Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Slow Man by J.M. Coetzee

This book disappointed me. The potential for this literary work was so immense, the writing of such high quality, and the explored themes so profound, that this novel could have been a masterpiece. Unfortunately, due to a major, major screw up, what should have been a brilliant work turned out to be a significant disappointment.

The story revolves around Paul Rayment, a sixty-something man originally from France who lives in Adelaide, Australia. An avid cyclist, the book opens with an accident in which a car crashes into Rayment's bicycle, resulting in the amputation of one of his legs. Depressed by his new found handicap, he hires a serious of nurses, none of which he likes. On the verge of giving up hope, he hires a  Croatian expatriate named Marijana Jokic, who is married and has three children.

Rayment soon falls in love with his new nurse, and begins to get involved with her children in an attempt to get closer to her. If the book had stuck with this plot, and had had the discipline to develop a storyline from this pretty impressive foundation, this novel would have been excellent. The relationship between Rayment and his nurse is sufficient to touch on big themes: the trauma of losing a limb and dealing with old age; the common immigrant experience; the moral dilemmas of falling in love with a married woman; and the morality of interfering with her children. In addition to this great material, the book contains absolutely fantastic writing. In fact, after reading this book, it become clear to me why Coatzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2003.

Unfortunately -- and I cannot stress this enough -- the novel suffers from a huge flaw. About a third of the way, a character named Elizabeth Costello barges onto the scene. An ageing Australian writer, Ms. Costello simply appears on Rayment's doorstep, full of knowledge of the lives of the various characters, and overflowing with advice. The appearance of this personality comes completely out of the blue, is never fully explained, and is incredibly jarring. What was up to then a very realistic and moving story, is suddenly turned on its head by a fantastic persona. This completely random character ruined the book for me. It was as if one was watching an intelligent documentary on the Second World War, when all of a sudden a pink unicorn flashed onto the screen.

It is obvious that Coatzee is a superb writer and I plan to read his other books. That being said, the introduction of this confusing character ruined what was otherwise a brilliant novel. If one is kind one can say that this faux pas was simply a poor choice in literary judgement; if one is feeling a bit harsher, one can say that Coatzee took the easy way out in his attempt to resolve the plot lines that he originally set up.

3 out of 5 stars

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The New Policeman by Kate Thompson

This novel for young adults is a wonderful and highly original story. Set in the seaport village of Kinvara, Ireland, it revolves around the Liddy family who have been musicians for generations.  Fifteen-year-old J.J. is no different from the other members of his family, as his impressive fiddle skill make him a integral part of the family's regular ceili, i.e. musical gatherings and dances.

When a friend says that J.J.'s great-grandfather killed a local priest years ago, however, he begins to wonder what the true story of his family's history. To complicate matters farther, time seems to be moving at an every faster pace, causing the entire village to wonder what is going on. This dual search for the truth behind his ancestor, as well as to discover why time is moving faster, leads J.J. to Tir na n'Og, the land of eternal youth where fairies and leprechauns live. It is here where he finds the true story of his family, what this causing time to speed up in his village and the rest of the world, and also who the new policeman on the local force is, whose true identity is only revealed at the end of the book.

This charming novel won the Whitbreak Children's Book Award, the Guardian's Children's Fiction Prize, and the inaugural Irish BA Award for Children's Book. The awards are well-deserved, as author Kate Thompson has written a great story that immerses the reader in the beautiful world of Irish folk music. A fiddle player herself, Thompson includes a different piece of sheet music for an Irish folk tune at the send of each section. The result is that music is literally flowing from within the pages of this joyful story.

4 out of 5 stars

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Wolf Brother by Michelle Paver

This is the first book in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, which takes place 6,000 years ago in the woods of pre-agricultural Europe. The story revolves around a 12-year-old boy named Torak, who grew up in the forest with his father, isolated from the various clans. Unbeknown to the young boy, he is a special child, as demonstrated by his ability to communicate with wolves.

At the beginning of the novel Torak's father is attacked by a bear possessed by a demon. Following a vicious fight, the mortally wounded father makes his young son swear that he will find the Mountain of the World Spirit, and ask it to kill the bear before it destroys all life in the forest. The subsequent death of his dad sets in motion an adventure that takes Torak through the forest and towards the magical mountain. In the process, he befriends a wolf who accompanies him on his journey, discovers the secret of who he is, comes into contact with other tribes, learns about an ancient prophecy and fights the demon bear.

This is an enjoyable adventure that will capture the imagination of children and adult alike. To properly describe the feeling of living in the woods during the Neolithic era, author Michelle Paver travelled in the forests of Finland, as well as going to a wolf reserve. This research is clearly evident in the interactions between Torak and his wolf "brother", as the scenes comes across as very realistic. While this book is not among the best children's novels that I have read, it is still quite good, and I plan to read the other volumes in the series.

3 1/2 stars out of 5

Friday, February 8, 2013

Wake by Robert J. Sawyer

This book is the first volume of the WWW trilogy by the excellent Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer. (Note: If you are like me and sometimes read a book series out of order, then you can link here for my review of Wonder, which is the final installment in this series).

