Week 11 (Sam): The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Reader: Sam

Topic #12: Read a fantasy novel

 

Book: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Published by William Morrow and Company (2013)

 

The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with a middle-aged man driving alone from a funeral to his childhood home, and then down the road to the home of a strange girl he knew when he was just a small boy. Vague memories shift and change, becoming clearer and stronger, and he remembers a childhood that was far more dangerous and wonderful than he could have imagined. The problems of his adulthood fall away as he recounts a time when he was young, when his world was full of monsters and the people who fought them.

The book’s prose holds all of Gaiman’s usual charm. The voice is mellow and pleasant, distant without being unemotional–a signature of Gaiman’s. He’s used similar voices for protagonists as varied as ex-convicts and businessmen, but here, he uses it for a seven-year-old child with surprising success. Also on display is Gaiman’s unique sensibility when it comes to the fantastic. The magic and monsters that filled our protagonist’s childhood are more functional than they are explainable. For instance, a little pond in someone’s backyard can, at any time, also be an ocean, without it ever being necessary for it to change size. Frequently, the protagonist’s safety from spirits older than human civilization turns on apparently arbitrary human conventions like land ownership and child custody. Most of Gaiman’s work features magic that either defies common sense or, just as bafflingly, is perfectly in keeping with it at surprising moments. This approach is uniquely suited to the story of a young child puzzled by the world of adults, because it allows us to share his confusion as he searches for his place in a frightening and unknowable universe.

Beneath all the magic is a story of mundane misery: even before our unnamed protagonist becomes the target of an otherworldly spirit, he lives as an eccentric outcast. He has no friends from school, and is neglected by his family. He’s afraid of the dark, afraid of his schoolmates, afraid of his own helplessness, and most of all, he’s afraid of his father’s temper. So, when a monster shows up at his front door with terrifying plans for him and his family, it doesn’t feel as though much has changed. There were always monsters around, just not in such an obvious form. The protagonist’s anxieties (whether their causes are supernatural or not) are the heart of the story, and give it weight and life.

Like the protagonist himself, I find the details of this book already receding into a misty past, and this is probably the worst thing about the book. Despite some moments of excitement and horror, the story as a whole, like a toy made for children, doesn’t have any sharp edges. The obstacles that the protagonist must overcome are just too straightforward to maintain a reader’s engagement. Half the time, he doesn’t even solve them himself, relying on assistance from Lettie Hempstock, the girl who lives at the end of the lane. Lettie has courage to suit a dynamic, goal-driven protagonist, but her inhuman origins and the resulting distance from the reader prevent her from taking on a lead-character role. We are left with a cowardly, child protagonist, which in spite of the advantage it has of feeling fresh, manages to rob the book of a sense of forward momentum.

Usually, in reviewing a book, I try to identify what a book is trying to be, and then determine how well it succeeded, but here, I feel it’s a lack of ambition that sabotaged it, ensuring that in spite of its share of thrills and a good villain, it didn’t amount to anything more than a fun time. Gaiman presents us with a boiling cauldron of juicy thematic ingredients–fear of death, overpowering loneliness, the fallibility of human memory–but although I enjoyed it at the time, it didn’t seem to mean anything terribly important in the end. As I drive away from the ocean at the end of the lane, I think it will probably be for the last time.

Final Grade: B

Week 10 (Blaga): Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #11: Read a book set more than 5000 miles from your location

Book: Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee
Publisher: Grand Central Publishing (2017)

Let me begin by saying this: it is a rare thing for me to buy a brand-new book by an author whose work I have never read before barely a week after the book’s release. Doing so is taking a chance, and that chance does not always produce results. It seems quite appropriate in this case, however, as Pachinko is a story about taking risks and chances (as is the game it is named after) in the battle for survival and success.

The novel takes place over a span of seven decades, across four generations of a single Korean family. It opens in the second decade of the 20th century in Japanese-occupied Korea, and follows the family as they move to Japan, working tirelessly to carve out a life for themselves (spoiler alert: pachinko plays a part in their ability to do so later in the novel). Lee’s third-person narration glides gracefully across time and between different characters’s viewpoints. She delves into the thoughts of her protagonists of course, but also her minor characters, assembling a more complete picture than any single perspective could. She confronts difficult topics directly, outlining the complexity of these issues: nothing in life is black-and-white, and there is more than one angle from which to see things.

Being an immigrant myself, the immigrant narrative central to the story was what originally caught my attention. As expected, I encountered some themes that were familiar from my own life: the difficulty of learning a new language and functioning in a different society; the difficulty of building an entirely new life; and (at least for the younger generations) the struggle for finding one’s identity when belonging to two cultures -the culture of origin and the culture one lives in.

