Book Review: Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky (2015)

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Review #70

The Earth is dying, wrecked and ravaged by humanity. A last group of surviving humans set out on the cargo ship Gilgamesh, beginning a desperate mission to find a new home. Frozen in stasis, they travel for centuries towards a distant solar system and find a wonderful treasure from the past, a planet terraformed and prepared for human life by the humans of the Old Empire. The crew of the Gilgamesh approach the planet with a new sense of hope, only to find that the planet is already occupied by their worst nightmares.

This novel spans thousands of years, beginning as the Old Empire approaches its destruction. Doctor Avrana Kern is putting the final touches on Kern’s World, a planet she has designed to harbor a unique form of intelligent life. Disaster strikes when a crew member decides that Kern does not deserve to play god, and sabotages the ship, killing himself and the experiments that were destined for the planet. Avrana Kern finds herself alone in a small satellite, watching her life’s work burn as it enters the planet’s atmosphere. She enters a cryogenic sleep chamber in the hopes that a passing ship will find her at some point in the future. Unknown to her, something has survived the burning of the ship, and will eventually evolve into a new and monstrous form of life.

Adrian Tchaikovsky’s science fiction novel can be summed up in three words. Giant. Sentient. Spiders. As a lifelong arachnophobe, the early chapters of Children of Time, with their numerous descriptions of spider legs, spider palps, and spider fangs, gave me the serious creeps. But after the initial ick factor wore off, I found myself oddly intrigued by the descriptions of spider society presented in this novel. The spiders begin to evolve from the simpleminded predators that we have today into a true society. They develop language, culture, and technology that will allow them to contact the Messenger, the satellite orbiting their planet. They also engage in warfare, discover religion (and religious persecution) and begin to unravel the mystery of their own existence. Tchaikovsky should be applauded for his descriptions of the spider civilization. It is no easy task to convincingly write non-humanoid characters that feel “real”, especially if those characters are something that our minds naturally see as disgusting. I haven’t rooted so much for a spider’s well-being since Charlotte’s Web.

Another amazing thing about this novel is the way that Tchaikovsky manages to interweave a narrative that spans millennia in a very straightforward and linear fashion. As we watch the spiders evolve and grow their society, we also follow the crew of the Gilgamesh as they develop their own unique culture aboard the ship. Our primary protagonist among the humans is Holsten Mason, the resident “classicist” whose function is to interpret the language of the ancient Old Empire. He emerges from stasis at various intervals throughout time, and watches as the crew of the Gilgamesh fall prey to so many of the same follies that have plagued humanity since the beginning. Arrogance, selfishness, and megalomania are still entrenched in the human psyche, and Mason is there to testify that even though humans have managed to destroy their own planet, they may not have learned from the experience. Many science fiction writers take a rather pessimistic view of mankind, and Tchaikovsky is no exception. He does instill a pervading sense of hope throughout the novel; as flawed as humanity is he definitely sees the possibility of redemption.

This was a beautifully written novel that challenges our preconceived notions about what it means to be human. I truly enjoyed this book.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Children of Time here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Bonobo and the Atheist by Frans de Waal (2013)

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Review #

Acclaimed primatologist Frans de Waal presents the argument that human morality predates and exists outside of religion and spirituality. He uses years of research on groups of great apes such as bonobos and chimpanzees as evidence that it is evolution, not religion, that gives humanity their moral center.

I’m having a difficult time trying to define how I feel about this book, partially because I’m not sure how the author felt about writing it. I got the sense that Frans de Waal was trying to capitalize on the increasingly popularity of the anti-religion movement, but didn’t really have anything new to say on the subject.

The basis of de Waal’s book relies on two simple questions. First, are animals capable of demonstrating basic morality and altruism? And does our belief in a deity define humanity’s concept of morality, or are humans capable of acting in a moral fashion without the strictures of organized religion? The problem is that both of these questions is that they can easily be answered with a resounding YES. There are thousands of viral videos on YouTube of animals helping one another with no expectation of personal gain, and “unlikely animal friendships” is one of the most popular channels on Instagram. In terms of morality predating religion, toddlers as young as two are capable of demonstrating altruistic and moral behavior. As it is highly unlikely that they have been indoctrinated into believing in a deity at such a young age, it can be determined that morality is trait shared by all of humanity.

