by Michel Faber
I had my defences up for the first part of this book. The main character, a Christian minister, travels to the faraway planet of Oasis to live with and teach Christianity to the indigenous alien population.
Considering the damage done to indigenous populations around the world by Christian missionaries of centuries past, I was not prepared to buy into that as a good idea, at least not initially. But I had to keep reading just to see if Peter Leigh, Christian minister, ended up tortured and murdered by less-than-welcoming aliens.
As I read on, I realized that Peter does not use his considerable knowledge of the Bible to proselytize but to enlighten. He calls the Bible “a storehouse of messages,” and he leaves room for metaphorical appreciation of its stories.
The trouble is, Peter is not the first Christian missionary to have contact with the Oasan beings. Previous missionaries taught the Bible—the Book of Strange New Things—with more fervor and factual flair, and the Oasans are not equipped with the ability to perceive subtleties of meaning or metaphor. When fact-based Oasans baldly quote passages like, “We will have no other God than God our saviour. In Him alone we have hope of life,” it makes Peter uneasy. He begins to see the dark side of his purpose there.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Peter’s wife, Bea, is dealing with apocalyptic-like climatic and economic disasters. The distance between her and Peter and the daunting challenges she must face alone stress their relationship and diminish her faith.
In The Book of Strange New Things, messy, complicated humans seem delightfully fascinating next to the stoic, plodding, straightforward Oasans. Faber’s message could be that we can’t—and shouldn’t—stomp out our human controversies and complexities, much as we might sometimes want to.
In The Book of Strange New Things, Peter’s allegorical, multi-layered interpretation of the Bible seems delightfully reassuring next to the inflexible—and ultimately, unsatisfactory—factual view. Faber’s message could be that there is a time for faith and a time for doubt.
In the end, I liked this book, but I can see how many people would not. I’m a member of a progressive Christian church, and I found the Christian zeal of Peter at the beginning of the book off-putting. I bet atheists would bail early.
by Rita Leganski
You will enjoy this book if you are a fan of magical realism. If you prefer cold hard facts, maybe not so much.
Given the title, The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say the main character does not speak, or at least not with words. Voiceless, he uses other means to communicate deeply with people (alive or dead) and with nature and the universe.
Rita Leganski creates a charming character in Bonaventure Arrow. Because he doesn’t speak, Leganski can’t use traditional dialogue to convey his insights and emotions. She uses head nods, gestures, and thoughts in a way that I feared might get tedious and annoying after a while, but it never did.
The mystical New Orleans setting matches the mystical nature of the story. Leganski brings in Southern Baptist tent revivals, Roman Catholic rituals, Voodoo curses, and Hoodoo charms to add spicy twists to her narrative.
Occasionally, just very occasionally, the stilted dialogue of Bonaventure’s mother, Dancy, did not ring true to me. Dialogue is not Leganski’s strong suit as a writer. Her strength is beautiful, descriptive narrative that captures the essence of a thing.
“Dancy did not know of Gabe’s feelings, but Bonaventure could hear them and he thought they sounded like a pearl that forms in concentric layers of kindness to protect a helpless oyster from a hurtful grain of sand.”
Fortunately, since Bonaventure doesn’t speak, dialogue is not a prominent feature of the book, so the dreamy story flows.
Leganski gives us plenty to think about: life after death, different ways to perceive the unspoken, the benefits and dangers of religion, the need for forgiveness (or not), acceptance of differences, and the poison of guilt, revenge and loneliness.
The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow received unanimous approval from the members of my book club: fans of magical realism all.
by Sean Michaels
Random House, 2014
Odd questions crossed my mind when I was reading Us Conductors.
How long did Sean Michaels spend coming up with “DZEEEEOOOoo” as the proper translation of the theremin sound? It captures perfectly the eerie sound of the instrument invented by the novel’s main character, Lev Sergeyevich Termen.
Under what circumstances did Michaels receive the inspiration to add Kung Fu to Termen’s list of interests? That one aspect to his character strikes me as . . . out of character.
And why haven’t I heard of the many inventions and exploits of the “Russian Edison”, a man who seemed to be able to invent on demand? We have him to thank for everything from motion-activated lights to a clear picture on our televisions.
The breadth of those questions summarizes my overall impression of this novel.
First, Michaels is not a poetic writer, but he has a knack for encapsulating an image or feeling. The theremin sound is one example, and later in the novel when Termen has to brush off rusty musical skills after a lengthy and harrowing imprisonment in a Siberian gulag, he writes: “I was about to wrench open an overgrown gate.” Perfect.
Second, bits and pieces of the novel perplex me, because they don’t seem to fit. The Kung Fu is curious. And Termen’s first wife is there—and not there—in an inexplicable, and mildly annoying way.
Finally, it enlightened me. I learned so much. This book is fiction, but based on real people and real events from history: Russia at the time of Lenin, New York City in the Jazz Age and later the market crash of 1929, and then the harsh Siberia of Stalin’s time.
Michael’s double-edged epigraph at the beginning of the Giller Prize-winning book is prize-winning in itself: “This book is mostly inventions.” It lets the reader know that the author intends to play fast and loose with facts, which Michaels does, but it also refers to the many brilliant inventions of the main character.
The Lev Sergeyevich Termen of this book is scientifically brilliant and socially inept. Unable to navigate his way to a meaningful loving relationship, unable to leave either Russia or America behind, and unable to manage such banalities as personal finances, the man is the master of his own demise.