Yet these are only a few of the issues that the Baek family encounter throughout their journey. As Korean Christians living in Japan, they encounter discrimination on multiple levels. On one hand, Christianity is not looked upon favorably by the Japanese government. Thus, when a member of the family fails to perform a ritual worshiping the Emperor because it is against his faith, he ends up imprisoned, to be released only shortly before his death two years later. At the same time, Koreans are treated as second-class citizens. After Japan withdraws from Korea, the legal status of immigrants becomes a problem, even for those born in Japan; yet Lee makes it clear that this is not only a problem in Japan. As one of the protagonists remarks,”In Seoul, people like me get called Japanese bastard, and in Japan, I’m just another dirty Korean no matter how much money I make, or how nice I am.”

While we observe the characters’ lives, we also get a glimpse of the region’s history. A sign of a good historical novel is that it humanizes rather than merely recounting the facts. Lee accomplishes this masterfully, as she demonstrates that national events can have far-reaching effects on the lives of her characters. The reader gets to experience the atomic bombings and their long-term health consequences through the eyes of a family member working in Nagasaki who has the misfortune of getting severely burned, leaving him in pain for the remainder of his life. As Japan surrenders and later withdraws from Korea, leaving it in turmoil, Lee notes: “At least here [in Japan], the Americans were still in charge, so the women were able to find sugar and wheat.” Lee presents a perspective of Korea and of the US occupation of Japan in the aftermath of the war that transcends mere dates, facts, and figures to illuminate the human experience.

When I picked up this book I knew little about the shared history between Korea and Japan, and even less about the Korean community in Japan. Initially this was daunting, yet Lee’s mastery of the craft allowed me to engage with this foreign world in a way that felt almost familiar. In the end, I learned a lot and enjoyed a heartfelt story with complex characters. This is my favorite book of the year so far. I heartily recommend it.

Week 9 (Sam): Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis

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Reader: Sam

Topic #11: Read a book set more than 5000 miles from your location

Book: Out of the Silent Planet, by C.S. Lewis
Publisher: John Lane, The Bodley Head (1938)

 

Dr. Ransom, a renowned British philologist, is enjoying a quiet holiday hiking in the English countryside when a chance encounter with two of his fellow academics sends him careening through outer space, against his will, on what may be the greatest journey any human being has ever taken. His holiday, originally intended to span a hundred miles at the most, brings him more than thirty million miles from home. Lost and terrified on an alien world, if Ransom is going to survive long enough to find a way back home, he will have to rely on something far greater than his intelligence or instinct; he will have to rely on his capacity for change.

Originally published in 1938, more than two decades before any human being ever left earth’s atmosphere, C.S. Lewis’s science fiction journey embodies a childlike wonder about the possibilities that the world above our skies might offer. Like a lot of space travel fiction of the era, it benefits from being written after the theoretical science of space travel was decently understood but before it had been achieved. The awe-inspiring beauty of outer space and extraterrestrial landscapes are not simply a pleasant background detail in a story concerned with other things; awe-inspiring beauty is the whole point of the story. It is the driving force behind most of what the characters do, and whether or not Ransom, humanity’s overburdened surrogate, is even capable of making sense of the beauty surrounding him is the central dramatic question. This is not an adventure story. It’s the story of one man, faced with what is plainly impossible and forced to confront the fact that it is real nevertheless.

Because the book is so much about discovering a new and startling world, it’s appreciated that the planet of Malacandra and the creatures that live on it come off as fresh and original even after the better part of a century. The planet’s unique ecosystem, along with its considerably weaker gravity, has produced lifeforms that could never survive on earth, but who are well-adapted to the jagged hills and balmy rivers of their own planet. Thanks to the expertise of our philologist protagonist, the story is concerned with not just the biology, but the language and culture of the intelligent aliens Ransom meets. While it may strain my suspension of disbelief that he can pick up extraterrestrial languages in a matter of weeks, the alien ethnographies that his language proficiency allows are a highlight of the book.

While Ransom may catalog the phenomena he can understand, the story’s gaze is always turned skyward, toward things that he might never understand. How is it that the eldila, the invisible, yet omnipresent inhabitants of the stars, can exist in all places at once? How can Oyarsa, the revered ruler of the planet, be older than human civilization? Most importantly, why is planet Earth spoken of in such, hushed, worried tones, as the “Silent Planet,” where nobody has been for eons? Ransom gets a few answers, but when it comes to the true nature of the universe, he is left mostly with questions that an extraterrestrial journey will never be enough to explain.

Reading the book as Christian allegory fills in some of the gaps in the world that Lewis has built, but never in a way that interferes with the fundamental sense of mystery that hangs over Ransom’s journey. This is a more original and bold allegory than Lewis ever pulled off in his Narnia series, so going into the book with a basic understanding of the author’s theology allowed me to enjoy it far more than I might have ordinarily. By fusing the strangeness of science fiction with Christian theological concepts, he successfully re-mystifies a religion that might, to some, feel mundane. I can only speculate on how it would be perceived at the time of its publication, but for me in the present, this book swept away stale images of haloed and winged figures in white robes living in white-marble buildings on the top of the clouds, and replaced them with surprising and eerie strangeness that sticks with me after the last page.

