Monthly Archives: March 2012

Review: The Postmortal

First off, let me acknowledge that I failed in my plan to read a happy novel. Drew Magary’s The Postmortal is chilling. When this book was recommended to me by a friend, their description of the plot led me to expect Magary’s vision of a horrific future to be reminiscent of 1984 and Fahrenheit 451. Though certain aspects of his novel certainly have parallels to Orwell’s and Bradbury’s works, Magary does not look to the government as the agent of societal destruction; rather, he turns to something typically lauded in modern society: scientific progress. Further, Magary doesn’t just show an oppressed society, he shows one that is tearing itself to shreds from the inside out.

The novel begins with a forward, explaining that the following text is a sample of the personal journal of a man named John Farrell, and that all he writes seems to be true and line up with known historical events. John’s journal begins in 2019, when a proven cure for aging has been found and become available on the black market. The cure for aging doesn’t make a person immortal — it just stops the aging process. People can still die from disease, starvation, getting shot, etc. John gets the cure, freezing his age forever at 29. He doesn’t tell anyone at first, not sure what people will think, but his best friend weasels the truth from him and begs John to take her to the doctor that gave him the cure. He relents, but tragedy strikes when a pro-death terrorist bombs the building, killing John’s friend and many others.

This early tragedy sets the tone for the entire novel. John will briefly find happiness in his ageless state, then have it violently ripped away from him. The novel spans sixty years, but Magary deftly shows the reader how quickly the natural order is derailed, and how extreme the consequences are. The black market cure is eventually legalized, and almost everybody flocks to the doctors to have their age stopped in its tracks. People begin differentiating their “cure age” from their “true age”. When no one is dying, the expected problems come to fruition. Overcrowding. Food shortages. Fuel shortages. Housing shortages. Skyrocketing prison population. Ageless soldiers create massive national armies, then splinter into Rogue Military Units, or RMUs.

John works as a lawyer, where the cure for aging creates all sorts of new niches for legal work. Wills and estate law begin to fade away, though marriage and divorce law take on a whole new weight. Divorce statistics explode when “til death do us part” suddenly isn’t a given anymore. “Cycle marriages” become popular; they essentially are a marriage contract set to last a certain amount of time (twenty years, forty years, etc.), after which each person can either go their own way, with their own assets, with no hard feelings, or opt in for a second cycle. It’s not just marriage that changes after the cure; regard for human life, raising children, education, and planning for the future all fall by the wayside. Gangs of many different types spring up in every sector of society. They cause mayhem and pain, and even seem to thrive on the chaos left in their wake. The fundamental building blocks of society worldwide begin to crumble, and nobody seems inclined to pick them back up.

After a string of personal tragedies lead John to feel he has nothing left to lose, he becomes an End Specialist. Essentially, he carries out government-sanctioned executions. Some people are weary of the world and ask for assisted suicide. Some are criminals that are deemed to dangerous to continue living. Even more darkly, some are simply senior citizens that the government has decided to eradicate.  This is where Magary’s novel becomes its bleakest. John sees the world as it has become: a cannibalistic entity that survives only by self-consumption.

The Postmortal is a quick read, and tough to put down despite its utterly depressing view of the near future. John’s journal is comprised of not only his own entries, but also transcripts of news reports, presidential speeches, and internet chatter. John finds brief moments of happiness, and it is those moments that I found the quiet, whispered message behind the blaring warning about humankind’s current course in the world. Magary reminds the reader that there are things worth living for, and not one of them can be bought or sold. There are other interesting themes of class warfare and international relations, but the real heart of the story is John’s arc through cocky semi-immortal, adult understanding, and disillusioned drifter. The novel reads like a sci-fi adventure, but saturated with real emotion, and realistic actions and consequences.

It’s a story that has been imagined before, certainly. There are stories about the lonely immortal in many cultures, stretching back thousands of years. Magary’s novel is certainly worth reading, if only to remind us that we can’t afford to ignore the problems facing today’s world. It’s a good book, but kind of a downer. The Postmortal left me with the words of Freddie Mercury drifting through my mind: who wants to live forever?

A review of the Hunger Games movie is coming soon! Happy reading!

