Paul’s Book Reviews

“When I began to write fiction that I knew would be published as science fiction, part of what I brought to it was the critical knowledge that science fiction was always about the period in which it was written. ‘1984’ is really about 1948. It can’t really be understood outside the historical context of 1948.” – William Gibson

What Is the What, by Dave Eggers

I wasn’t able to finish A Heartbreaking Work of Singular Genius, Dave Egger’s autobiographical memoir, but I promised myself to give his fiction a try, so I bought a copy of What Is the What. And I will confess that for the first several chapters I thought I was reading a novel about a fictional “lost boy” of Sudan having problems adjusting to living in the USA.

Many novels have been written to appear as factual tellings of events or memoirs — even autobiographies — when in fact they were wholly made up. I assumed this was such a novel, and that Dave Eggers was displaying brilliant imagination and writing skill. Halfway through I began to doubt my premise, so I turned to Wikipedia and learned that What Is the What is not fiction at all (even though Dave Eggers calls it a novel) — it is in fact the memoir of a real person, Achak Deng, who tells his story through Dave Eggers.

Whatever it is, What Is the What is the sober recounting of what it means to be a refugee in Africa, and an equally sober recounting of the difficulties refugees have adjusting to life in a new country and culture. It helps me understand why the Palestinian refugee camps set up in Lebanon after the creation of Israel in 1948 are still there more than 60 years later. It helps me understand why resettled refugees from third world countries don’t instantly assimilate and succeed in America (as we hoped the lost boys of Sudan would, and as we no doubt hope post-earthquake Haitians will). More importantly, it helps me understand why refugees so often harbor the almost always impossible hope of returning to their own country and re-establishing the life they had before.

Sad, appalling, intensely personal, and yes, brilliantly written. But my promise to read some fiction by Dave Eggers is still unfulfilled, so I’ll be back.

Idoru, by William Gibson

Neuromancer, Spook Country, Pattern Recognition, Burning Chrome, All Tomorrow’s Parties, Virtual Light: other William Gibson novels I’ve reviewed here. As I mentioned way back in my first review, one quickly becomes a William Gibson groupie. After reading all these, plus Idoru, I am more of a groupie than ever.

I know, of course, that several of these novels are connected by characters, scenes, and themes, and in fact tell a continuing story. Idoru satisfied my itch to know more about the artificial intelligence construct known as Rei Toei, who fascinated me in Virtual Light and All Tomorrow’s Parties. Idoru is, as always, a hip, suspenseful, well-told, fabulously detailed story about an alternate future, just one jump away.

Still on my William Gibson list: Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive. Can’t wait!

Count Zero, by William Gibson

I’m still a William Gibson groupie. Count Zero is another of Gibson’s cyberspace-themed novels, with all the irritations that entails — constant references to the “matrix,” Metropolis-like visualizations of computer databases, keyboard jockeys swooping in and out of same when as we all know in real life they’re drooling down their food-stained t-shirts as they stare at monitors, etc — yet the plot and pacing of this novel are as tight as ever, and the story pulls you along. Three seemingly-unrelated sub-plots subtly merge together, tied up in the end, as always in a Gibson novel, in a neat little bow. My only regret is that I have but one Gibson novel left to read, Mona Lisa Overdrive.
Strange Blood, by Lindsay Jayne Ashford

Lightweight, poorly-written British police procedural about a female profiler, brought in as a consultant to a serial murderer case, who gets personally involved. The author introduces some potentially interesting plot threads (a policewoman on the case is seen snogging with the husband of one of the murdered victims), but doesn’t follow through on them. The serial murderer, when we finally get to him (literally not until the last pages of the final chapter) is a schmuck, a total letdown. Strange Blood, I’m saddened to say, is chick lit, focused far more on clothing, gossip, and love affairs than on the crimes it is purportedly about.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves, by M.T. Anderson

This is the second and final volume of one of the most, to borrow a word from the book’s own title, astonishing stories of the American Revolution I have ever read.  In Volume I: The Pox Party, Octavian Nothing, child of a teen-aged slave mother, is coddled and classically educated as part of a long-term experiment by members of the Novanglian College of Lucidity; as a boy he believes his mother a queen and himself a prince; as a teenager his world comes crashing down and he discovers the truth. Living on the run through pestilence, social chaos, and revolution . . . and in the first volume, serving with the American rebels . . . he participates firsthand in the making of America.

