We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Read: 30 August, 2018

When I was a kid, The Haunting of Hill House was my favourite book, and is – to date – the only book that I’ve read at least a dozen times. And yet, for some reason, I haven’t sought out Jackson’s other writings. I did come across “The Lottery” in school, but I was rather primed to hate everything that I came across in school.

The Haunting of Hill House has a plot to it, whereas We Have Always Lived in the Castle is more of a meditation. Things do happen, but the main characters actively resist reaction. Even their way of speaking has a certain out-of-timeness that doesn’t seem to quite respond to what has been said to them. In a lot of ways, Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian are living ghosts, all stuck on that day when the rest of their family died.

There’s a mystery of sorts, as we try to figure out just what happened to their family. But while we do get answers, they barely seem to matter when they do come. The point of this story is, rather, the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is very, very creepy.

I really enjoyed this. I thought it would be a bit too long to just evoke a creepy feeling without much in the way of plot, but it does work. And just when it might have started to drag, Jackson gives us a “normal” person to show us just how thoroughly we’ve immersed ourselves in the Blackwoods’ mindsets. Cousin Charles and the villagers all seem irredeemably horrible, like zombie hordes trying to get at the Blackwood sisters. So when the sisters build a barricade in the garden, it seems to make perfect sense.

We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a feeling, and it’s evoked expertly.

Silo #3: Dust by Hugh Howey

Read: 21 August, 2018

With 2/3 of the series read, I couldn’t very well stop there!

I quite liked this one. The philosophical stuff takes a back seat (beyond the extremely general “people should get to make the big decisions that shape their own lives), so the story was easier to enjoy.

There’s also more religion in this one – with a cultish sect that gets in the characters’ way. This felt a bit ham-handed, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that the author is, himself, an atheist. For one thing, this religious sect basically kidnaps a seven year old girl and forces her to marry an adult man. The only other time we see them, they are burning books. This could have worked for me if we got a bit more into what they believed and why they were doing what they were doing, but it just seemed to be a bunch of stereotypes all rolled into one.

This is made worse by the fact that the religion itself is so underdeveloped. There are references to “the gods” multiple times throughout the book, but then the sect is suddenly talking about a single deity, which comes off way more Christian than the religion we had seen previously.

But then there’s a religious character who “sees the light” just as Jules comes to realise that religion has a function in her society. It sends a rather mixed message.

There’s quite a bit of payoff, like explaining how Solo managed to survive Silo 1’s initial attacks. I’d written this at the time as lazy writing, but it worked. I liked that many “bad” characters were redeemed through the story, particularly Anna.

Overall, it’s a satisfying end to the series. I felt like my major questions were all answered, and there’s a somewhat happy ending (at least until genetic issues start to crop up due to population bottle-necking, or the whole group starves to death in their first winter), so I can happily say that I’m done with the series.

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The Heart of Everything That Is by Bob Drury & Tom Clavin

Read: 14 August, 2018

A little misleading, since there isn’t actually too much about Red Cloud’s perspective. Mostly, the book sets the stage for the Fetterson Massacre, which includes brief overviews of native/white relations leading up to it. There is some biographical information about Red Cloud’s family and his rise to power (as well as similar information about other key players, such as Crazy Horse), but it all feels like part of the background.

Once the story shifts to Fort Phil Kearney, the whites take the centre stage. We learn a great deal about the officers, about their supply situation, about internal military squabbling, etc, but Red Cloud and his warriors are on the outside, as a threat. Then, once the Fetterson Massacre is over, the entire rest of Red Cloud’s life is summarized quickly in the Epilogue.

The history was interesting and reasonably well-written, and I did like what there was about Red Cloud and the political/social scene he navigated, but I wanted much more about him. I would gladly have read a book about the Fetterson Massacre from the white perspective, but this shouldn’t have been it.

I found this to be an interesting book with interesting history, but not has focused as it should have been. It also ended rather abruptly with much of its stated story still left to tell. As a biography of Red Cloud, it leaves much to be desired.

Silo #2: Shift by Hugh Howey

Read: 6 August, 2018

After finishing Wool, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue the series or not. The “mystery box” plot type doesn’t hold all that much of an appeal for me beyond the initial read, and I felt that Wool had already answered the major questions I had. But then I found the audiobook of Shift at my local library and really needed something to listen to while I did the dishes, and here we are.

