all Southern police chiefs were so restrained and the Marengo sheriff's office was not so restrained. I concluded that under the prevailing political conditions, we were lucky to have Cooper as Chief.
All in all, this was really eye-opening to read and I whole-hardheartedly recommend it.

Martin Dressler : Steven Millhauser

Martin Dressler
By Steven Millhauser

An odd one this. 

The novel follows the eponynmous Martin Dressler, from when he's a boy, helping out his father at a cigar shop to when he's a young man, pursuing an ambitious entrepreneurial path.

The story starts off fairly straightforwardly and with a direct, forward movement.  After Martin is recruited to work as a nearby hotel, due to his dedication and hard-working nature, he soon finds himself moving up the career ladder.  He also gets his first taste for entrepreneurial success, opening up a cigar shop in the hotel lobby.  As he accrues success after success, there is a sense that this will be a story like Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead and in some ways, there are similarities between the two stories.

However, unlike the protagonist in The Fountainhead, Martin does go through spells of cluelessness and indecisiveness, particularly when dealing with women.  Millhauser details these experiences in an off-kilter dreamlike way.  For example, a sick hotel guest seduces Martin:
And Martin entered her fever-dream, at first awkwardly, then easily: it was all very easy, easy and mysterious, for he barely knew what was happening there in the dusk of the parlor, in a world at the edge of the world - Mrs. Hamilton's dream. The silk-smoothness of her skin surprised him, and under the skin was bone, lots of bone, skin stretched over bone, and then a sudden warm wet sinking and sinking, and somehow he was standing his uniform with an empty pitcher in his hand and Mrs. Hamilton was looking at him with wide-open eyes over which the lids came slowly down halfway. And she said, "Mind you don't catch a fever, Martin," and raised a forefinger that she waggled lightly. Then her eyelids closed decisively.
Also, unlike The Fountainhead's simple unimpeded success story, this one ends with a more ambiguous tone, when it comes to unabashed ambition, both from a career standpoint and a personal life one.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Son : Philipp Meyer

The Son
By Philipp Meyer

Impressive.  The novel follows three related characters: Eli McCullough, Peter McCullough, Eli's son and Jeannie, Eli's great-granddaughter from when each of them are younger to when they get older.

Meyer is primarily interested in the nuances of the characters and how incidents and relationships shape them as they grow older.  In the process, he's able to touch upon a lot of interesting topics and describe them in full multifaceted detail.  For example, he covers the frontiers-men' violent and racist treatment of Mexicans and Native Americans and gets into why this thinking comes about.  He describes Peter's attempts to stand up against this prevailing mentality, but how difficult it is to, how the community ostracizes him and how he fails.  He covers the flip-side, how brutal and violent, the Native Americans, particularly the Comanches, were and how brutal and conniving some Mexicans were in taking over folks' land and cattle.  In short, Meyer tries to portray Western history without rose-colored glasses - it was an zero-sum game environment and no one was completely innocent in their actions. 

Another interesting theme was how Jeannie, despite being tough, smart and successful is treated differently than her husband, because she is a woman.
they were slow to follow orders, seemed to think she could not tell the difference between a good job and a bad job, they were reluctant to start big projects that they were certain she would abandon. There were casing problems, cementing problems, flow problems, the equipment broke constantly ... to Hank they had given their best, to her they gave nothing.
Something was going to happen and the overthrow of Mosaddegh was a miracle unlikely to ever be repeated. And so she had begun to look at domestic acreage... it was just a question of seeing what was actually in front of you, instead of what you wanted to see.  
  Oil went nowhere. Then Bunker Hunt bet big in Libya and got massacred and the Egyptians went into Israel and the embargo hit. The boom had lasted ten years. And still this dissatisfaction. She had won her bet but they would not recognize her.  They being... she was not sure. ... You expect a medal, she thought. And she did. It was not entirely unreasonable, some notice from other operators, a bit of recognition, a mention of her alongside the Richardsons and Basses and Murchisons, the Hunts.  She was certain - ragingly certain - that if Hank had pulled off what she had, his name would have been included.  Maybe she had a victim complex.  That's what they wanted her to think.
Just as Meyer is uncompromising in showing the warts of all parties in history, he's also unafraid to show the warts of all three characters. Eli leads the massacre of an entire Mexican family, who the community incorrectly believes stole cattle and who Peter tries to stand up for. Peter is weak-willed and incapable of saving those who mean anything to him and protecting the morals he knows are right.  Jeannie, refuses seeing extended relatives, since they are a Mexican-American mix, thinking that they are solely out for her money.  While not likable, this makes these characters rather realistic. 