Frans de Waal seems to realize that he doesn’t have a lot to say on this issue, and instead bounces wildly from topic to topic, sharing anecdotes and thoughts without really offering any new evidence to back up his statements. The most interesting chapters of this book are the ones that share various observations and studies on animal behavior. No on can look into the eyes of an ape without seeing a bit of ourselves reflected back. Dozens of anecdotes and studies from scientists around the globe have shown that apes are capable of interpreting fairness, social welfare, and empathy. The title The Bonobo and the Atheist is a bit misleading, since the overwhelming bulk of de Waal’s remarks come from the study of chimpanzees. I can only guess than he chose to put bonobos in the title because they are known as the “hippies” of the ape kingdom. They have a matriarchal society that relies heavily on sex as a peace-keeping and bonding tool. But there were very few instances of de Waal ever working directly with bonobos, so I assume that the title choice just felt sexier somehow.

Another distraction was de Waal’s constant need to play art critic. He draws constant references to Hieronymus Bosch’s 16th century painting The Garden of Earthly Delights. These references are completely out of place in a book about the morality and social bonds of apes and humans. He uses the painting to draw references to the religion portion of his argument, which is most definitely the thinner side. But these observations fall flat, mainly because I don’t care about art theory in a book about morality. I still can’t figure out exactly what the point was of these numerous interjections, except perhaps that de Waal really enjoys the work of Bosch.

If this review seems a bit all over the place, it’s because that was the overall tone of The Bonobo and the Atheist. Frans de Waal may be a renowned primatologist, but this does not give him any weight to make pronouncements on the need and desire for religion among societies. He spends a fair bit of time disparaging atheists for fighting so furiously against something that they view as imaginary. But de Waal shies away from making any grand declarations on the existence of nonexistence of a higher power. He seems to understand that no one can make that statement, and focuses much more of his time and attention making an argument for the existence of morality in mammalian species.

Overall, this book contained a lot of interesting observations on the animal kingdom. I enjoyed learning more about chimpanzee and bonobo society. But at no time did I ever feel that the author had a strong opinion on the argument he was trying to make. Which made this book feel ultimately like a cynical cash grab. Which if you think about it, is not a terribly moral action.

My rating: 2/5

You can find The Bonobo and the Atheist here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

This post is dedicated to Koko the gorilla, who taught us so much about the existence of souls in animals.

Happy reading everyone!

 

 

Book Review: Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen (2018)

Image result for alison weir jane seymourReview #58

The third wife of King Henry VIII, Jane Seymour was the Queen of England for barely more than a year. Having served in the court of both Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, Jane saw the fall of both women when they failed to deliver an heir for their King. She was widely praised for her virtue and devout Catholic faith, and clung to her religion even as Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church. She died of complications following childbirth at only twenty-eight years old. Renowned historical biographer Alison Weir writes a fictionalized account of Jane Seymour’s life as seen through her eyes.

This is the third installment in Weir’s Six Tudor Queens series. I’ve read and enjoyed the previous novels, and was interested to see how Weir proceeded after the tumultuous and widely documented reigns of Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Not nearly as much is known about the life of Jane Seymour, given that she was married to King Henry for a mere eighteen months. I was surprised, therefore, when I picked this book up from the library to find out that it was nearly six hundred pages long.

How do you write a six hundred page fictional biography on a woman’s life that is not well documented? Turns out, you add an insane amount of extraneous detail, milk any morsel of archival evidence, and generally drag things out far longer than is necessary. Reading Jane Seymour felt like an exercise in extreme patience at times, since Weir seems to be striving for a nearly day-by-day record of Jane Seymour’s life during leading up to an including the death of Anne Boleyn.

I think part of the problem is that of all Henry VII’s wives, Jane Seymour is the least interesting. The letters and documents that mention her all describe her as “devout” and “pious”. She was not well-educated like the two queens who came before her, so we simply don’t know if she had strong opinions on anything other than her Catholic faith. And because Jane is defined by her religious devotion, she makes for a rather nondescript character. She lacks the fierce fight and devotion of Katherine of Aragorn, or the wild chaos and manipulative personality of Anne Boleyn. She is simply plain Jane. Weir seems to  understand this, and a great deal of her novel is focused on Katherine and Anne’s tumultuous and historical battle for control of the King. At times, Jane feels like a supporting character in her own narrative.