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Review: Shipwrecks

Akira Yoshimura’s novel Shipwrecks is, in my opinion, falsely advertised by its cover blurb, as well as the description on the back. Check out that intriguing blurb; it promises thrills, murder, and a wild setting. The description on the back cover calls it “a stunningly powerful Gothic tale of the mysteries and horrors of fate.” I suppose the murder technically is there, but it might as well not be. The horror is certainly minimal. Perhaps I have a different opinion of Gothic literature than whoever wrote the blurb, but I would not consider this Gothic save for in the broadest possible application of the term. When I think of Gothic literature, I think of Edgar Allan Poe. I think of The Monk, by Matthew Gregory Lewis. Gothic works are dark, lurid, and over-the-top. Shipwrecks… not so much.

The story centers on a young boy named Isaku, who has become the male head of his household after his father sold himself into indentured servitude to keep the family from starvation. Isaku and his family live in a remote, tightly-knit village on the coast of Japan. The people are barely above subsistence living; their only income is fish and salt from the sea. Most of the novel is about Isaku struggling to take on the duties of an adult man at only nine years old. Years pass over the course of the plot, as the reader follows Isaku’s progress as a fisherman, salt distiller, and provider for his family.

You may be thinking to yourself at this point that while that sounds interesting, it’s hardly thrilling or Gothic. This inference is positively correct. Yoshimura has a notable talent for painting lush, gorgeous scenery — I had vivid mental images of the flowers spreading on the mountains during springtime in the village. He also excels at showing character development and emotional struggle, without verging into melodrama, which is not always an easy task when writing coming-of-age tales. Yoshimura writes of the village life with ease, describing the daily life of the characters as the seasons and years progress.  Isaku (and the reader, by proxy) learns that his village, consistently teetering on the brink of starvation, not only prays for ships to founder on their coast, but actively encourages them to do so with the nightly fires under their salt cauldrons on the beach.

When ships’ crews see the fires on stormy nights, they steer for the supposed safety of the coast, not realizing that a rocky reef lies just beneath the surface of the waves. The ships then run aground, giving the villagers the chance to plunder the cargo. As a matter of self-preservation, they dispatch with the crew. Survivors would only cause trouble for them if given the chance to report the villagers’ activities to the authorities. Such a shipwreck is considered a sacred event, as the food and supplies on board give the villagers a reprieve from their hardships. The villagers pray every winter for a shipwreck, though years often pass before the sea provides for them. One winter night, the long-coveted shipwreck comes. Isaku and the other villagers each do their part; some act as lookouts, some ferry the cargo from the ship up to the village, some dispose of the crew, and finally some dismantle the ship completely. This is (obviously) when the murder occurs, but it is only alluded to and imagined briefly by Isaku. Yoshimura does not show the reader anything directly. I personally have no problem with an author writing around gory scenes, but this was the first serious time my qualms about the description of this novel as Gothic surfaced.

There is much celebration after the bounty from the shipwreck is divided amongst the villagers, and they give thanks for being delivered from their hunger and poverty, even if only temporarily. Isaku’s mother is insistent that they go about life as usual, and so before long Isaku is back on the water, teaching his brother how to fish. The rest of the village soon follows suit, and life settles into its normal patterns. It feels almost like  a circular read; Yoshimura uses the same words and phrases to describe scenes through each cycle of the seasons. There is repeated description of octopi being caught, then strung up to dry outside the houses. Saury are caught, skewered, and grilled. Salt is distilled, divided, and sold. There is not much action, save for Isaku’s continuing journey toward being a young man. There is some fear and excitement when the villagers hear rumors that the shipping company is searching for the missing ship, but nothing comes of it and their tensions ease.

The following winter, another ship drifts into their bay. The villagers are initially excited to be blessed with another shipwreck so soon, but this ship is nothing like the first. There is no cargo, only bodies clad entirely in bright red garments. Modern readers will likely pick up immediately on the signs of danger, but the uneducated villagers of medieval Japan have no notion of to what they are exposing themselves. They salvage what they can from the ship, including the red clothing on the corpses. The horrifying consequences of their raiding rapidly begin to unfold. This cruel twist of fate is moderately Gothic, though again, Yoshimura declines to go down the darkest paths.

Shipwrecks is not a novel of intrigue or violence. The Gothic tones are very muted. It is a novel that portrays the probable reality of a fishing village in that time, and all that life on the sea coast entails, be it morally questionable or no. It is well-written, though several parts are repetitive to the point of feeling déjà vu. Yoshimura’s talents with imagery and character development are admirable, though not quite enough to sway me from feeling mildly let down by this book, despite not disliking it in the least. It probably does not have a permanent place on my bookshelf. The best I can say for this book is that it’s a quick read, and nudges the reader to consider both the morality of survival as well as whether karma shapes our destinies, or if fate has a fickle hand that none can overcome.