 Finally, a couple other quotes that I particularly liked:
She became deliberate to a fault, building cases for every decision, she was never not reading... Though in more sober moments, she knew there was something missing. The men around her were always sure they were right, even when there was no good reason. That was what mattered. Being sure of things. If you were wrong, you just defended your position even more loudly.
The woman's book had come out and later was made into a movie starring James Dean. It was one long exaggeration. It made everyone look like clowns, as if they had stumbled dumbly into wealth, as if the state was nothing but backwoods tycoons without two brain cells to rub together.
  And yet most of the oilmen had liked it. They began to invent over-the-top mannerisms, throwing silver coins out of the windows of their limousins, taking twenty-thousand-dollar baths in champagne. Maybe it was no different from any other time. The frontier was not yet settled when Buffalo Bill began his shows and the Colonel always complained about the moment his cowboys began to read novels about other cowboys; they had lost track of which was more true, the books or their own lives.
All in all, I liked this novel.  A lot of great details on character flaws and how complex societal views come about.  I'll be keeping an eye out for other Philipp Meyer works.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Battleborn : Claire Vaye Watkins

By Claire Vaye Watkins

Brilliant. It's the range that is evident from story to story that is particularly impressive.

One story describes a 60 year old man who finds a young female teenager abandoned in the middle of a dried out lake.  Another portrays a pregnant woman, hung-up on an old boyfriend and scared of becoming like her mother.  Yet another describes the dynamics between a teenager female and her best friends, a male and a female.

All of the characters are unique with varied personalities, neuroses and fears, yet remain realistic. In addition, each story varies in pace, tone and structure, which fits each story and character and yet providing a refreshingly different emotional turn.

A few quotes from different stories to illustrate the point:
I cried and cried on a bench outside the Asian white rhino exhibit after seeing the marks in the enclosure where the rhino had worn his horn down to a stump, scraping it against concrete sculpted to look like mud. It was foggy at the zoo, and Peter sat silent besides me while I cried, his large hand on the small of my back, light as the fog mist on my skin. People walking by probably thought he'd broken my heart, when it likely the other way around.  We sat like that for a long time before he said, What's wrong?
  Just the same old thing, I said.
  And he said finally, Ecosystems are complex things, Catie.
A blackened sheet of baking parchment floats in a dish of hot grease. The grease has a name, and as our girl tells the story this name will return to her, along with other details of this place, which had until now left her - the flatulent smell from a newly opened bag of sausage, the flimsy yellowed plastic covering the computer keyboards and phone keypads, the serrated edge of a cardboard box slicing her index finger nearly to the bone. Naked in her own bed with a man for whom she feels too much too soon, our girl will recall the name of the grease - Whirl, it was called - and the then-exquisite possibility of searing off her fingerprints.
  Lena, her friend, finally pulls her hands from the rack, shaking the sting from them. You win, she says.
  Our girl waits a beat, gloating, then lifts her palms from the surface, lustrous with heat. She folds a pepperoni disk into her mouth. Let's go again, she says.
As soon as Carter and Marin learn they've conceived the child, they begin to argue about it. What will they feed it, what will they teach it, what of this world will they allow it to see? They fight about these things before the child is more than a wafer of cells. Before the child is anything, it is a catalyst for fights.
 Just about the only common thread that runs through these stories is the setting of the American West, which harsh and dusty atmosphere plays an invisible force driving many of these characters.

All in all, I'll be picking up more of Watkins' works.

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Train to Lo Wu : Jess Row

The Train to Lo Wu
By Jess Row

I got through the first two stories and simply could not finish.

The stories are all based in Hong Kong.  The jacket blurb says that Row spent two years teaching English in Hong Kong, I suspect to convince readers that Row's insights into Hong Kong are "authentic."

But in the end, Row just cannot put aside his inherent biases to understand Hong Kong well and its differences in culture, pace and history from that of the US. 

For example, in the first story, I noticed that all native Hong Kong characters speak in broken English and yet, the Caucasian character (ha, a teacher!) speaks perfect Chinese.  Not only does this reaffirm certain stereotypes of Asians (hooray!), the poor language does nothing to further convey the personality or the emotional state of the Hong Kong characters.  Yes, the Caucasian character is a teacher, but I think Row misses the chance to address the inherent problem of bilingual communication: how it's tremendously difficult, no matter how advanced you are in a non-native language, to express subtleties.

Secondly, it's always frustrating when people associate Asian cultures with mysticism.  That you travel to a less modern culture and that its people are in touch with the arcane and mysterious.  One, it's a well-trodden trope with historically racist overtones that any decent author should avoid.  And two, for Row to have stayed in Hong Kong for two years and still use, it's plain lazy.

Not putrid, but on my actively non-recommended list.

The Borrower : Rebecca Makkai

The Borrower
By Rebecca Makkai

Children's librarian, Lucy Hull, finds herself driving an unexpected cross-country road trip with ten year old Ian Drake, who is a regular of her library and has been forced by his parents to enroll in Pastor Bob's at-risk (of being gay) classes. 

