Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Jacqueline Winspear’s “A Lesson in Secrets” Keeps Many

When I discovered that Jacqueline Winspear had a new Maisie Dobbs novel out, I decided I would buy it immediately, and then read it immediately. I got it the same day it came out and finished it by the weekend. “A Lesson in Secrets” finds Maisie as a professor in Cambridge. However, it isn’t Cambridge University, rather a small start up school founded on private donations and dedicated to promoting peace rather than war. Maisie is asked by the police and Secret Service to go undercover at this school in order to find out more about the school’s founder. He is under suspicion for causing dissension among British soldiers, based on a children’s book that he wrote. As usual, Maisie is wholly dedicated to completing her assignment, along with helping Billy Beale, her assistant, and his family find a new home; rescue a bereaved and vengeful widow; and unsuccessfully trying to ignore her love life. And, also per usual, she succeeds at all her endeavors.

Perhaps it is the breadth of problems Miss Dobbs faces that makes the novel lose focus. Or perhaps it is my own bias towards academia that disappointed me when virtually no mention was made of Maisie as a professor of philosophy. Honestly, I didn’t care for it. The writing and story seemed more rushed. Typically, Winspear’s novels have three parts to it: the job, the family/friends, the personal. This one blurred lines, and had tangents that were sent off into the dark. For example, the young widow who’s husband was mysteriously killed. Sure, she saw something of her own past in this woman, but hardly any attention was given to her and the woman’s difficulties were often a complication of the plot, rather than a fully formed subplot. I think it would have been better just to leave it out altogether. Also, the help she gave to Billy and his family was a kind gesture, but just another thing she had to worry about. I don’t mind subplots, I just like them a little more well-done.

When I read that Maisie was going to go undercover as a philosophy professor I was even more excited than I would be about a new Maisie book. I imagined re-learning philosophy from the perspective of this admiral character and author. I thought I would be re-introduced to a philosophy I hadn’t given much thought to prior to reading her perspective. I see now that I put my expectations WAY too high. The only mention of the class was when Maisie was walking out it, into it, thinking about it, late to it, or just simply missing it. Then I thought that however high my expectations, that I deserved a little bit of philosophy and therefore became disappointed rather that disillusioned (that feeling could be represented in the relationship between projectile vomiting and feeling vaguely nauseated).

I don’t wish to say that I actively disliked it, I only say that it wasn’t one of my favorites. This is her eighth book and you can’t have a winner every time. I would say that “An Incomplete Revenge” (#5) was not the best, nor was “Among the Mad” (#6). Though, I do think that “Birds of a Feather” (#2) was her most powerful, and “The Messenger of Truth” (#5) was solid. ‘The Mapping of Love and Death” (#7) was excellent for many reasons that I can’t share without giving things away.

If you are a fan of the series, go ahead and read it. Sometimes you have to stick with authors through the good and the bad.


Booker Prize Winner 2010

I was really looking for a reason to read Tom McCarthy’s C, I know I shouldn’t need a reason, but I thought it would give me a really good reason to. Unfortunately, the Booker judges did not heed my letters, phone calls, and emails, and chose Howard Jacobson’s The Finkler Question. This was really the only one I didn’t want to read. I can’t say that it’s undeserving, because I haven’t read it.

In other news, look for an upcoming writing experiment on comparing Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna to President Obama, socialism, and Tea Party rhetoric. It’s time to get serious here.

Also, in case you haven’t got to it yet, a new issue of Bookslut is up. I always try to take a late night to scoop it all in.

Also, halfway through Kathryn Stockett’s The Help. I know I’m a little late to the train on that one. But it’s a long train and makes frequent stops. The paperback isn’t coming out until January of 2011, so I figured I’d try it. It definitely has an interesting subject: black maids in 1950’s Mississippi get together with a white woman to tell stories about how they are mistreated. The big political issue of the book  ist that a young white woman wants to install all white homes with “negro” bathrooms. The voices are varied, maybe a little stereotypical, but not unlikable.  The writing is mediocre, but the story is powerful enough that one overlooks it. Full review is forthcoming.