Like in his previous novels, this book is based on a fascinating set of ideas. At its core, this story asks the following question, "How does consciousness arise, and is it possible that such an awakening could occur within the World Wide Web?" To answer this question, the novel focuses on Caitlin Decter, a blind teenage girl who is originally from Austin, Texas, but whose family moves to Waterloo, Ontario after her father receives a job offer at the Perimeter Institute. After being contacted by a Japanese scientific researcher who wants to see if he can cure her blindness, she travels to Japan where she undergoes an experimental operation in which a signal processing device is inserted behind her left eyeball. This device, dubbed an "eyePod" by Caitlin, sends visual data back to a computer, which then reprocesses the images and transmits it back to the signalling device.

At first, the operation seems to have failed, until Caitlin is able to "see" images of the World Wide Web as a result of the interaction between her "eyePod" and the computer back in the Japanese lab. Following this breakthrough, she slowly gains her sight and begins to see the real world. This sense of awakening is a metaphor that is discussed in different ways throughout the book. Among the ideas that are mentioned are:

  • The groundbreaking book by Julian Jaynes, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which postulates that human consciousness changed about 3,000 years ago. In the this lengthy tome, Jaynes argues that the minds of ancient humans were split in two, i.e. a bicameral mind, that was divided into a speaking part and a listening part. This book theorizes that the bicameral mind disappeared about 1,000 B.C. when the two parts of the human mind merged, i.e. the breakdown of the bicameral mind. 
  • The story of Helen Keller (1880-1968), a deaf-and-blind person who learned to communicate, eventually earning a Bachelor of Arts degree. Sawyer user her story to draw a contrast between the "phantom" Keller, i.e. the unconscious entity that existed before she was aware of the outside world and could communicate, and the awakened woman who became conscious of the world. This metaphor is used to describe the awakening of a conscious entity from within the world wide web.
  • A chimpanzee-bonobo hybrid called Hobo, which is a character in the book and which begins to draw art and become self-aware.

All of these ideas set the stage for the main plot, which revolves around an entity that emerges within the world wide web, and whose interactions with Caitlin make it self-aware, eventually leading to consciousness.

Like other Sawyer books this novel is overfilling with ideas. While the writing is OK, (the ideas are much more important than narrative flow), the characters and pace were interesting enough to grab my attention through the entire novel. While Sawyer sometimes focuses his energy on the science part of science fiction, while paying less attention to the fiction part, this book is a good one from a literary perspective.

3 out of 5 stars

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Carnival by Rawi Hage

This is a difficult book to review. If you are a reader who enjoys experimental literature, then this novel will likely appeal to you, if not seem right-down brilliant. For those who don't have patience for unconventional prose, however, and who are not impressed when an author foregoes a structured story, then chances are that you will find this work a waste of time. To use an analogy, this book is like abstract expressionism, i.e. fans can make a valid case for why it's high art, while detractors can make an equally strong case for why monkeys could make better art.

This novel does not have a plot per se, but rather a context with recurring characters. Set in an unspecified city in the Americas that has a carnival, the book revolves around a taxi driver named Fly.  Raised in a circus, (his mother was a trapeze artist and his father a "man from the East" whose piloted a flying carpet), Fly was raised by a bearded woman after his dad disappeared and his mother subsequently hung herself. After leaving the circus, he travelled to the Americas where he ended up working as a taxi driver, while reading a mountain of books during his spare time.

Fly drives around the city observing and interacting with an eclectic set of characters: Linda the prostitute and her tragic son Tammer; the attractive Zainab; the revolutionary Otto; the drug dealer Zee. Certain passages in the book are beautiful, with a masterful mix of poetry and first-rate prose. In fact, at its best, this novel produces a hypnotic, even hallucinatory feel that is captivating. Unfortunately, this literary "high" cannot be sustained throughout the entire book. In my view, too many parts of the novel seem forced, as if the author were striving to produce the perfect sentence and paragraph, but instead created pretentious passages. That said, as someone who likes experimental novels, I found that the positives far outweighed the negatives.

3 out of 5 stars

Friday, February 1, 2013

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

It's 1946 and the United Kingdom is recovering from the Second World War. While living in London, writer Juliet Ashton receives a letter from a man in Guernsey, an island in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy, which was captured by the Nazis during the war.

This letter sparks a series of written exchanges that reveal to Juliet a remarkable literary society that was formed on the small British dependency during the war. As she begins to receive letters from the inhabitants of Guernsey, she begins to learn the remarkable story of a rural, seaside community that would gather to discuss books, as they suffered through the horror of the German occupation. This discovery eventually leads her to travel to the small island where her life will be changed forever.

From a stylistic point of view this novel is truly remarkable. Rather than using a traditional literary narrative, the story is structured through a series of letters and occasional telegrams, by or to Juliet. Despite my initial doubts, this innovative writing technique did not negatively impact the narrative flow in any way. In fact, even though the entire story is written through letters and telegrams, the pace and character development flowed just as well as in the best novels.

The plot is also very original. Many people may not know (myself included before reading this book) that the Nazis occupied part of the English channel. Strictly speaking, Guernsey was a piece of England that was captured during the war. Recounting this history, while blending it with a story that celebrates literature, is a true joy to read.

That being said, one critique that I do have is the ending. While I found the plot, literary style and narrative flow to be outstanding, I got the sense by the end of the book that the co-authors had run out of ideas and were scrambling to finish the story. The unfortunate result is a Hollywood-like ending that feels forced and disjointed. This disappointed me, because overall I thought this was an extraordinary book, and I would have liked to have read an ending that was more worthy of its potential.

4 out of 5 stars