Shift continues as a “mystery box”, except that the mysteries are much smaller. We’re not longer wondering what the hell is going on, but rather what did So-and-so have to do with it, and how exactly will the thing we know will happen come about. Small mysteries.

These are interspersed with individual tales from the silos, giving us a picture of how experiences can differ from each other in similar situations.

The narrative is still very much object-focused, so the POV characters have little in the way of individual personalities. That said, I did like the way Solo distinguished himself, even though it was merely you having experiences that were dramatically different from the other POV characters.

Overall, this was a good book to listen to while doing the dishes. The philosophical “truths” of the story are simplistic and overdone, and the characters aren’t particularly compelling, but the “mystery box” is at least an entertaining ride.

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Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Read: 31 July, 2018

There’s a “third culture” aspect to these stories that I really enjoyed. The characters in each story are outsiders, they are Indians in America or American-born Indians in India, and there’s always a sense of looking from the outside in.

That sense is amplified by the voyeuristic nature of the stories. In each case, the narrator is an audience, perceiving the subject of the story. It’s an interesting layering effect.

This is a great collection. I hated some of the stories, some of them made me so angry or so sad, but every one affected me. And even the weakest entries are beautifully written with vibrant characters who seem to leap off the page.

1. A Temporary Matter: A heartbreaking story about a couple trying to recover (separately) from a traumatic event, finally forced together to talk by a planned power outage. It’s a look at grief, and especially in the ways that our lives can impede the healing process (as we bury ourselves in work or hobbies).

2. When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine: War in Daca, as seen through the eyes of a little girl in America. This story struck a real chord with me, as the narrator’s environment is totally unequipped to deal with what she is going through. She even has that particularly third culture experience of being punished for trying to learn more about a current conflict with direct relevance to her life because she should be studying the American Revolution.

3. Interpreter of Maladies: A driver is giving a tour to Americanised Indians. This story is peak voyeur, as the narrator weaves an elaborate fantasy around the wife of the family. There were aspects of this story that were interesting, but I personally found it to be one of the weaker entries. Though perhaps it’s bias talking, as I found the narrator to be rather gross.

4. A Real Durwan: A relentless story of someone who has already lost much losing everything else. It’s a story of casual cruelty, of the way people can simply toss away human beings who are no longer useful to them. And, perhaps, a story about people who are unable to adapt as situations change, and who find themselves left behind.

5. Sexy: A little on-the-nose, redeemed by good writing. A woman is in an affair with a married man while her co-worker’s cousin is the wife in a similar situation.

6. Mrs. Sen’s: One of my favourite stories in the bunch, though the foreshadowing is somewhat anxiety-inducing. This is a fantastic meditation on the experiences of middle aged, unwilling immigrants (spouses of people who’ve immigrated for work, for example). Mrs. Sen has been taken from everything she knows, and finds that she cannot adapt to her new way of life. Her loneliness in the story is palpable.

7. This Blessed House: This one is a story about a jerkass husband who doesn’t deserve his magnificent wife. She sounds lovely – vivacious, curious, interesting – while he offers absolutely nothing.

8. The Treatment of Bibi Haldar: The voyeur aspect is taken so far in this story that the narrator is barely even a character at all (they are part of a neighbourhood “we” who observe the events of the story). This is something of a mirror story of “A Real Durwan” – while that one was of a woman who had found something of a place and then loses it due to the cruelty of those around her, “Bibi” is about a woman who is a victim of cruelty but who finds her place. The surface message that having a baby can cure epilepsy seems rather odd, though it’s hard not to root for Bibi as she builds a life for herself out of terrible circumstances.

9. The Third and Final Continent: An interesting story about love and emigration. The narrator’s marriage is arranged, so he doesn’t have a chance to get to know his wife until after they are already married. It’s interesting to see how tentatively they get to know each other, and how the conservatism of the immigrants can mirror the conservatism of the elderly.

Walking the Rez Road by Jim Northrup

Read: 25 July, 2018

The stories are very loosely connected. While the blurb on the back puts a lot of emphasis on the effects of the protagonist’s experiences in Vietnam on his post-service life, I found that only the first third of the book dealt with the war at all. After that, the stories had more to do with Rez life generally. Not that that’s a bad thing at all, and I did enjoy the expanding of Luke Warmwater’s identity – especially since we only catch glimpses of him across decades.