Also in the middle of Yiyun Li’s The Vagrants (she just won a MacArthur Genius Grant, how wonderful) and Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone, published by the beautiful people at Melville House. Check out their blog MobyLives, if you haven’t yet. They always have thoughtful and in-depth opinions about the publishing industry, the business of selling books, and the ever-constant, ever-annoying debate on e-books.

It’s been awhile… I know.

Life gets in the way of blogging, which I suppose is a good thing. So as not to get worn out on the first post after my unannounced break, here are some links.

At, for their 1ooth issue, Michael Filgate interviews Lee Rourke about his new(ish) novel The Canal, along with his thoughts about the role of boredom in modern life, and Rourke reveals a quite impressive knowledge of Greek mythology. (Of course, you should read the rest of the September issue, it always has books I’ve never heard of and really want to read.)

Also, yesterday, the Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced. I was very disappointed not to see A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell on the list. I finished it last month and was completely enveloped by his writing, his plotting, everything.  It also happens to be the only one I read on the longlist, so perhaps my bias is showing there. The list is:

C by Tom McCarthy

Room by Emma Donoghue

In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Two of these, The Finkler Question and In a Strange Room are not yet available in the States. I already plan on reading C, having loved Remainder about 3 years ago.  I will probably read Room and The Long Song, but for some reason Parrot and Olivier does not appeal to me. I am sad that Skippy Dies did not make the list, I really wanted a good reason to read that one.

Also, ran across this short piece via my googlereader from the Telegraph, about Sir Tom Stoppard’s death wish, which would actually be quite painful, but very poetic.

Lastly, I am very intrigued over the ire sent toward Jonathan Franzen by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, because of the glowing reviews of his new book.  She said that it’s easy to get a rave review in the NYT if you are  a “white, male, literary darling”, and argues that commercial fiction (like what she and Weiner write) should get more critical attention. In the HuffPo, she was asked why, she said,

Because historically the books that have persevered in our culture and in our memories and our hearts were not the literary fiction of the day, but the popular fiction of the day. Think about Jane Austen. Think about Charles Dickens. Think about Shakespeare. They were popular authors. They were writing for the masses.

This is interesting. The authors she cites are considered writers of the “classics”, they were commercial writers at the time, because they wrote to make money, commerce=money for goods, but their books have lasted because they have universal themes that are still applicable today. Now, I’m sure that there are thousands of writers that wrote at the same time as Dickens and Austen that we have no clue about (see any Literature Doctoral dissertation title), but I doubt there was a distinction, as there is now, between commercial and literary. The thing is, Weiner, Picoult, and Franzen are making money, and a lot of it. Since Austen and Dickens were clearly writing to make money, as these three are, so they are all working in the tradition of Austen and Dickens. They want their books to make money and last forever.

I don’t want to outright criticize Picoult and Weiner, because I haven’t read their books. But I will say this: New York and it’s book reviewers and publishers live in a tiny world where they think they decide what the country will read and not read. Whether or not the actually do is up for debate, but its the game that must be played. If you want critical reviews, you have to write something that is able to be reviewed critically. You can’t rely on a formula to make you a crap-ton of money and then wonder why no one discusses the individual merit of your book. In the glut of books published every year, books are singled out by reviewers because they stand out from the rest. If your books follow the same basic format, you are not only lost in the lard pool of other formula writers, but also your work in no way stands out from the other books you have written. Just saying.

I would say look for upcoming reviews on David Mitchell’s newest, Barbara Kingsolver’s latest in paperback, and Jonathan Franzen’s very much praised Freedom but that might be a lie. Might be.

Some upcoming releases

In lieu of a review, because I haven’t finished anything recently. I’ll give you a preview of some of the good stuff coming out on Tuesday, 6 July.

Stephen King’s Under the Dome in paperback. Compared to his other behemoth The Stand, Under the Dome explores what happens to a small town in (you guessed it) Maine, when an impenetrable dome descends on the town. All the town’s secrets come seeping out, with no where to go.