Jane’s primary character traits are her devotion and her dutifulness. She never seems to take any initiative in deciding her own fate, instead allowing others to take agency over her future. I had to fight the urge to begin taking tally of the amount of times Jane is described as “lowering her eyes” when others are discussing key religious or political ideals. The emotion she seems to convey the most strongly is pious indignation over the sins of others. Which doesn’t make for a terribly interesting protagonist. Instead, Jane feels for all the world like that one coworker we’ve all encountered who smugly informs you that your various sins have condemned you to hell.

I’ve read several of Alison Weir’s books, both fiction and nonfiction. I’ve always appreciated her attention to detail and her dedication to research. The Tudors and their court are often sensationalized as a historical Harlequin romance novel or a medieval soap opera. Weir grounds her novels in historical fact, even if this means that some of the sex appeal is lost. She does her best with the third wife of Henry VII, but ultimately there isn’t enough research available to maintain the narrative. I wonder why she felt the need to make this novel six hundred pages long, when half that length would have told the story equally well.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Book Review: People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (2008)

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Review #52

In 1996, the city of Sarajevo is trying to recover after a brutal and devastating siege. Many of the city’s priceless artifacts have been destroyed by the bombings. One special book, however; was smuggled out. The Sarajevo haggadah, an illuminated book used by those of the Jewish faith at Passover, has made its way safely out of harms way. Rare book expert Hanna Heath is summoned from her home in Sydney to analyze and conserve this priceless and beautiful relic. Tucked inside its pages she finds several odd artifacts – an insect wing, a white hair, salt crystals, a wine stain. Author Geraldine Brooks creates a fictionalized history of the book tracing it back to its creation.

I was immensely pleased while I was reading this novel to discover that the Sarajevo haggadah is a genuine artifact that was smuggled out of a museum by its curator during the bombings of the mid-90’s. The book, believed to have been crafted around 1350, is one of the few examples of a Jewish manuscript that contains illuminated pages, since Jewish people at this time had strict laws against the making of “sacred images”. Furthermore, it contains an image of what appears to be an African woman dressed in traditional Jewish clothing, which has baffled historians for centuries.

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An image from the Sarajevo Haggadah. The “African Moor” is in the foreground on the left.

Rare book expert Hanna Heath is thrilled when she is offered the chance to study and restore the Sarajevo Haggadah is preparation for its display in the National Museum. Feeling a stronger connection to books than people, Hanna is immediately intrigued by the rich and unique history of the manuscript. As she finds interesting items tucked into the book’s binding, the reader is then transported to the time and place in history when each particular curiosity was added to the book’s overall mystery. We meet a girl fleeing for her life from the Nazis who ends up finding refuge in a Muslim home. A Catholic priest who saves the book from the fires of the Inquisition. A Jewish family in Barcelona who struggle after being exiled from their home. And a young slave in Seville who is responsible for the book’s stunning illuminations. Each piece of history fits into the overall puzzle of the Sarajevo haggadah to form the picture of a society that is constantly torn apart and brought together by the differences of religion.

This is a fantastic premise for a novel, and I went in to The People of the Book with very high hopes. However, I found myself struggling to truly engage with the characters in Geraldine Brook’s novel. Hanna, as the anti-social and biting protagonist, isn’t given much to do besides marvel over wine-stained pages and lament the destruction of its original bindings. She meets with a variety of people who know more than she does, each of whom are able to further explain the various curiosities found between the pages.

As each mystery is explained, a chapter follows introducing the characters who interacted with the haggadah during that time in history. The difficulty is that each of these chapters are one-offs. We are introduced to these individuals, begin to understand and empathize with their lives, and then are abruptly pulled back to 1996 to hear more of Hanna’s defensive whining. Due to this back-and-forth, The People of the Book is strangely uneven and at times was downright tedious.