In his pursuit of a perfectly constructed allegory, he allowed his protagonist, Ransom, to remain fairly forgettable. His arc of interplanetary and self-discovery could have been much more engaging if it ever felt like he was have trouble with it, but it seems more like it was only a matter of time. Regardless of what Lewis is trying to say about religion, just doesn’t grab the reader like a more deeply-flawed character.

Final Grade: A-

 

Week 8 (Blaga): The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick*

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Reader: Blaga

Topic #10: Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.

Book: The Silver Linings Playbook, by Matthew Quick
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2008)

*TW: mental illness, suicide

When Pat Peoples, a former high school history teacher and a big Eagles fan, is taken home from the mental institution where he has spent the last four years by his mother, he barely remembers anything that has transpired while he was at “bad place.” What he does know, however, is that he is currently spending “apart time” from his wife Nikki. Pat believes in silver linings, and sees life as a movie, to which he hopes there will be a happy ending as a result of his learning to be kind (“be nice, not right”) and get into shape (he exercises for hours every day). All the while he has to navigate his old world and regain his sense of independence and identity, reconnecting with his sweet mother, his father and younger brother (who are huge Eagles fans), his best friend Ronnie, developing new bonds towards his therapist (also a great Eagles fan) and his best friend’s sister-in-law Tiffany.

I will be honest, I was both excited and cautious when it came to this book. Like many people, I watched the movie before reading the source material, and part of me expected to know exactly how this story would develop. I was also worried about how it would treat the subject of mental illness. I must say that on both counts I was pleasantly surprised. The book is rather different from the movie, and the differences add nuance and depth to the story and keep the reader engaged and curious.

The story is told mostly from Pat’s point of view. His simple voice (almost child-like at times) makes the story a lot more readable, especially when he reflects upon a number of serious subjects, such as mental illness, suicide (briefly, in one chapter), physical violence (briefly), and the distant character of Pat’s father (whose moods are heavily dependent upon the success of the Eagles). Although the pace of the narrative is quick and the tone relatively light, this does not diminish the seriousness of the subjects. I especially appreciated the contrast Quick established between Pat and some of his loved ones on the subject, one example being their (and other Eagles fans’) mockery of a former Eagles player who overdosed on medication. When they present this as a joke and note that the given player makes millions of dollars to endure this reaction from the public, Pat is disturbed, as he sympathizes with the player and wonders how he might truly feel on the inside and whether he has indeed improved. What does this make him, he wonders, as he too is suffering from mental illness and is on medication.

Another instance that stands out. Pat, Ronnie, Ronnie’s wife Veronica, their toddler daughter Emily, and Tiffany all go to the beach. When Tiffany loses her temper, she and her sister leave Ronnie, Pat and Emily alone. Ronnie falls asleep and Pat takes Emily to the water, floating with her on the waves. They return to the beach to Veronica screaming in panic, and fighting with Ronnie for leaving Emily with “him.”  This incident stood out to me for two reasons. On one hand, I felt like I could sympathize with Veronica, who acts out of of concern for her child. on the other hand, throughout the book, both she and Ronnie act as if there is nothing wrong with Pat, while they clearly have their opinions and concerns about him. He has, after all, spent four years in a mental institution and still has to go to therapy and take medication. Yet the pretense is very wrong, and I appreciated the way Quick addressed it.

Quick also pleasantly surprised me through the way he incorporates NFL football into the story. I will admit, I do not watch American football (a soccer fan myself; Go Barcelona!). Although I am somewhat familiar with the rules, I worried about how that would impact my understanding of and relationship to the book. While football is a huge  presence, however, Quick successfully ties it into Pat’s relationships with those closest to him. Even as a non-fan, I could comfortably enjoy the use of football in the book.

The Silver Linings Playbook has gotten a lot of positive and negative reactions – it does seem to be the type of book that would elicit a strong response. Personally, I am glad that I got the chance to read it as part of this challenge. I enjoyed it and found it to be better than its on-screen adaptation. I recommend giving it a chance.

Week 7 (Sam): Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson

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Reader: Sam

Topic #10: Read a book that is set within 100 miles of your location.