Not sure what I’ll read next, but it really needs to be something less tragic than my last few choices.

That way, I can get back to what I love: happy reading!

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Review: The Book Thief

I have finally finished Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. This novel took me long enough to read that I’m actually not entirely sure when I started it. I think it was in November or December, though. The length of time it took me to finish this novel is not an indication of its quality; rather, it’s an indication of work reading versus pleasure reading. Surprise, surprise — I tend to pick pleasure reading over work. I’m sure you’re all shocked. The Book Thief came on to my radar during the WWII and Holocaust unit at my school. We gave the students free reign in picking a book in the genre of WWII/Holocaust literature, both fiction and nonfiction. It was moderate chaos. As any teacher or parent knows, though, when even a little chaos can be avoided, it’s by all means best to do so.

I began reading through the various histories and novels, trying to see if there was one that would be accessible to an entire eighth-grade class, one that contains variable levels of reading and comprehension skills as well as highly variable levels of motivation. As these things go, it was not an urgent project, so it was promptly put on the back burner. I would periodically check in to the novel, then set it down on my coffee table for days on end. Given my leisurely pace, it’s no wonder that it took me as long as it did to finish the 550-page novel.

Now that I’m finished, I can’t actually decide whether I’d assign it as mandatory class reading. Zusak’s novel is narrated by Death, an undeniably interesting point of view during the 1930s and ’40s. The protagonist, a young girl named Liesel, catches Death’s attention when he comes to collect her younger brother and notices the girl taking a book — specifically, The Grave Digger’s Handbook — out of a snowbank in the cemetery. Death then follows Liesel’s story as her mother leaves her with a foster family in Molching, Germany. Liesel’s foster parents are Hans and Rosa Hubermann, a man as gentle and kind as the woman is authoritarian. However, regardless of appearances, both Hans and Rosa love their foster daughter and are good-hearted people.

The novel is almost entirely focused on Liesel’s world, which makes for an interesting take on Hitler’s rise to power, the imprisonment of the Jews, Gypsies, and others, and the war itself. Zusak presents the unfolding events through both Liesel’s childish eyes and Death’s world-weary ones, making for an interesting interplay between being boggled by what’s happening versus simply tired and resigned to it all. Much of the first part of the novel seems unrelated to the war, though many early events are revealed to have serious consequences later on. Of course, even the first part of the novel is a strong indicator of the ending, as Death describes scenes and gives the readers facts that will not come to pass for years within the novel’s chronology. Every now and then, these vignettes are comforting. More often than not, though, they do little more than crush your hopes for characters and brace you for the tragedy to come.

Liesel’s family is simply another German family trying to get through the general hardship of war until a young man arrives at their door to ask Hans if he still plays the accordion. The question is a loaded one. The young man is a Jew by the name of Max Vandenburg, and he is in Molching due to a promise that Hans made to Max’s mother — the wife of a friend of his that was killed in the First World War — many years earlier. The Hubermanns are well aware of the extreme danger, but they arrange a hiding place in their basement for Max. Each member of the family becomes attached to the persecuted man in their own way, and they do all they can to protect him from the increasing power and scrutiny of the Nazi party. It is via Max that Liesel begins to understand the true extent and implications of Hitler’s so-called Master Race and Final Solution. She an Max read to one another, and he writes stories for her as presents. His stories and drawings are heartbreaking, and one of the most emotionally-charged parts of the novel, in my opinion.

As I mentioned, the story is much more about Liesel than about WWII or the Holocaust, and therein lies my dilemma in whether or not to assign it as part of the unit. On the one hand, young readers will absolutely be able to identify with Liesel, and her day to day life. They will understand her way of storytelling, which I think makes the horror of the war and Holocaust much more accessible to middle-schoolers. On the other hand, the tight focus sometimes lacks in broad historical scope, which shields them from some of the true atrocity of the time period. Death as the narrator gentles the impact of the death toll, as it makes the reader feel as though the dying had loving arms around them as they departed Earth. However, this on occasion bothered me, as it seemed almost dismissive of the massive pain and suffering that occurred at the hands of Hitler and the Nazis. I don’t want to beat children over the head with it, but I firmly believe that it is important for each new generation to know the truth about the Holocaust, so that the refrain of “Never Again” does not die out over time. Further, there is essentially no mention of the war outside of Germany, though I can’t fault that too heavily, as the tale is about a German girl who would have no reason to be familiar with what was happening in Russia, the USA, or Japan. My final concern rests with the length. Some readers will be able to tackle the 500-plus pages without too much struggle, but many others would need a solid amount of in-class time and support to finish the novel.