There is a pattern apparent in this novel of religion being a driving force for dividing or unifying people throughout the centuries. Too many people believe that the Jews and the Muslims have always been enemies, and forget that they were in fact allies and partners in many advanced civilizations. The Catholic Church persecuted the Jewish community for hundreds of years, and yet there were groups of devout Catholics that risked their lives to shelter and protect those not of their faith. From this perspective, The People of the Book shows that a seven-hundred year old manuscript can still have something to teach us about working together.

This is a book for book lovers. It’s interesting to note that I received my copy from the Toronto Public Library, and it was definitely in a well-loved condition. The spine was pulling away from the bindings, and the pages were dog-eared and stained. While reading this novel I couldn’t help myself from thinking of the history of this copy, where it had been and who had read it before me. Every book has more than one story to tell, after all.

My rating: 3/5

You can find The People of the Book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman (2018)

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Review #49

 

When she discovers that she is pregnant, fifteen year old Maggie Hughes finds herself trapped by the expectations of her parents and the rigid Catholicism of her small Quebec town. She is forced to give up her baby to an orphanage, thereby surrendering all legal rights to her infant daughter, Elodie. When the the French-Canadian government seeks to funnel more money into the Catholic church by turning all Quebec orphanages into mental asylums, Elodie is labeled as mentally deficient and is effectively committed to a life of brutality and neglect.

I had no idea going into this novel that it was historical fiction, and I became increasingly horrified as I learned that the events described in The Home for Unwanted Girls are based in reality. In the 1950’s the provincial government, led by staunch Catholic governor Maurice Duplessis, was highly reliant on the Church for most of its social welfare programs. Upon discovering that more federal funds were being allocated towards the care of mental patients than towards orphans, his reaction was to reassign all orphanages in Quebec as insane asylums. The children, who were already considered an unwanted burden on society due to the fact that the majority of them were born out of wedlock, were falsely labeled as suffering from mental illnesses. They were no longer allowed to go to school, and there were widespread reports of physical, mental, and sexual abuse by the doctors and nuns running the mental asylums. These practices were discovered in the 1960’s, but the Catholic Church has never admitted or apologized for its actions. (Wiki)

Author Joanna Goodman, a native of Montreal, does not shy away from the dark history surrounding this time period. The situation of Maggie and her daughter is one of incarceration. Maggie is trapped by the social structures of the time period, she is never asked if she wants to keep her child and she is denied all legal rights to her daughter after she is born. The child, Elodie, is a victim of a terrible crime. As she grows older and begins to question the system that does not seem to care for her or any of the other motherless children, she is met with violence, lies, and derision. The nuns see Elodie as a product of sin, and treat her as such. Modern supporters of the Catholic Church will have a difficult time reading this novel.

As heart-wrenching as the passages from Elodie’s perspective were, I wish there had been more of them. Of the approximately four hundred pages, I would estimate that only one hundred or so were devoted to telling Elodie’s story. The rest are given over to her mother, Maggie, as she attempts to reconcile her past with her future. This is not to say that Maggie’s story is not compelling, it just feels that a book entitled The Home for Unwanted Girls would spend more time with the girl who is told she is unwanted.

Good historical fiction can be just as useful as a nonfiction history book in teaching us about a specific time and place. Joanna Goodman’s novel did just that, it sparked my curiosity and encouraged me to learn more about the the “asylum orphanages” of Quebec. I later spoke with a friend of mine, a Canadian Catholic whose ancestors came from French Canada, if he had ever heard of the events described in this novel. He had absolutely no idea. Perhaps this time period is being left out of the history books, in which case, The Home for Unwanted Girls is certainly an eye opener.

Sometimes it feels as though nearly all historical fiction novels are centered around either the second World War or the British monarchy. It was a refreshing change of pace to encounter a story set in a time period that I was unfamiliar with. I definitely came away from Joanna Goodman’s novel feeling as thought I’d learned about something important.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Speak No Evil by Uzodinma Iweala (2018)

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Book Review #41

On the surface, Niru’s life seems to be one of privilege and advantage. The son of wealthy Nigerian immigrants, at eighteen he is a track star who has already been pre-approved to go to Harvard. However, Niru is ashamed to be hiding a deep secret from his parents. Only his best friend, Meredith, knows what he is keeping from the rest of the world. Niru is gay.