Also by King, a 1oth anniversary re-release of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft in trade paperback, with a much classier cover and a classier size.

Also in paperback (I think it took two years), The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. This one I read, and it was amazing. It’s a young adult novel with adult reader appeal. It takes place in the near future, the United States has been divided up into 12 districts. Every year, two people, one boy and one girl, are chosen from each district to compete in the Hunger Games and compete for money and prestige for their district. They compete in a televised and controlled arena, and it’s a fight to the death. Katniss Everdeen is chosen and she competes better than expected, despite her district’s lack of resources and poverty. Her character is very engaging and strong willed. It moves quickly and keeps the action up until the end. This is the first in the Hunger Games trilogy.

 I haven’t read The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn, though it is in my to-be-read pile. I read her earlier book, What Was Lost which was about a young girl, who had designs on becoming a detective, and when one “case” went very badly and she disappeared. She was never found. Thirty years later, a young woman working in a record shop sees something she thinks is a small girl on the security camera and she discovers a girl was lost at the mall, thirty years ago. It’s not really a ghost story, though the young girl’s “presence” is never really explained. More than this, though, What Was Lost is a meditation on the expansion of massive sprawling malls in the suburbs and how they have replaced small businesses. What her new one is about, I have no idea, but she’s an excellent writer.

That’s all I’ve got for now.

Little Bee and Other Thoughts

Some things I’ve discovered:

a. I subscribe to a lot of book review blogs via googlereader, and the ones that go on and on (rather like some of mine), I kinda skip over most of what they say. Unless it’s a book I’m really interested in reading, I just scroll through. So because of this realization, my posts will be a little shorter, more focused, and less rambling.

b. I like links, so expect to see more links. I look to link, if liking linking move…

c. I’ll be posting more often.

So let’s begin.

First, a piece of Wordsworth’s Prelude found in the marginalia of Virginia Woolf’s letters (via Fernham)

“The matter that detains us now may seem, 
To many, neither dignified enough
Nor arduous, yet will not be scorned by them,
Who, looking inward, have observed the ties
That bind the perishable hours of life
Each to the other, & curious props
By which the World of memory & thought
Exists and is sustained. ”
–Wordsworth, The Prelude, 7:458-65

It would seem that this is something in the way of what Woolf was thinking when she wrote Mrs. Dalloway. It is amazing the way that we look at the hours of our days, how they string together, unending, and sometimes we think we cannot face them.  And it suggests, along with Mrs. Dalloway, that all we have are our undignified moments, thoughts and memories to bind us to the outside. That we cannot always be forthright and meaningful in our actions and thoughts is not only something to accept, but something to embrace.

Also, I know I’m behind the ball on this, but Jose Saramago died last week. I think Blindness was one of THE best books I’ve ever read. So good, in fact, that I didn’t want to read Seeing because I loved the pessimism of the first. The excerpt from the interview at Second Pass really illuminates why. Read it here.

And, finally, Little Bee by Chris Cleave. I read this book in two sittings of about an two hours a piece, because I absolutely loved it. It moved very quickly, the pacing and the plotting, even though it switched perspectives. It is the story of Little Bee, a Nigerian refugee who has escaped to London and arrived at a woman’s door on the day of that woman’s husband’s funeral. The three of them had meet a year or so earlier on a Nigerian beach and something that happened there changed their lives forever. So you gotta know, what happened? Well, you get Bee’s perspective and Sarah’s. And don’t worry, Cleave won’t let you down. In the meantime, or real time, Sarah and her adorable son, who will only answer to Batman, are dealing with the aftermath of her husband’s death. Sarah’s lover shows up and doesn’t take to Bee at all, but Sarah feels it is her duty to help Bee become a legal citizen of the UK.

In addition to the plot, the characters are so wonderful. They are flawed, yet they care. They are complex and thoughtful, they make mistakes. Except for Batman. He only sees “goodies” and “baddies”, though sometimes he isn’t sure which is which. In a grey world, he reminded me of that childlike simplicity of needing to know whether someone was going to help you or hurt you. The effect was sometimes humorous, and sometimes sad.