The stories themselves are short anecdotes, taken seemingly at random from a whole lifetime of experiences. They cover everything from being a soldier to playing Bingo with his wife to harvesting wild rice. They are “slice of life” stories, mostly without a specific point (at least at a surface reading) other than to simply exist in that moment. I enjoyed the writing style, which has a strong narrative voice, as well as the sense of humour.

I was really impressed by a few of the poems, too. Several of them packed quite an evocative punch.

The edition I read also had a number of non-fiction articles by the author, which helped to provide some of the context and subtext for the preceding stories.

Overall, this is a fairly short read, but an interesting one. Northrup’s individual perspective on Rez life is a valuable one.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Read: 24 June, 2018

This is a truly harrowing story of exploration and survival in the frozen north. I’m somewhat familiar with Franklin’s expedition, but I only knew a rough outline of the Jeanette’s voyage. Given that, I found that Sides did an excellent job letting the various personalities on board come through.

I was impressed by how positively superhuman some of these people were, and how long they managed to carry those who weren’t. I was also horrified by just how terrible the crew’s luck seemed to be – over and over again, it seemed like Murphy’s Law ruled the ship.

I found the book to take a little while to pick up. The beginning provides important background, but perhaps too much of it all at once. There were a few times where I found myself getting lost in the list of names of people I hadn’t started to form associations with. Once the ship was under way, however, the cast narrowed and the individual personalities started to stand out, and I found the second half much more enjoyable.

(((Semitism))) by Jonathan Weisman

Read: 3 June, 2018

This book reads like an open letter to prominent Jewish groups like the Anti-Defamation League. It’s a call to action, an entreaty to re-expand activities beyond Israel and to take a meaningful stand against hate and the rise of fascism in the United States.

This is a timely book – perhaps even a little too timely, as several points made are no longer true (such as the discussion of Trump failing to move the US embassy to Jerusalem). But while these minor points have weakened, the overall rise of fascism is a well-documented trend.

The thesis of the book could have used a little tightening – while interesting throughout, it did meander a little, and it occasionally took some work to grasp what an argument was getting at.

That said, I liked that Weisman’s focus went beyond anti-Semitism, tackling the interconnectedness of hate. No small part of the book is devoted to GamerGate, which was the canary in the coal mine as far as many in the internet generation are concerned. The call to action, therefore, is for Jewish organisations to use their expertise and resources to take a leadership position in the fight against hate.

This is an important read. Weisman doesn’t provide answers (and, in fact, acknowledges throughout that there are sometimes no good responses), but the call for victimised communities to band together is essential.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Read: May 6, 2018

This is a bunch of interconnected lives, both pre- and post-apocalypse. I found both sections engaging, and I really enjoyed seeing the points where they intersect.

It was an interesting choice to combine a story about Hollywood discontentment and loss of privacy with a more traditional dystopian run-in with a totalitarian cult leader. I don’t know how big the overlap is between the two audiences. But, somehow, it worked. It worked best as neither plot overstayed its welcome. Although there was a certain whiplash as I was taken away from a plot line – sometimes for multiple chapters – that I was interested in following.

I did appreciate what the pre- storyline added, but I did come here for the post-, and that was a bit thin. As a story-driven story, it needed much more story. As a character-driven story, much of the character development occurred in the pre- storylines, so characters that didn’t feature in both ended up not getting a whole lot of development.

Despite my complaints, I did enjoy myself throughout the whole book, and the writing style was quite excellent.

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien

Read: 23 April, 2018

I read this with my seven year old son. We both really enjoyed the first bit of the book, which is about Mrs Frisby and her sick child. The stakes felt very real, and we enjoyed all the characters she meets (the helpful crow, the wise owl, the mouse doctor, the shrew neighbour, the scary cat, etc). There was whimsy there, even as we fretted over little Timothy.

But then came the titular rats. Most of the second half of the book is the backstory of the rats, as told by Nicodemus. The narrative voice gets very removed, and we just weren’t given any time to care about any of the characters. And the characters we did care about, and spent the first half of the book getting to know, disappear almost entirely until the very end.

So we found the story to be very uneven. I think we would have liked both sections of it if they had been in different books, but we just spent too much time waiting for Mrs Frisby and Jeremy and all the rest of them to make a reappearance for the second half to be much fund.