This book won’t warm your heart. You won’t come to the end of it, close it with a sigh and hold it close to your chest. Aspects of it might frustrate you. But if you read it, you have the opportunity to admire some insightful writing, and you probably will learn something.
by Andy Weir
Broadway Books, 2014
The first thing you should know: If you are not a math or science geek, you will skim many sections of this book.
The second thing you should know: If you are not familiar with 1970s TV, music or movies, you might miss out on some of the cultural references.
The third thing you should know: In November 2015, Matt Damon will star in the movie version of this story. This is a good thing.
I need to give you the back story behind why I came to read this book, because it is not the kind of book I would usually read. My son is a fussy reader. When he was about eight years old, I tried to encourage him to read all the kinds of books boys his age read: Geronimo Stilton, Hardy Boys. He said to me: “Why would I want to read about something that’s not real?”
Okay, so he’s into non-fiction, I get that. Still I try. So this past Christmas I challenged two guys at the local bookstore: “Recommend a book that my son will not be able to put down,” I said.
“The Martian,” they both replied.
My son received his copy of the book for Christmas. When he sat down to read it in the lull of holiday break, his body language did not reassure me. He rolled his eyes some. He set it down regularly.
“So, what do you think?” I asked.
“He’s so . . . so . . . stupid,” he replied.
Huh. Given that story is about an astronaut, I wasn’t sure how that could be, and my husband was curious too, so he gave the book a try. As he was reading, I said, “So? What do you think?”
“I’m not sure how he could say this guy is stupid,” he replied. “The main character is a genius. I really like this book.”
So, I had to read it for myself. The deciding vote.
The first thing I noticed was that Andy Weir really, really wants his geek audience members to know the mathematical and scientific plausibility of this story. Gobs and gobs of math and science fill the pages. I started skimming. There’s a reason I’m not making my living laboratories.
I said to my husband (no math whiz, himself), “Didn’t you find it kind of math- and science-heavy?”
“Oh, I just skimmed those parts, he said.
Okay then. I carried on. At the ends of scenes or chapters, Weir throws in jokes about Three’s Company, and disco, and The Dukes of Hazzard, and such things. My son, born in the late 1990s, would not know the finer points of the Chrissy or Cindy Three’s Company debate, or that General Lee from The Dukes of Hazzard was a car, so that humour would be lost on him. And I suspect that if my son were to participate in a mission to Mars, he is the type who would take the assignment very, very seriously, and he would not include boobies (•) (•) in his communications with NASA, so I guess that’s why he drew the “He’s so . . . so . . . stupid” conclusion.
In the end, I laughed out loud at the jokes, especially the boobies, and I skimmed the gobs of math and science, and I liked this story about a man’s experience on Mars.
When Hollywood gets hold of this, they will synthesize the math and science into palatable bites, and they will light Matt Damon beautifully, and they will make one fun and interesting movie.
by Anthony Doerr
All the Light We Cannot See is World War II as seen by a German technical genius boy and a French blind girl. Perhaps I should say as “seen, smelled, felt and heard” because the girl’s visual impairment requires Anthony Doerr to tell his story via senses other than sight. As a result, his story is rich in aroma, texture and varied sound vibrations.
Marie-Laure LeBlanc is the blind daughter of the locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris. The daughter of a man who helps to protect the treasures of France sees her world through her fingertips and hears the events of the world through radio. Werner Pfennig is the orphaned son of a German coal miner. His deft hand with radio technology means they have radio in common, and their common interest in the medium leads to their inevitable meeting.
Doerr creates sympathetic, and not-so-sympathetic, characters on both sides of the world war. We root for his German soldiers, even as they play out their roles in the renowned atrocities of the time. We seethe about the duplicitous actions of French citizens. (The Americans are a tad too glorified and the British a tad too undermined for my Canadian taste, but that’s just me.)
Doerr’s choice to take us back and forth in time disoriented me at first, but I eventually sorted out his pattern. Still, I would have preferred if he had started the book with a tantalizing glimpse ahead to the important events of 1944, then returned to 1934 and carried straight on through from there without repeated visits to 1944.
I also thought Doerr pulled a Quentin Tarentino with this book: one plot development too many. I can’t say much without giving away the ending, but I will say I thought Doerr took me on one too many visits to a little house. Read the book and see if you agree.
by Emma Healey
Alfred A. Knopf Canada, 2014
Not so long ago, I spent years supporting a family member who progressed through the stages of senile dementia. It was a heartbreaking, fulfilling, patience-testing, rewarding thing to do, and the experience touched me in a deep place. Because of that experience, I hesitated to read Elizabeth Is Missing. Did I really want to go there?
I am glad I did. I flat out admire what Emma Healey does here.
Her main protagonist, Maud, is aging, and her memory loss is progressing. Her short-term memory suffers, but her long-term memories remain mostly intact. Her daughter, Helen, is responsible for her care, with other support workers popping in too.
Healey captures the nuances of aging and memory loss accurately without crossing over into schmaltzy preaching. She moves back and forth between the present (those short-term memory challenges) and the past (the long-term memories) seamlessly. Using clear but subtle clues, she portrays the progression of the memory loss (Maud’s short-term memory issues worsen throughout the book) at exactly the right pace. And always she keeps us reading because we’re wondering, is Elizabeth missing?
We feel such empathy for Maud. We feel equal empathy for Helen, who we know has to be driven mad by the repetitions, the missing pieces, and the wanderings.
Healey pulled at my memories of my experience to just the right extent. I remembered, but I never wanted to turn away from her story.
Now I know you’re wondering: Who is Elizabeth, and is she missing? Right. That’s the other side of this book. It has a mystery, and the solving of it keeps us turning those pages.