"There is only one force stronger than fear."
This book begins as the story of a daughter (Julia) looking for her father in Burma--the land of his birth. It becomes a potent love story. Love stories--really good love stories--are hard to find, and by extension, must be hard to write. I think that's because in order for a reader to accept the love story, they themselves must, in some measure, fall in love with the characters, or maybe the setting, or circumstance, or writing. At any rate, there needs to be traction. The love stories that fail, in my experience, are those that take too much for granted; they take liberties with the reader and the reader rejects the story. For me, none of that happened with 'Heartbeats'. There was poetry in the small village in the mountains of Burma, and the love that grows between Tin Win and Mi Mi feels natural and inevitable from the start--and not just because they are both broken people, but because Sendker brings them to life in a meaningful and soulful way with a narrative that is infused with introspection and an empathy that reveals a sublime hidden world, not just to Julia, but to the reader as well.
'Heartbeats' will not disappoint.
Having just finished Winter of the World, which is a wholly respectable sequel to Fall of Giants, I decided to stay with WWII for a bit longer and delved into HHhH, which says it's a novel, but it's not really. Not quite.
The book is about the two Czech parachutists who assassinated Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Nazi SS, and chief architect of the Holocaust. Also known as "The Butcher of Prague", Heydrich, after Hitler himself, is probably the most evil man who has ever been spawned onto this earth. Much of this book is dedicated to filling in details of his life and his ascent to power. HHhH, incidentally, stands for "Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich" or "Himmler's brain is called Heydrich", suggesting that despite the fact that Himmler was Heydrich's boss, Heydrich was the sick mind behind the ruthless Nazi efficiency.
This is "not quite" a novel because it's really almost non-fiction. Large portions of the book are given over to simply relaying the facts, and as the author, Laurent Binet, does this, he slips into fictional narrative--perhaps crafting some dialogue or setting the scene. He does this with characteristic French angst, hating himself for having to resort into "imagining" and engaging in self-mockery that makes himself a character--though he would be mortified to hear me say that. It's a little amusing, actually, but the effect is that he crafts a work that is unlike anything I've read before--a fiction/non-fiction hybrid that brings to life one of World War II's more obscure episodes. Binet's obsessive compulsive (not exaggerating there) dedication to accuracy ensures that anyone reading this work will experience a version of the events that is as close to the truth as one can possibly get. I have a lot of respect for what Binet has done here, but I'll admit that by the end, I was looking forward to moving on.
Sometimes you read a book whose writing makes your knees buckle. This is one of those books--this is some of the finest writing I've read in a long time. But it's also an example of a novel that despite its near-flawless writing, falls just short of greatness. This book has been billed as the Iraq War's analog to The Things they Carried. And while I think Powers is a virtuoso with the English language, O'Brien's ability to craft a story makes "Things" a more powerful work overall.
Yellow Birds does have a plot line and arc, but its potential gets subsumed by the meditations on the nature and debilitating effects of PTSD. The result is that you don't really care what the story does because the narrator is already driven to madness. Indeed (spoiler), he is led meekly away in cuffs at the end and it's almost as though you're watching the denouement from a thousand miles away (/spoiler). On the other hand, that's ok because the purpose and message of this book is really to illuminate the silent cost of war on the psyche of those who are touched by it. I was deeply shaken by this book and it has stuck with me since reading it.
This is Powers' first novel and I think he will mature and grow in his craft and when he does he will be one hell of a great American novelist.
I had such high hopes for this novel. I had been looking forward to reading it because it has been praised so highly by so many people and it seemed to have all the elements for being a classic. So Imagine my disappointment when it fell flat at every turn.
Let's start with the "technology". It's clear that Wilson is one of those annoying "power users" that knows enough about computers to cause sys admins and IT managers headaches. These are the people who have a hyper-inflated sense of their own knowledge--people who latch on to terms like "hypervisor" and casually use them in sentences around people (or in novels) who are impressed by their technical gravitas. Except, when they present themselves that way to someone who knows what the heck a "hypervisor" is and know that person is full of crap. So the first hurdle I had to overcome in reading this book was to overlook the technical bullshit. I had to tell myself that this was not, after all, a book about technology. That would be fine, except that I got the impression that Wilson was attempting to be a Cory Doctorow or Neil Stephenson when it came to the tech, but she failed because she simply doesn't have credibility. She attempts to cover this shortcoming over by blending technology and fantasy. The result are laughable magic coding sessions in which Alif battles an evil censor by going into a kind of coding "frenzy" in which he literally melts a computer--not just the CPU: the whole thing, keyboard and all. I found myself laughing out loud at the absurdity and I think I even said, "You've got to be f-ing kidding me!" Remember the PBS show Cyberchase? This is that show.
OK, so I really forced myself to suppress my inner-geek and read this book from a spiritual perspective. This novel is very much a commentary on Islam and the social/political atmosphere in the Middle East. It even invokes the Arab Spring by name in the beginning. Wilson is, herself, an American woman who converted to Islam and I think her insecurities as a recent (relative) convert pours, unrestrained, into the book. There is actually a female American convert in the novel who goes on a rant about being treated unfairly. Then there is the almost unbearable piety of the female lead, Dina who, despite her station, decides to wear the veil. Ahh, the veil.. My personal feelings about the chador being a symbol and tool of oppression and misogyny aside, Dina is so pure that she's boring and slightly offensive: the 1900s called and want their perfect female archetype back. Then there is the imam, whose constant entreatments on spiritual cleanliness began grating on my nerves really quickly. In the final analysis, however, all of the spiritual "takeaways" were sophomoric and insultingly patronizing. Oh, and His Dark Materials is name-checked early on in a somewhat negative way, but it was gratuitous and there is nowhere near enough muscle in this book to take on Pullman.
Then there was the "fantasy". Genies, demons, and dancing flames, oh my. I've seen "Arabian Nights" used as a reference when describing this novel but this ... You know what? it sucks. OK? It just sucks.
Either Wilson needs to go back to writing graphic novels or get a magic editor because this 500+ page book was about 300 pages too long. The writing was bland and unremarkable. The concept was great--this novel had so much potential but it was squandered on virtually every page.
I just finished this debut novel from Australian-by-way-of-Ireland author Daniel O'Malley, who creates a Welsh character who lives in London (but visits Scotland). The novel begins with the protagonist, Myfanwy Thomas, waking up in a London park, with no memory, surrounded by dead men--all wearing purple robes and latex gloves. Then it gets weird. This is definitely somewhat of a genre-bending book because on one hand, it pokes a little bit of fun at the supernatural literary tradition, but on the other hand, it's an incredibly compelling, well paced and entertaining story. It's also very amusing in the places where British restraint collides with the truly bizarre--how do you retain your dignity when you're covered in slime? The "occurrences" and "horrors" are unique and far from overdone and a fresh originality shines through. So if a book on Her Majesty's Supernatural Secret Service piques your interest, then I highly recommend this and I look forward to reading more from O'Malley.