What follows is one of the worst “coming out” moments that could possibly happen to a young man. After his extremely conservative father sees a Grindr notification on his phone, all hell breaks loose. He beats Niru, and then forces him to travel to Nigeria in order to undergo a religious ceremony that will supposedly cleanse him of the demons that are causing these “unnatural” urges.

This novel by author Uzodinma Iweala is a short and brutal look into the fears and anxieties that continue to plague homosexual teens. Mainstream acceptance of gay rights have grown by leaps and bounds in the past ten years, and yet there are still thousands of children who cower in fear at the thought of their family or church community discovering that they are different from the “norm” in any way. Niru, the protagonist in Speak No Evil, has his fears compounded by the fact that he is African-American and a child of Nigerian parents, a country where homosexuality is still punishable by up to fourteen years in prison in the southern states and death by stoning in the north.

Iweala’s prose manages to be simultaneously poignant and gut-wrenching. I found myself rooting so strongly for poor Niru, and was disappointed and disturbed when it seemed that his chances for happiness were thwarted again and again by his family and his confusion towards his own sexual orientation. The chapters that are narrated by Meredith, are no less heartbreaking as she watches her dear friend spiral into depression and her own life ambitions begin to crumble.

“Sometimes I stare at the family that owns me and I wish I were a different person, with white skin and the ability to tell my mother and father, especially my father, to fuck off without consequence, and sometimes I stare at the white cards of Bible verses Reverend Olumide has gifted me and think that there is still a chance to change my ways.”

The only reason I cannot rate this novel higher is that I found Iweala’s writing style to be quite frustrating. He doesn’t use capital letters or quotation marks to indicate when a character is speaking. Because the novel is written almost as a stream-of-consciousness, this makes sense but I found myself confused and annoyed in turns when I could not figure out what words were being spoken aloud and which were taking place in Niru or Meredith’s mind. I must point out that the lack of quotation marks is a personal pet peeve of mine, one which will not necessarily detract from the anyone else’s enjoyment as they read this novel.

I would absolutely recommend this novel. Speak No Evil presents an unblinking look into racial and gender politics which left me haunted for days after finishing it.

My rating: 4/5

You can find Speak No Evil here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Educated: a Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)

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Review #33

 

In rural Utah, a nine year old girl and her family are driving back to Idaho on a dark night. The girl’s brother falls asleep at the wheel, loses control of the car, and crashes into a utility pole. All members of the family suffer injuries, including her mother who sustains major head trauma. None of them go to the hospital because of their father’s belief that doctors are evil figures put in place by the Illuminati. They will instead rely on herbal remedies and the power of their Mormon faith to heal their injuries. The girl’s mother suffers significant brain damage and is never the same again.

This event happens early on in Educated, a memoir by a girl who is raised by religiously fanatic family isolated in the mountains of southern Idaho. Tara Westover was seventeen years old before she ever entered a classroom. Her lack of formal education left her vulnerable to the manipulations and abuse of her mentally ill father and elder brother. What follows is an account of the struggle between one person’s desire to fulfill themselves and their duty to their family. It is also about the price that sometimes must be paid to extract oneself from a potentially destructive situation.

Tara Westover’s Educated will inevitably draw comparison to The Glass Castle, the  memoir by Jeannette Walls that I reviewed earlier this year. Both feature young women with highly unconventional childhoods who fight to rise above the circumstances of their birth. Both feature the importance of education and family solidarity. And both deal with the idea of having to sever the bonds of that same family in order to survive.

Compared the The Glass Castle, Educated tells the more bitter story. Some of this may have to do with the immediacy of the events detailed in Westover’s memoir. While Jeannette Walls was writing about her childhood through the tempered and nostalgic lens of decades, the events that Westover is describing bring us to the right up to the present day. Time has not been allowed to heal her suffering and create scars. The pain and grief that is still being felt by Westover is palpable. Because of this, we feel the catharsis present in every page, as if the writer is attempting to draw poison from a wound. While reading The Glass Castle, I found myself chuckling every once in awhile. There is not a single moment of joy present in Educated, and I felt my own bitterness rising as I continued reading.

