Category Archives: #CBR9

#CBR9 Review #130

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Guys, I am not going to lie. This novel knocked me over in ways I was not expecting. I had resisted reading Lincoln in the Bardo for months, because I was not sure about how good it would actually be. But when it won the Man Booker Prize (still plenty of shade for the committee to open it up to Americans; guys, we DO have the National Book Award, you know), I caved and put in a library hold.

The first twenty pages made me SO MAD. I was like, WHY ARE THERE WEIRD NAMES HERE WHAT IS HAPPENING. And then, something my sister had told me clicked, and I realized that there was a purpose. It changed everything. I tore through this book in less than 48 hours. I won’t say much about it, because it’s all in the execution of a fairly simple plot.

President Abraham Lincoln has lost his son Willie to a sickness, and the Civil War is waging in the meantime. The night before the official funeral, Lincoln goes to the graveyard to visit his son’s body, and it is in this valley of despair that our novel takes place. It is a story of love and death and mortality, the fear of the great beyond, and the need to feel human.

George Saunders writes with incredible emotion, and it is poignant. His characters are varied and vivid, and you feel empathy for their respective plights (well, okay, maybe not all of them). The ending is quite an interesting surprise, for its implications of what happens later in the Lincoln presidency, and it makes me wonder what those of you who read it thought of it.

This book really did it for me in a way that I was not expecting. The relationship between Hans Vollmann and Roger Bevins III was really touching and tender. I was not prepared for that, either. I think it’s a worthwhile read, though if literary fiction is really not your bag, you might be annoyed by the conceit of the book.


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#CBR9 Review #129

Annhilation by Jeff VanderMeer

I am a huge Alex Garland fan. I *loved* Ex Machina and Sunshine and have since sought out his other screenwriting ventures. When I found out that his new movie releases in 2018, I was so excited. And then I found out that there was a book attached. Even better. My sister had read and recommended Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, of which Annihilation is the first book. I thought, Let’s start here. And what a wild ride it is.

Area X is thought to be contaminated or dangerous, though the Southern Reach cannot explain why. So they sent an expedition to investigate. The first group reported gorgeous landscapes. The second expedition committed suicide. Each subsequent expedition has met with some unexplained or frightening disaster. The eleventh expedition saw everyone die of cancer. Now, this is expedition 12. Our narrator is a biologist, and she is with a surveyor, anthropologist, and psychologist seeking to find some answers. The most frightening thing, however, is what came with them to Area X.

Honestly, the effectiveness of this book likes in its simplicity. It’s a slim volume, and VanderMeer does not waste words. He packs in horror, thriller, mystery, and science fiction into a short book, and he makes you wonder how it will all turn out. I was thoroughly engaged throughout the entire process. The movie has a lot of material to explore, and I’m curious to see how they will develop the world and the characters. I am looking forward to seeing what the other two books have to offer.

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#CBR9 Review #128

The River Why by David James Duncan

D has our book club pick for November, and we got two choices: Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose or David James Duncan’s The River Why. We chose The River Why, because it was shorter. D is from the West Coast and was interested in a West Coast author, so his pick went there. I had never heard of the book, but saw its enormous ratings on Goodreads. I was sufficiently intrigued to get it from the library.

Our narrator is Gus Orviston, the product of great chemistry and conflict. His father is a fly-fisher, his mother a rebel fisher, and he is caught in the middle. His life involves fishing. When he graduates high school, he leaves his suburban town and decides to fish as much and as often as he can. While living in a remote cabin off a small town, he wrestles with major spiritual questions, as well as the ethics of his fishing and ideas about self-sufficiency. He is a philosopher in the making, and the book is more interested in his spiritual growth than in the actual story itself, which shows.

I think this book has its literary merit, which is why it ultimately earned three stars. It’s a throwback to Thoreauvian ways of living off the land and pondering one’s existence. It is a question about life and death that never gets neatly answered. Finally, it examines the relationship between humans and the earth and studies the various ecologies of our collective existence.

But the pacing is glacial. I felt like I was reading a much longer book, and young Gus’s philosophizing was worse than Tristram Shandy’s. I also do not feel that I am the target audience, as I am neither an outdoors-woman nor a couch philosopher. If you really like Thoreau and Emerson, you will probably like this book. If not, proceed with caution.

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#CBR9 Review #127

On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

Something that has perplexed me as I’ve been gathering texts for my next research project has been the multi-cultural perspective within the dystopian or post-apocalyptic novel framework, besides Nnedi Okorafor’s (and even she veers more into Afro-futurism, which is fairly different, generically speaking). Thankfully, I remembered that I had read Chang-rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea two years ago for CBR7, and I decided it might be time to give him a second chance. Wow. I am so glad I did, because I think his novel fits neatly within the parameters I have outlined so far.

I won’t recap the summary here, because I reviewed the book in 2015. Instead, I’d like to talk about what changed for me, and I think it was a fundamental understanding of the story.