Other than that, I can’t tell you much about it. There are a lot of surprises and I don’t want to ruin it. You should read it. Go and do it. Now.

Vanessa and Virginia by Susan Sellers

I honestly cannot tell you why it took me so long to get to this book. I saw it over a year ago, in hardcover and for some reason, never bought it, even though I always wanted to. I think I thought it would disappoint me.  I often dislike novels based on real people, not because I think people shouldn’t speculate on the hidden lives of celebrities, but for a very stylistic reason. The authors repeat the characters’ names too often. As in, “Vanessa said to Virginia, ‘Virginia, my name is Vanessa and I am the sister of Virginia, but you already knew that didn’t you, Virginia?’ ‘What, Vanessa?”, asked Virgina. “That my name is Vanessa.’ “, and so on.  It drives me crazy, it’s as if the author needs to draw more attention to the fact that he/she is writing about a famous person.

This book, however, had none of that. It was perfectly balanced.

More than what this book is about, what happens, the chronology of events, etc., is the feelings and thoughts it inspired in me. It made me reconsider many of my previous opinions and thoughts about Woolf and Bell and brought them into focus as people rather that abstract subjects to study.

This book is Vanessa’s life. It is from her perspective and moves almost like a infrequently-written journal, flitting between place and time without any reference to the fact that time has passed or the location has moved. I did wonder, while reading, whether I understood it because I’m fairly familiar with the events of Virginia Woolf’s life. Either way, it was almost ethereal the way it moved and flowed effortlessly. 

It takes us through the beginnings of Vanessa and Virginia’s life, in the Stephen home and makes reference to all the major events in Virginia’s life, but through the eyes of Vanessa’s. So much attention has been given to Woolf (rightfully so), but Vanessa is so often overlooked. I think that we are too keen to use personal tragedy as the precursor to artistic output, especially in writing. Since Vanessa was not a writer, her tragedies are felt more on a personal level, rather than fiction fodder.

The book also investigates, but does not dwell on, Vanessa’s various extra-marital affairs, and the heartbreak it caused her. Sellers also spends a good bit of time on Vanessa’s artistic process and her feelings as she attempts to compete with her sister’s growing popularity. Even as jealousy and competition mount, the two sisters are ever connected and hold each other up almost without fail.

There is a small surprise at the end, which I won’t give away, because I think it is wonderfully done, and it should be appreciated without bias. It suggests how close the two sisters actually were and solidified in my mind that the ones to mourn after a death are the ones left behind.

More buying than reading, really

Lately, I’ve been buying more books than I’ve actually been reading. I have finished a couple of books that were required for work. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese and Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant. I’m now on to The Lace Reader for book club and it’s shite.

I’ve purchased, however, a number of books. They include: Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons, Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie, Howards End by E.M. Forster, Columbine by Dave Cullen, Granta: Work, and First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizek. And I haven’t finished any of them. I have only started Columbine and have almost finished the Granta: Work magazine.

I could talk about Cutting for Stone though. It was pretty good. Actually it was quite epic, a bildungsroman. It has, at its center, Marion and Shiva Stone, who are the twin children of a doctor and a nun. Both of their parents worked at the Mission hospital  (called Missing, because of the difficulty in pronouncing Mission) in Ethiopia, but do not figure into their lives. Their adoptive parents, Hema and Ghosh raise them in the hospital and they both wish to become doctors. Marion goes to America and gets his degree and Shiva stays and becomes a gynecologist in Ethiopia and pioneers a cure for a fatal vaginal disease. This is just one of the threads of this wonderfully told story.

Marion, during his childhood and adolescence, falls in love with Genet, the illegitimate daughter of a lower class Ethiopian woman and an unknown man. He wishes to wait for his marriage to her before having sex. She does not share his feelings. She betrays him and things are never the same.

Marion and Shiva also share an ineffable connection. They were connected at the head at birth, before their father attempted to sever their connection, not caring if they died in the process. Later, Hema comes to their rescue as infants and they are delivered safely. Verghese explores this connection mainly from Marion’s point-of-view and with his authority, we are to assume that Shiva is/thinks/acts exactly as Marion describes him.