Book: Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson
Published by Tom Doherty Associates, 2012

It’s 1765 and the city of Boston is somewhere between a proper British city and a patch of lawless wilderness. Although there are many wealthy men who live in the city’s richer neighborhoods–most of them with connections to the old world–the city effectively has no dedicated police force to protect their property and interests. Ethan Kaille is a thieftaker, his job to recover stolen items and–if possible–dispose of those who stole them. He’s a conjurer as well, capable of healing his injuries or producing illusions with only a few words and a bit of blood, but he tries to use his powers carefully; they may not hunt conjurers as stubbornly as they did during the witch trials, but he’ll still end up hanging from the gallows if the wrong person sees him casting a spell. However, after accepting a job from a particularly well-connected Bostonian whose daughter was murdered in an apparent street-robbery, Ethan may no longer have the choice to lay low. As the streets boil over with increasingly violent resentment toward the Crown and a mysterious conjurer with frightening powers enacts a deadly plan, it will take all of his spells, his courage, and his wits if he wants to keep himself and his loved ones alive.

I picked up this book because I’ve lived near Boston my whole life, and I’m always happy to have an excuse to read about it. Life in Jackson’s ever-so-slightly-alternate colonial Boston maintains a comfortable middle point between overly detailed and vague. Little passages about the feel of the cobblestones underfoot or how tasty this new “clam chowder” dish tastes are peppered throughout the story and give the reader a sense of the city without ever really dropping into exposition. The fact that the real colonial Boston didn’t have any wizards living in it (or indeed, any thieftakers, as Jackson himself notes in a brief afterword) does nothing to disrupt the fact that the Boston we’re reading about seems very real, at least to a layman.

Sadly, Thieftaker is a crime procedural that seems ill-equipped for the job. There’s nothing really wrong with any single part of the mystery; it makes perfect sense, there are a number of suspects, and our hero figures out the truth based on the clues he finds. But it hardly matters, because the investigation is equal parts uneventful and predictable. Ethan wanders around Boston interviewing a set of forgettable characters, most of whom have little to say that will help his investigation, and more than one of which Jackson could have cut without changing the mystery in any way. Whenever there’s an important clue, its ramifications on the case are immediately obvious. It doesn’t help that the book is front-loaded with the most important clues first, so the reader is likely to solve the crime with half the book still left to go, leaving our lead detective far behind. The identity of the culprit is the one mystery that isn’t particularly obvious, but it’s not an especially interesting reveal either, since the killer is one of a dozen characters that leave almost no impression. To be sure, Thieftaker isn’t only a crime procedural, but that’s easily the largest component of the narrative, and the fact that it’s no good at it sabotages the reader’s engagement with the story as a whole.

Thieftaker is much more successful when it turns thriller, with Ethan running for his life from hardened criminals and cold-blooded conjurers. Ethan spends most of the book avoiding rival-thieftaker Sephira Pryce, who already has a habit of beating him half-dead and robbing him blind and is plainly starting to wonder if she should get rid of Ethan for good. She’s not the only one hunting Ethan through the cobbled streets. A conjurer whose powers completely outclass Ethan’s is lurking in the shadows, and whoever they are, they want Ethan to give up on the case and they’re willing to make his life hell until he does. The conjurer and Pryce are probably the best things Thieftaker has going for it. Together, their aura of menace hangs over everything, and regardless of where Ethan is, or what spells he is prepared to cast, he never seems truly safe.

There are a number of characters in this book whose presence seems intended to make Ethan’s life feel more real: friends, lovers, ex-lovers. Ultimately, most of these characters simply feel out of place since there isn’t enough time to get to know them. None of them are actually annoying or poorly written, but several of them–like the people Ethan interrogates about the crime–could have been removed without making much difference. For example, Ethan has a sister who disapproves of his spellcasting on religious grounds, which may sound like a recipe for character conflict but after she’s introduced in a scene within the first sixty pages, she vanishes from the rest of the book completely. Worse, about halfway through, Ethan visits his ex-fiance and her children–the former having been vaguely mentioned and the latter having never been mentioned before–and we learn that he has a deep emotional bond with the children. The fact that one of the pillars of Ethan’s emotional life goes unmentioned for the first hundred and thirty pages is frankly baffling, and the message it sends to the reader is disastrous for the characterization of the protagonist: don’t bother trying to understand Ethan on a subtextual level, because at any moment, the author might introduce a new relationship that will change everything.

The system of spellcasting in this world is simple, satisfying, and has some fun little details. To cast spells, you must offer something as fuel. Ethan specializes in using his own blood, but it’s possible to draw magic out of almost anything from the natural world, albeit with varied results. We don’t see many other sources for magic, but I get the sense that the world is full of conjurers whose magic is entirely different from protagonist’s and that bit of world building makes everything just a little bit more exciting. I’m particularly fond of the fact that every conjurer has their own pet ghost who appears whenever they cast spells and stands mutely behind them, visible only to other conjurers.

In the end, a couple menacing villains and a fairly promising system of magic isn’t enough to make this book work. I was never annoyed or tempted to stop reading, but I can’t say I had a great time. If you desperately want to read a magical crime story set in colonial Boston, you could do worse. Otherwise, I’d forget about this one.

Final Grade: D+