The narrator is a Greek chorus of sorts, an indeterminate first-person plural that never distinguishes themselves for us. Therefore, the way we see and understand Fan is colored through their understanding of Fan. It’s a postmodern way of telling a story, and comprehending that made the experience much more enjoyable for me. It was also a lot less frustrating, because it showed how much none of us know Fan, and therefore, the way the story depicts her may or may not be entirely reliable. If you hate postmodernism, this may not be your cuppa.

Also, there’s a real poignancy to Fan’s relationships with other women in the story. While the conflict centers around her quest to find Reg, she develops a strange sense of community with so many other female characters in the story. That’s something I had missed the first time around, and the ending took me by surprise. I had forgotten how the book ended, but it’s kind of devastatingly beautiful in its denouement.

It’s still not a perfect book, but I found the re-read to be a much more rewarding and rich experience. I am delighted that I will be spending some research time with this unique and slippery text.

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#CBR9 Review #126

Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood

What did I say when I was working my way through the Atwood canon? Cat’s Eye was one of the other few Atwoods I hadn’t read in my local library, until I realized that book club and my bookshelf books were calling. I’ll probably get to more Atwood in 2018 once I’ve finished reading the books I actually own. I have to confess, I wasn’t expecting to enjoy Cat’s Eye as much as I absolutely did, but what else are you going to do when Margaret Atwood throws you into a deep and time-traveling story?

Cat’s Eye moves in two dimensions: the present moment where controversial artist Elaine Risley is doing a show in Toronto when she is past middle age and celebrated for her career; and the interior reflection on the trajectory of her life, in which many incidents are unpacked and explored. This simple concept belies a rich and provoking Kunstlerroman (because I can be an asshole about my literary terminology when it is absolutely relevant, right? Right.), also known as the coming of age of the artist. We see the roots of Risley’s art and the psychological components that lead her into her various relationships, particularly her disturbing childhood friendships with three other girls. Most haunting is Cordelia, whose presence pervades her adulthood.

The buildup for this novel is slow, but it is immersive and engrossing. I found myself really interested in Elaine’s childhood, girlhood, adolescence, and adulthood. I wondered how her art was rooted in these childhood stories (but we do find these answers out), and I was interested to see how her interior life was manifested in her public persona. This is an intriguing and (in my opinion) underrated Atwood, especially if you are interested in art and culture.


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#CBR9 Review #125

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

The first time I read Who Fears Death, I was grabbed by it. I was so compelled by Onyesonwu, our protagonist, that I didn’t have a critical eye for anything else. And that’s the beauty and frustration of a re-read. You see good things you didn’t see before, but your blinders also come off and you see other things that you missed on the first go. Sometimes, that means a formerly five-star book comes down a bit, and that’s the case with this one.

I won’t summarize the book here, because I reviewed it in 2015. Instead, I will focus on what I noticed this re-read:

*Onye is still just as compelling a protagonist as she was the first time. She is fierce and angry and impetuous and determined. She is very human, which I appreciated.

*The decision to include FGM is controversial, and I don’t know if I entirely like how it is treated, both in the initial incident, or in the healing. I like that Onye figured out how to heal herself and her friends, BUT it did feel a little too convenient the way it worked out. Like, almost all women who have been mutilated do not have an easy fix, or any fix at all.

*The relationship with Mwita is just as compelling, and he is a remarkable (and also flawed) character.

*The world-building is definitely lacking. For being billed a novel about post-apocalyptic Africa, there wasn’t a lot of stuff about the apocalypse that I could notice or pull from. That’s too bad, because my research is all about the dystopian and post-apocalyptic, and I think some context would have been fascinating.

This is honestly still a terrific novel, and one you should read. I won’t be including it in my research, but I do think it worthwhile, particularly for its Afro-centric focus, something we could use a lot more of in literary fiction and science fiction/fantasy.

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#CBR9 Review #124

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

I’m embarking on a new research project, and I’ve followed several ideas up by reading books that I think will fit this budding thesis. I had read Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death two years ago for CBR7, and I didn’t know until recent that she had published a prequel of sorts. I wasn’t sure if either of these books would fit my project so a read/reread was in order. I do very much like Okorafor’s concentration on Afrofuturism, about which I know relatively little. I’ll be interested to see what comes out of her canon next.

The Book of Phoenix focuses on a young woman in a medical facility. She has no idea why she is there or how long she has been alive, except for what little she is told by her caretakers. She is two years old, but with the body and mental capacity with an adult. She is in love with Saeed, and then he finds out a truth, which causes everything to change. Phoenix discovers that her home is really her prison, and she seeks to escape in any way she can. Her journey is magical and leads her to Africa and back, the future of humanity resting within her hands.

Despite the fact that this is a prequel to Who Fears Death, it took me a really long time to figure out any connection to the original novel, and the connection still feels somewhat tenuous at best. Phoenix is a compelling narrator, and there are some vivid characters, but overall, this just didn’t grab and provoke me the same way that Who Fears Death did.

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