This was a light, easy read.  Despite protagonist Lucy's fears that she will be found and arrested for kidnapping, the prevailing tone is similar to that of some popular tv shows and movies, where you know that the protagonists will never die / have anything too atrocious occur. 

With that being said, I generally hope that there is an interesting emotional turn that makes things worthwhile and that never really came in this novel.  All in all, this was entertaining while reading, but somewhat forgettable afterward.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Steps : Jerzy Kosinski

By Jerzy Kosinski

It's interesting to reread my thoughts on Jerzy Kosinski's Blind Date and compare it to what I think about Steps.  Both novels delve into more edgy sexual topics.  However, in Steps, there is a sense that society as a whole has a sickness to it - the main character is not the only one that has odd fetishes.  Furthermore, when abnormal sexual actions are described, it's done so with a casual tone, not so much that these actions are widely and publicly accepted, but that they are not uncommon and if someone does object, they would rather just turn a blind eye.  It's as if the protagonist, albeit with his set of own sexual fascinations, wanders around a society exploring various sexual areas.

A passage to illustrate:
   During one of my visits she asked me to make love to her. I loved the door. After I had undressed she told me to look in the large mirror in the corner of the room. I saw her in the mirror and our eyes met. Then she got up from the bed, took off her robe, and stepped over to the mirror. She stood very close to it, touching my reflection with one hand and pressing her body with the other. I could see her breasts and her flanks. She waited for me while I concentrated more and more on the thought that it was I who stood there within the mirror and that it was my flesh her hands and lips were touching.
   But in a low yet urgent voice, she would stop me whenever I took a step toward her. We would make love again: she standing as before in front of the mirror and I, a pace away, my sight riveted upon her.
In this manner, this novel reminds me of the subversive movies of the 60's and 70's that make your head spin a bit (Cabaret in particular).  In short, this novel is a quick-read, but not a particularly easy one.

The Visible World : Mark Slouka

The Visible World
By Mark Slouka

I really liked the first half of this novel.  The writing was evocative. Frequently, I had to reread passages to detail out the entire image in my mind before moving on.  The first half was memoir-like, jumping around from memory to memory and there are vague dream-like allusions to past events that are just terrifically pretty.  It was like an abstract painting in word form.
   I didn't remember that dream for a long time. Many years later I found myself on a train traveling south from Prague to visit friends near Jindrichuv Hradec. Wet snow had been falling all morning, but now a dull winter sun had broken through. Coal smoke hung like a mist over the towns with their smudged little houses. The train ran beside the river that curved against the hills and spread in great gravelly shoals between the fields, and everywhere I could see the remnants of a flood which only that past October had submerged all the things I was now looking at. I saw a sofa lying upside down on a sandbar and white refrigerator like a boulder in the current. On the television antenna of a low abandoned building I glimpsed what looked like a pair of blue pants, stiff as a weathervane. And at that moment for some reason I remembered my dream - the dream I had had a year after we had moved out of our apartment on 63rd Road. I didn't think much of it at the time. I watched the country scrolling by. All along the way, beards of trash hung in the bushes and the trees like Spanish moss, except that here everything was at the same height - the high-water mark - everything below having been swept away by the current.
   Strangely enough, just as dreams will sometimes color our memories, the view of the river that day and the dream it recalled together forced themselves on the past, so that afterward, whether I thought of our old apartment, my recollections would always carry a residue of future times, and remembering our apartment I would immediately be forced, like a man stumbling down a series of steps, to recall wandering those same rooms in my dream, and from there to remember the winter morning I'd spent, years later, looking out the dirty windows of the train to Jindrichuv Hradec at all the things, once caught in the current, the flood had left behind.
I was not as much of a fan of the second half, where the protagonist journeys to his parents' home-town to piece together his vague childhood memories.  Slouka then starts to clear up what actually happened with these fuzzy allusions in the first half.  I think large portion of why I was so non-plussed with the second half was that the first half described how some of these events / memories emotionally affected the protagonist.  And the second half, while revealing what actually happened, did not actually lead the protagonist to any further emotional epiphany. As a result, it was nice to find out what happened, but I did not care that much.

I'm a big fan of Slouka's writing though and will likely pick up some more of his works.

Red Sorghum : Mo Yan

Red Sorghum
By Mo Yan

I watched the film, Red Sorghum, years ago, but was curious to see what the book was like.