There is also a historical element to the story. It is set in Ethiopia in the 1950’s when there were many military coups attempting to overthrow the government and rule for the people. The problem with that is that the “people” are varied and diverse, and many of them died during this coup. The terror and violence come to Missing Hospital in the form of Genet, who has taken up with a revolutionary group and hijacked a plane. Under torture, accomplices of Genet implicate Marion and he must leave the country.

All the threads are wrapped up, though not in particularly satisfying ways. Verghese seems a little rushed at the end. Where he took pages and pages to describe moments in the beginning of the book, he skips over years in paragraphs. I suppose his page count was getting a little high. Still, it is a wonderfully written book with a story that you don’t often hear, a perspective you don’t often see. His writing is deliberate, focused, slow, and expansive.  I really enjoyed it overall.

Since I have been so neglectful, I shall also tell you about Sarah Dunant’s Sacred Hearts. I had the pleasure of meeting this wonderful woman last week, her enthusiasm about Renaissance history took over the room. She talked for over an hour, but I don’t think anyone noticed.

Sacred Hearts takes place in a convent in Renaissance Italy before the Counter Reformation and the edicts passed by the Council of Trent, but only just before. Those in power are starting to feel the shift and are doing all they can to keep the convent from sticking out. What makes that difficult for this particular convent is the arrival of Serafina, a rebellious young girl who was put into the convent against her will and who will stop at nothing to escape. She is put into the care of Zuana, the dispensary mistress, with the hopes that she will be distracted by learning something that will benefit the rest of the convent. Serafina is young and does not appreciate it and begins to plot her escape…with the help of her musician lover outside the walls. I will not tell you what happens, but I will switch over and tell you more about what’s happening around Serafina.

There is a very interesting part about a nonagenarian nun, Magdalena, who, in her younger days, was declared a living saint. She had stigmata and confessed to having visions of Christ.  The problem with this was that Magdalena was a common woman and could be viewed as having a personal relationship with god that did not require the church. At this time, the church had influence in all affairs, within and without the church. Everyone needed guidance on the way to god, if this woman was having ecstasies without the church, she could be dangerous and declared a heretic. Magdalena was then confined to a cell to wait out her years. Everything is relatively quiet until Serafina arrives.

Through many plot twists, Serafina becomes the project of the novice mistress Umiliana, who pushes Serafina’s fasting past a healthy point and believes that Serafina will become another Magdalena and solidify Umiliana as a powerful member of the convent and perhaps oust Madonna Chiara (the current abbess). But Chiara is too smart for this, and with the help of Zuana, their comeback takes Umiliana down.

I enjoyed this novel because it had the intrigue and suspense of a good mystery, with a lot of history and strong female characters. I never thought of the fact that women within a convent had more opportunity to educate themselves and learn a trade that women outside, who were confined to being wives and mothers.

There you go, two very different books and I enjoyed both of them.

A Quick Update on What I’m Reading

No time for a full post today. I just wanted to give you a taste for what reviews are upcoming.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It’s a monster of a book, but it’s for book club, so you can guarantee I’ll finish it. I’m loving it, I really don’t want it to end. Perhaps that’s why it’s taking so long.

A Week in December by Sebastian Faulks. I just began this morning, around 7 am. Now, that may just be too early for all the characters Faulks has running about. Or that feeling of the overabundance of characters may continue even in later hours reading.

Columbine by Dave Cullen. This book is compelling, interesting, well-researched, and a little  horrific. I’ve only finished the first part. The first part takes the position of a bystander, albeit  from many different locations, but one who doesn’t have any inside information. I feel like that is about to change.

The Hand that First Held Mine by Maggie O’Farrell. I was an evangelist for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, a great read and book club book. And the US cover is to die for. I’m already loving her writing and have figured out that the contemporary character has postpartum depression (not giving anything away). Like in Vanishing Act, she has two stories of women intertwined and separated by about 40 years. I do prefer the young woman in the 50’s rather than the contemporary woman. Alexandra is far more feisty and interesting. Though I fear she won’t be given her due.