In this second volume, Octavian Nothing serves with the British (hence the title, Traitor to the Nation).  You have not experienced the American revolution until you have experienced it as a slave; indeed, you will come to suspect that one of the major reasons our forefathers rebelled against England was their awareness of the growing abolitionist movement in England and their fear that parliament would abolish slavery and ban the slave trade. This is not the narrative of American Revolution we learned in school!

Think about it . . . a slave who supported the rebels would still be a slave and would only be fighting to ensure his continued slavery. Slaves, of course, knew this: lofty talk about liberty and the rights of man didn’t apply to them. The British, in the person of Lord Dunmore, the governor-general of VIrginia, offered freedom to negro men who joined his Royal Ethiopian Regiment in Norfolk to help fight against the rebels. Thousands ran and tried to make their way to Norfolk; many were captured and many died in the swamps, but hundreds succeeded and joined the regiment. There were a few skirmishes, with death on both sides, but the overall history of Lord Dunmore and the Royal Ethiopian Regiment was one of flight, smallpox, and eventual defeat, and in one of the most shameful episodes of the revolution, Lord Dunmore broke his pledge and sold half his surviving black “free men” to the slavers of Jamaica, where negroes were literally worked to death, it being more economical to simply buy new ones as replacements.

Octavian Nothing lives all this, survives, and in a way triumphs. These two volumes tell one of the most brilliant, unforgettable, remarkable stories I have ever read, moving and illuminating at the same time, educational in the very best sense of the word, and I shall press them upon every friend and visitor.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell

Cloud Atlas floored me. The novel’s structure, a series of interconnected stories, written in different styles, moving from the near past into the distant future and back again, is perhaps its most unforgettable feature.

What rivets the reader even more than the structure, however, is the quality of the writing and the plain story-telling power of David Mitchell. I was reluctant to see each individual story end, but quickly swept up in subsequent stories. I was overjoyed — and that is not too strong a word — when I realized Mitchell intended to retrace his way back through the earlier stories.

The stories . . .

  • The journal of Adam Ewing, describing his experiences during an extended sea voyage from the Chatam Islands to Honolulu in the 1850s
  • A collection of letters written in 1931 by a young composer, Robert Frobisher, to his friend and lover Rufus Sixsmith
  • A Luisa Rey mystery novel set in the 1970s, about skullduggery at a California nuclear plant
  • The story of Timothy Cavendish, an early 21st century British publisher wrongly confined in a rest home for the elderly
  • The recorded interrogation of a rebellious fabricant, a cloned female genetically engineered to serve pureblood human customers at an eatery in Korea, in a not-too-distant future where a few corporate states exist in the last remaining habitable parts of an otherwise ruined world
  • The story of Zach’ry, set in the far-distant future, a boy living in primitive conditions on the island of Hawaii, as even that last livable place succumbs to the devastation that has destroyed life everywhere else

. . . and back again, all the way to Adam Ewing, who senses the future and the likely destruction of humanity by its own predatory nature, and consciously chooses to live a life of justice and virtue, offering the reader the small hope that if we strive to overcome our nature, an alternate future is possible . . . that the future stories of Frobisher and Sixsmith, Luisa Rey, Timothy Cavendish, Sonmi-451, and Zach’ry might be quite different.

If you’re at all like me, you’ll finish this novel with a feeling of religious revelation. That is some powerful writing.

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© 2010 – 2011, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.


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