My final call: this novel is probably not for everyone. I would likely give this book as an option for an opt-in challenge for the students that are strong readers, possibly with some sort of extra credit opportunity. It’s an excellent piece of literature for teens or young adults, and something that I would recommend reading before jumping into the grittier works about World War Two and the Holocaust.

Though this novel itself is not particularly cheerful, happy reading!

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Tucson Festival of Books 2012

The Tucson Festival of Books has come and gone once again, and it was as lovely as ever. There was sunny Tucson weather this weekend, which made for a bright and warm festival experience. However, the festival really began on Friday night, with the “Author’s Table” dinner.

The Author’s Table Dinner

I was lucky enough to be able to get two tickets to the Author’s Table event, the official kick-off to the Tucson Festival of Books — or, as the organizers call it, TFOB. I went to the dinner last year as well, and so was much looking forward to the event. The evening began with a reception in the University of Arizona bookstore, where we were treated to drinks, finger-food, and music. The food was excellent, especially these tomato-mozzarella skewers that were essentially a caprese salad on a stick. However, the main course was still to come. We made our way to the Arizona Ballroom, where an huge array of tables were laid out for the hundreds of guests, supporters, and authors.

I was excited to find that the authors at my table were Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, the writers behind such works as Lonesome Dove, Terms of Endearment, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Brokeback Mountain — for which the pair won an Oscar. Imagine my disappointment when they essentially ignored all of us at the table for the entire meal. When I smiled and tried to start a conversation with Ossana, I received  only a nod as she pointedly got out her iphone and proceeded to play with it for the remainder of the meal. I kid you not; the woman was on her phone, doing who knows what, for the whole meal. She didn’t even eat. McMurtry was slightly too far away for me to talk to, but I watched him turn down multiple fans who approached him for autographs. To be fair, both did do signings and meet-and-greets during the festival itself, however. The pair received the Founders’ Award from the TFOB committee, and their acceptance speech only irked me even more, because it seemed they put on the gracious, charming act only for the cameras and the spotlight. [UPDATE 3/13/2012: Since posting this, Diana Ossana reached out to me and explained that her young niece, to whom she is the legal guardian, was home sick with a fever on the evening of the event. Ossana chose to come despite this, and was on her phone communicating with the woman watching her niece. I clearly did not know this at the time, and I apologize for my strongly-worded, uninformed judgement. Diana, I hope your niece is feeling better!]

On the flip side, the vast majority of the other authors were personable, kind, and more than happy to interact with their fans and fellow festival attendees. I spoke with Robert Dugoni (the author who had been at my table last year), and I have to say that he is one of the nicest authors I’ve ever met. Despite meeting me only once a full year earlier, Dugoni remembered that I was a schoolteacher and that my sister and father were doctors. I was very impressed that he remembered so much, and he told me to tell my family hello from him. On top of being so kind, Dugoni is a legitimately talented author. He writes crime/courtroom thrillers, and I highly recommend people read his works. He autographed a copy of Wrongful Death for me, and more of his books are on my list to buy as soon as I whittle down my current stack.

RL Stine with my boyfriend!

Another author that made the evening special was RL Stine. Boyfriend and I were extremely excited to hear that he was going to be at the dinner, and only got mildly stalker-esque in order to speak with him. I find it hard to believe anyone would not have heard of RL Stine, but to refresh your memory in case you forgot: he wrote an insane number of books in the Goosebumps and Fear Street series. Boyfriend and I both read many of his books as children, and were somewhat starstruck to see the man that scared the pants off us when we were little. I cannot say enough good things about RL Stine. When we introduced ourselves and mentioned that we were fans, he laughed and said he couldn’t believe his readers were all grown up. He signed autographs and took several photos, and didn’t even get impatient when my flash messed up and I had to retake them. He is truly a classy individual.

Overall, the dinner was a great deal of fun. Writer and cartoonist David Fitzsimmons was a witty and intelligent speaker as always, as was keynote speaker Luis Alberto Urrea. It was a blast getting to be at the event that jump starts the official festival.

The Festival of Books

The festival itself is almost beyond words. There is simply so much to see and do, it’s difficult to cram it all into one weekend, let alone one blog post. The festival was close to my house, so I walked there with a friend. We dove into the crowd, which was so thick at some points that it was actually difficult to move around. None of my photos taken from the ground do it justice; if you want to get an idea of the crowds, look at the photo gallery on the Arizona Daily Star’s website here.