*Also, I’ve posted some more links to various book blogs I’ve discovered when I wasn’t motivated to write. So please give them a look. I’ve enjoyed them a lot.

It all started with Glover’s Mistake by Nick Laird (Zadie Smith’s husband) a few months ago. While it is about many things, it is mostly about three people’s messed up lives and all the mistakes they make, continuously. I realized at the end, well really at the beginning, that I didn’t like any of the characters.  James Glover was a naive little opportunist who dates and is engaged to a complete narcissist artist, Ruth Marks. They are introduced by a passive-aggressive awkward computer nerd who posts negative reviews of movies, books, and people on his little blog, David Pinner. The fact that he introduced them is the major conflict of the story, he wishes he hadn’t because he’s in love with this ridiculous woman. Glover and Pinner are flatmates, and Pinner fashions himself as a self-created art critic/public intellectual that lords over Glover’s kind nature that seeps into his slowness to make the reader almost pity him, almost. Soon enough, Glover makes a mistake and Pinner is faced with the choice of keeping the confidences of his friend or making an anonymous phone call to Ruth to tell her of the mistake. Which do you think he chooses?

There is nothing, not one thing, that is redeeming about any of these characters. You are not supposed to love them, forgive them, pity them, sympathize with them; they are abhorrent creatures. And I found that I liked them. Not just liked, but loved their bad decisions, the error of the assurance, the misplaced confidence that comes with a truly selfish act.

Then I read Mavis Gallant’s The Cost of Living: Early and Uncollected Stories. Gallant’s book has been receiving a lot of reviews lately (here in the Guardian, here at NPR by’s Jessa Crispin) and so I tried it out. Plus, I couldn’t resist the lovely New York Review of Books cover. It is more difficult to discuss short story collection, because one is either reductive and discusses all of them, or too specific and ignores the complexity of the collection. But for space, and because I want to get where I’m really going, I’ll sum up. I didn’t dislike the character in Gallant’s stories, but I didn’t like them either. They mostly made bad decisions that led to uncomfortable or undesired situations. The characters were kind of floating around life, not sure where they were going, but pretty damn sure they weren’t supposed to be where they were. Her stories did not inspire me, or give me good feelings about the world. It actually reinforced my view that no body really knows what the hell they are doing, that everyone is just floating.

So let’s recap: decisions, particularly bad decisions, are very interesting, especially when you experience a character’s bad decisions with them. You are almost a part of their decision, a silent aide, a passive bystander, and forced to take their perspective.

All these thoughts and feelings reached the boiling point in Ian McEwan’s soon-to-be-released novel Solar. The reader is introduced to Michael Beard three times: 2000, 2005, and 2009. I say “introduced” because it is almost like meeting a new person each time; he certainly wishes to reivent his life each moment. Don’t let that last statement mislead you into thinking that  he is some kind of positive-thinking spiritual nut. Oh no, Michael Beard is one of the most self-centered and flawed characters I’ve ever read. He is a Nobel Prize winning scientist for the Einstein-Beard Conflation (which is never really given in detail, only that he improved upon Einstein’s Theory of Relativity), and that was the last bit of science he did, almost 20 years ago. He’s overweight, has had 5 wives and his current wife is happily and openly having an affair. And that’s only in 2000. In 2005 he’s still done nothing in science, and feels he’s falling behind in the new theories, but hides under the laurels of his Conflation. In 2005 he upsets a varying degree of scientists and liberal arts professors by, mindlessly and unintentionally, declaring that there are biological differences in men and women and that they should be developed in light of those sexual differences. Eventually, the press and media start on insults of “eugenicist” and “neo-Nazi”. In 2009, there is a lawsuit being brought against him that threatens his solar energy project.

I don’t want to give anything away, because McEwan always has some surprises and these are significantly larger than the turns in his other novels. But moving with my theme, I will say that I didn’t like Beard. He made decisions that were wrong, selfish, and was punished for them. He had no self-control yet desired it. Never comfortable, always striving, falling short, and rationalizing the shortcoming. But I loved it, despite Beard’s selfishness.