Your opinion on Educated will be strongly connected to your feelings on homeopathic and alternative medicines. My personal feeling is that the creation of antibiotics and vaccinations are the most important advancements in human history since the printing press. The idea that people are resisting vaccinations and antibiotics is utterly baffling. However, if you are one of those people who believe that the government is holding the cure for cancer hostage in an underground bunker so that they can continue to exploit profits from sick people, you will probably be more likely to sympathize with Tara’s father. If so, make sure to get your tinfoil hat on nice and snug before picking up this memoir.

See what I meant about the bitterness?

My rating: 4/5

You can find Educated here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

 

Book Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden (2017)

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Review #30

 

In 13th century Russia, the world is ruled by icy grip of winter. Into this cold and unforgiving world, a young girl named Vasilisa Petrovna is born utterly at home in the forests and snowdrifts around her village. She lives her days roaming the forests against the wishes of her father and her nights curled up listening to the fairy tales spun by her nursemaid. But her life changes forever when two new people show up in her village. The first, her new stepmother Anna, fears and hates the wild streak that runs in her young stepdaughter. The second, a priest named Konstantin, is determined to turn his new flock away from the worship of the old spirits and towards the teachings of the Orthodox Church. He too is threatened by the defiance and spirit shown by the young Vasilisa. She has also captured the attention of one far more dangerous, a dark figure with piercing blue eyes who becomes bolder as midwinter approaches.

Everyone knows the old platitude. “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Well I love judging books by their covers. Especially when the cover is as mysterious and beautiful as Katherine Arden’s debut, The Bear and the Nightingale. When I decide to judge a book by its cover, I generally refuse to read even a short synopsis, so I went into this novel with absolutely zero expectations. Within the first chapter I felt myself entwined and entranced in this dark and romantic fairy tale, so much that I could almost feel the howling winds of Russian winter outside my window.

At its heart, The Bear and the Nightingale is about the struggle between the old ways and the new. In the Middle Ages, as Catholicism slowly but thoroughly steamrollered its way across Europe, how many of the ancient spirits were left to wither in its wake? In this way I was reminded of Neil Gaiman’s amazing novel, American Gods. But while Gaiman deals in the bitterness of those abandoned gods, Arden’s novel instead focusing on their sadness and confusion as they find themselves rejected by those who had left them offerings for generations.

Arden’s prose is dark and lyrical and completely mesmerizing. Her heroine, Vasilisa, is strong and independent while still maintaining a sense of vulnerability. She behaves in the only manner she knows how, and is utterly bewildered when people begin to whisper that she is dabbling in witchcraft by continuing to practice the old ways. How can it be witchcraft to hold to the same traditions that her people had held to only years before? I also loved the descriptions of the numerous little sprites and spirits that inhabit Vasilisa’s world. There are spirits that tend the oven, spirits that protect the horses, and so on, all of which have their roots in Russian folklore. Because Vasilisa is the only one who can see these entities (at first) it comes as no surprise that she seeks to aid them when they begin suffering from lack of care.

I would highly recommend this book for any audience. I am greatly anticipating the sequel.

My rating; 5/5

You can find The Bear and the Nightingale here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)

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Review #29

 

In post-apocalyptic Africa, there is an ongoing struggle between the light-skinned Nuru tribe and the darker-skinned Okeke tribe. The Nuru have taken many Okeke as slaves, and systematically go into the desert to rape Okeke women in the hopes of impregnating them. These children of rape are known as Ewu, and are despised as outcasts by both groups of people. One of these children is Onyesonwu, whose name means “Who Fears Death”. Early in life, Onyesonwu realizes that she is special. She has the powers of the Eshu, or the shapeshifter. With this knowledge, she seeks the training needed to hone her magic in the hopes of one day hunting down the man who raped her mother.

All of this sounds like the making of a pretty good magic realism novel. With this description, together with the amazing cover art, I was really looking forward to reading this book. But for some reason, Who Fears Death failed to capture my imagination. Part of it may be because I felt as though I were coming into a movie midway through. We are given next to no backstory about why modern systems of government have fallen. What began the conflict between the Nurus and the Okeke? There are constant references to the “Great Book” but more details are needed to understand the connection between this religious book and the current upheaval.