We wandered in and out of several tents and booths, but our first major stop was at the Bookmans tent. Bookmans set up a miniature outdoor version of their beloved second-hand bookstore right on the U of A mall. They were even accepting trade credit just like they do in the store! I was quite impressed, and ended up purchasing four books, as well as getting a free canvas tote bag that says “Shop Local, Shop Bookmans” on it. There were quite a few booksellers I’d never heard of before, as well as independent publishers and authors with tents. There was a large food and snack pavilion, with many local eateries offering up all kinds of food to the throngs of book-lovers. Though we meandered through many of the tents, we took a long pause inside the Literacy Connects tent. It was beautiful. there were posters, streamers, handmade cards, and a literacy scroll that people could sign in support of literacy programs nation-wide.

A few of the best photos:

the Literacy Connects tent

My favorite card: “Reading is freedom.”

One of the posters: "Books are brain food!"

The other posters contained upbeat messages such as: “I Heart Books!”, “Literacy connects us”, and “Literacy lets you reach for the stars!” All very noble and wonderful ideas, with lots of volunteers in a network of organizations trying their best to make sure those words will always remain true.

I purchased several more books throughout the day, and was able to meet and briefly speak with Jennifer Lee Carrell, author of Shakespeare themed books set in modern times such as Interred With Their Bones and Haunt Me Still. Both are fun reads, especially for English buffs and Shakespeare fans, and Carrell assured me that she has new projects in the works. I can’t wait to see what they will be!

Another stall that I was a huge fan of was not that of a bookseller, but rather the fun and funky

Steam Crow's tent

world of Steam Crow. Based in Peoria, Arizona, they are a whimsical steampunk monster factory. They have a huge array of merchandise, much of it filled with puns, comics, and literary winks. I bought a shirt for Boyfriend with a drawing of Cthulu on the front and text that read “I Lovecraft you.” (If you don’t know who H.P. Lovecraft is, go look him up now, please.) I also got some buttons that say things like “Word Nerd” and “Adorkable.” They also had hilarious posters with cartoon images of food with pithy little quotes underneath the drawing. Some of my favorites included a frowning bowl of soup that said “Miso Angry” and a Chinese-food carton that said “Take Me Out.” Funny and cute. You can’t ask for much more than that.You should check them out at www.steamcrow.com.

Though there is so much that I have not even begun to describe — from author talks to circus acts to dancing to model rockets — let me close by sharing with you one last group that I became acquainted with at the festival: the Jane Austen Society of North America. We all know I love me some Austen, and I was excited to learn about the regional group of JASNA here in Tucson. They meet on a regular basis to discuss her works and life, and even have a celebratory tea on Austen’s birthday. That, in my opinion is quintessential TFOB: book lovers meeting book lovers. A celebration of all things literary. And, perhaps most importantly, a recognition that the written word still carries great weight in our society.

It was a wonderful weekend, and I’m already looking forward to the Tucson Festival of Books 2013.

Happy reading!

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The Festival Approaches!

It’s almost time for the 2012 Tucson Festival of Books! I am so tremendously excited. The festival is a hugely popular event here in Tucson, and has grown in leaps and bounds every year since its inception in 2009. Though young, the festival here attracted over 100,000 visitors last year, and more are expected this year. Though it is not the largest book festival in the nation (yet!), the Tucson Festival of books features 450 authors that give talks, lead seminars, teach lessons, and of course sign books and host meet-and-greets.

The featured authors cover every conceivable genre and topic, and there is no shortage of events to attend. There are literally more to choose from than you could possibly hope to attend. Today, there was a multi-page pull-out guide to the festival in the Arizona Daily Star (Tucson’s newspaper). I am already circling authors, starring events, and mapping out my tactical assault on the festival. Of course, if it’s anything like last year, I’ll have to do as much as I can cram into Sunday, as I’ll spend most of Saturday wandering from venue to venue in a happy bibliophile daze. There will be a score of booksellers setting up temporary shop on the grassy U of A mall; there will be books and book-themed merchandise galore. I can’t wait! Last year I got at least six or seven books, plus a t-shirt and a really cute tote bag. I expect nothing less for this year.

For more information on the Tucson Festival of Books, visit the official site at: http://tucsonfestivalofbooks.org/section/index

Hope to see lots of fellow book lovers there, March 10 & 11, at the University of Arizona’s main campus! I’ll be sharing my own experiences and impressions after I visit.

Happy reading!

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