I’m not really sure if my preference for these types of books reflect some kind of inner turmoil, or if it is a larger movement on the part of civilization on an unending quest to find well-written literature about something positive, and failing.  I’m going to go with both, for now.

P.S. I don’t wish to get in the habit of reviewing things that haven’t been released, but I can’t promise it won’t happen again.

First, apologies.

I would first like to apologize for my prolonged absence. I became, briefly, a very busy bookseller during the holiday season.  That, along with personal issues and lack of internet access at home, has kept me away. I promise to be better.

I think I would like to talk about Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, the sequel/companion to her 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake. The Year of the Flood is, by far, one of my favorite books of the year.  I read it almost 6 months ago and it still sticks with me.

Let us begin at the beginning, shall we? The beginning of this world is in Oryx and Crake. Crake, a pseudonym for a young, brilliant mastermind Glenn, creates a new race of people called the Crakers and is helped by an enigmatic Oryx (an Asian girl, who may or may not have been sexually abused as a child) and Snowman or Jimmy to an even lesser extent.  To the Crakers, Crake is god and Oryx is their teacher.  This takes place in a protected and sterile laboratory/facility. Until it doesn’t. There is a disease that kills almost everyone, except Jimmy because he has sealed himself in the lab; and the Crakers because they are genetically modified not to get sick (in addition to other modifications). Because we understand the epidemic from Jimmy/Snowman’s perspective, we do not know what happened or how, though a hint is given and I won’t give it away. After the disease has swept through and destroyed most people and let all the genetically modified animals and people out, Jimmy/Snowman now hangs around the peripheries of the city, scavenging. He has also turned himself into a self-fashioned messenger from god for the Crakers, i.e. they ask him questions about Crake and Snowman makes up answers. The city is a wasteland and is populated by Crakers and animals that are crosses between lambs and lions, wolves and pigs, etc. Jimmy gets an infection in his foot and walks off so the Crakers don’t have to watch him die. However, it isn’t made clear if he dies, so I’m not giving that away either.

Here ends Oryx and Crake. The Year of the Flood runs concurrently with the events in Crake, but through the experience of two women, Ren and Toby. Ren, lives trapped inside a kind of strip club taken to the nth degree and so has been saved from the disease’s worst effects. Toby was able to seal herself inside a spa before the disease hit. The novel goes back into the time before the epidemic or the “flood” of the book’s title. These women are connected by more than their survival. They were, for a time, part of group called The Gardeners, briefly mentioned in Crake as God’s Gardeners. Atwood makes a mixture of their belief system which includes bits of predestination, good works, the current locavore and “go green” environmental trend, and singing. Through their experiences, the reader learns more about what happened before the flood and the events leading up to it. The novel also shows the very personal lives of these two women as they try to make sense of this world that has lost something for the sake of technology.

The reason I didn’t go on about the plot of Flood as I did in Crake is because Flood isn’t as plot-driven as  Crake. Crake, to me, was more of an action story that got the reader to the point of “this is the world we have created, where the only people, if you can call them that, have no emotions and no pasts, because we couldn’t forget the terrible things we’ve done and had to start all over”. Flood has so many moments of beauty, incisive social commentary, and tragedy that listing them here would defeat its distinct wisdom.

It’s also interesting to think about these two novels juxtaposed. Each has a character is trapped inside one of the society’s monuments to genetic modification and are thereby saved because of their entrapment (Jimmy and Ren). Each have a scavenger and a survivor (Jimmy, after he escapes, and Toby). Where Crake has a pseudo-religion that moves from idea to gospel (as Jimmy’s stories transition from just stories to repeated ideas); Flood has a pseudo-religion that moves from peaceful living to almost-terrorist tactics.  Very interesting.

I would recommend that one read Crake before Flood, only because after one has experienced Flood, Crake just seems rather meh. This is the way that I experienced it. I would have preferred to read Crake  first because I would have been taken in by the world she created and then blown away by the genius of Flood.