Another reason why I had difficulty maintaining my interest in the novel may have been that the main character has what I like to think of as “Superman syndrome”. Superman is the most boring superhero in existence because he is just too perfect, and his weaknesses are too easily overcome. I felt that same way about Onyesonwu. When the heroine can transform into animals, heal wounds, travel outside of her body, heat rocks without fire, and strike her enemies blind with a thought, there isn’t a lot of suspense. Do we ever truly doubt that Onyesonwu will fulfill her goal? She’s set up as a Jesus-like martyr from the beginning, but the reader is cheated of even that by the muddled ending.

Early in Okorafor’s novel, there is a graphic depiction of female circumcision. All of the female children in the village undergo this procedure without anesthesia at the age of eleven. They are expected to do this willingly or risk social ostracism. One thing that I will praise about Who Fears Death is its handling of this delicate subject matter. Upon discovery of her powers, one of Onyesonwu’s first act as a healer is to restore her own sexual pleasure. This reclaiming of her own sexuality is a powerful act, and its effects create ripples that echo throughout the rest of the novel.

Overall, I was disappointed by this novel. It seemed to be a fantastic premise that relied too much on having an all-powerful protagonist. And although there were aspects that I did enjoy, ultimately I kept finding myself checking to see how many pages were left until the end.

My rating: 2.5/5

You can find Who Fears Death here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!

Book Review: Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith by Jon Krakauer (2004)

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Review #25

 

On July 24, 1984 fundamentalist Mormon brothers Ron and Dan Lafferty broke into the home of their sister-in-law, Brenda Lafferty. They proceeded to slit the throat of Brenda’s fifteen-month old daughter before beating and murdering Brenda. When the brothers were eventually caught by the police, they claimed that they were following direct orders from God.

Whenever I think of Mormons, or Latter Day Saints (LDS), a strange dichotomy that comes to mind. On one hand, Mormons are the polite, well-dressed young men who occasionally showed up at my doorstep when I was younger. They abstain from almost all vices and raise their children to have a strong sense of family values. One the other hand, Mormons have been on the wrong side of almost every civil rights issue for the past two hundred years. The church elders only accepted that non-whites were capable of going to heaven in 1978. They fought hard against interracial marriage and are still on the forefront against gay rights. Even today, women of the LDS are banned from making any decisions regarding the direction of their church. Modern Mormons present themselves as upstanding and respectable Americans, but the history of Mormonism is bloody and secretive. In his novel. Jon Krakauer explores this duality of pacifism and violence as it pertains to the Lafferty brothers and the murders they committed.

Under the Banner of Heaven bounces back and forth between the early days of Mormonism, their exodus to Utah, and their eventual rise to a mainstream religion. This is juxtaposed with descriptions of the Lafferty family, their excommunication from the LDS, and the events that culminated in a double murder. The story of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young’s journey is a fascinating and unsettling story of the persecuted becoming the persecutors.

It’s important to note that the Lafferty brothers were members of the FLDS (Fundamental Latter Day Saints). This is the group that has become well-known with TV shows such as Big Love and Sister Wives. Those shows often depict plural marriage as a kooky, almost sitcom-esque situation. The reality of it is much more insidious. Child-marriage, rape, and incest are rampant within the FLDS, with girls as young as twelve years old regularly being married off to men in their seventies. Education is lacking and many members of the FLDS die unnecessarily due to a deep-rooted mistrust of modern medicine.

While the mainstream LDS church has widely condemned the actions of Dan and Ron Lafferty, Krakauer makes it clear that their hands are far from clean. Their history of violent actions towards the Native Americans and non-Mormon travelers in Utah are still hotly denied by the LDS Church, who has chosen to hide any documents related to the various massacres and scapegoating that took place in the late nineteenth century. Mormonism is openly acknowledged as the first “American” religion, and it cannot be denied that it carries with it a particularly American brand of religious extremism.

This was my first novel by Jon Krakauer, who is widely acknowledged as one of today’s most powerful journalists. I’m definitely going to be on the lookout for more of his novels, as I found Under the Banner of Heaven to be equal parts entertaining and informative.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this novel here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!