With the movie as a comparison point, the novel is quite interesting.  The film does follow some of the scenes from the book fairly closely, such that when I got to certain parts of the book, I distinctly remembered the corresponding scene in the movie.  That being said, the movie and the novel dramatically differ in structure.  Whereas the movie follows a linear storyline, the book hops back and forth in time, almost in a circular manner.  The narrator say will mention an incident, talk about an event that happened before that, then an event that happened well after and then perhaps 100 pages later revisit the first incident in more detail and then again 50 pages with further detail.
 The non-linearity is different that used by self-aware, post-modernist authors, who do so to build up to a surprise ending.  The narrator refers to the protagonists as Granddad, Grandmother and Dad, which together with the non-linear structure, make the novel come across as a long multi-day, oral story that one of your parents would tell you about their parents and grandparents.  And the non-linearity comes from the narrator, remembering more details about an event, once they've started talking about something different but related.

Admittedly, the non-linearity and the referral to the protagonists as Granddad, etc. confused me at times, as to who was doing what.  But the novel was interesting enough to force myself to reread passages and figure out what was going on.

The content itself covers the span of about 40-50 years, ranging from how Granddad (Yu Zhan'ao) met Grandmother and their difficult relationship as well to Dad growing up with Grandad during violent and fend-for-yourself times.  The content of the novel does touch upon historical events, such as the Japanese invasion of China during WWII and the growing Communist movement within the country, but the novel is anchored primarily as a personal tale. 
 In that historical era, there were some gruesome atrocities and they are described in detail, so those readers sensitive to violence would be good to be wary.  In general, the writing is fairly descriptive of people, the sights and smells and the protagonists' emotions.   However, the tone in which the violent acts occur is even-handed and neutral, helping bring home the fact that everyday life was brutal and almost barbarian.

I'll end this with a lengthy quote, which touches upon all of the things I've mentioned:
  Then when he [Granddad] was thirteen, his mother began an affair with the abbot at Tianqi Monastery. The well-to-do monk often brought rice and noodles over, and every time he came, Yu Zhan'ao's mother sent the boy outside. Flames of anger raged inside him as sounds of revelry emerged from behind the closed door, and he could barely keep from torching the house. By the time he was sixteen, his mother was seeing the monk so frequently that the village was buzzing. A friend of his, Little Cheng the blacksmith, made him a short sword, with which he murdered the monk one drizzly spring night beside Pear Blossom Creek, named for the trees that lined it. They were in bloom on the wet night, blanketing the area with their delicate fragrance.
  Granddad fled the village after the incident, taking odd jobs and finally getting hooked on gambling. Over time his skills improved until the copper coins that passed through his hands stained his fingers green. Then, when Nine Dreams Cao, whose favorite pastime was nabbing gamblers, became magistrate of Gaomi County, he was arrested for gambling in a graveyard, given two hundred lashes with a shoe sole, forced to wear a pair of pants with one red leg and one black one, and sentenced to sweeping the streets of the count town for two months. When he'd completed his sentence he wandered into Northeast Gaomi Township, where he hired out to the service company. Upon learning that, after the death of the monk, his mother had hanged herself from the door frame, he went back one night to take a last look around. Some time later, the incident with my grandma occurred.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Blackout / All Clear : Connie Willis

All Clear
By Connie Willis

A refreshing combination of sci-fi and historical.

Historians in Oxford in the year 2060 are able to travel back in time to see what life really was like in-person. The plot centers around three protagonists: Eileen, Polly and Mike, who have gone back to the Blitz in UK during WWII and begin to have troubles returning to their regular time.

The novels are rich with historical details of what it was like in England during WWII: of having to go to bomb shelters, of working in department stores, of working as ambulance drivers, of hearing V-1 bombs drop from the sky etc.  Willis certainly has done her homework in this regard, and if  nothing else, one can learn more about history from these novels.

I also liked the sense of fear, uncertainty, and later, desperation that the main characters must face and the extent to which Willis does not let readers off the hook to this either.  Too often, you know that protagonists will survive, completely unscathed, with a happy ending.  Here, there is a sense of the characters not knowing what will happen and not knowing whether they made the right decision or not, which is more similar to real life and is refreshing.

Lastly, it's great to have both female and male characters, who are relatively fleshed out and where no manufactured love story plays a major role.

A few dislikes:

* The multiple mentions of Agatha Christie books - One of the characters is a fan of Agatha Christie and mentions that she always amazed by the reveals, since she has been thinking about the who-done-it situations wrongly.  These mentions setup expectations for the Willis novels that there will be an marvelous reveal for how things work out.  While the ending is certainly well-thought out, the reveal is still a bit of a let down, especially because of these build-ups.

* Lack of emotional back-story so the reader can empathize with the characters.  Willis does a great job of placing you where the protagonists are: conveying what they are feeling at the moment, understanding their brief emotional bonds to the people they meet and the conundrums they feel knowing some of the future.  But there is not as much coverage of each protagonists' memories or personality quirks or some attribute that allows you to root for their survival.

That being said, overall, the novels were quite enjoyable and certainly I will have no problem picking up another Connie Willis novel again.