Some Brief Thoughts On Grammar and Style.

I recently read Steven Pinker’s book A Sense of Style.  The book is partially a style guide and partially a wandering meditation on grammar, style and language.  It’s a quick, light read (especially by Pinker’s standard) and I highly recommend it for anyone interested in the subject.  That said, Pinker’s book is not my favorite work on the subject.  That commendation is reserved for David Foster Wallace’s Essay `Authority and American Usage’.  Ostensibly a 65 page review of Bryan Garner’s `A Dictionary of Modern American Usage,’ DFW’s essay is the definitive word on what grammatical advice is actually about.  I laughed, I cried.  Read it.

Like many people I know who’ve spent time in various academic settings, I’ve gone through stages in my response to grammar, style and usage.  Despite good grades in middle school English, I felt like a clumsy buffoon trying to put together coherent sentences in my early/middle teens.  The good grades, mostly likely, were only due to a slavish adherence to set forms: introductory sentence, three sentences of evidence, concluding sentence.  Next paragraph, the very same.  My prose was awkward, stilted and boring, but I guess my teachers couldn’t well dock marks when I followed instructions so well.  But it wasn’t quality writing, even adjusting for age.

I don’t remember when someone first gave me a copy of Strunk & Whyte.  I do remember, vividly, the feeling of reading it for the first time.  I felt like I’d achieved enlightenment.  I felt that while I’d previously be building wood furniture with a glue stick and a butter knife, suddenly someone had given me a saw, hammer and nails.  I’m not sure my writing actually improved substantially, but at least I had a direction for such improvement.

For years, I thought that Strunk & Whyte had essentially the correct idea.  They presented a confident vision and reasonable set of rules and intuitions, focused on clarity, brevity and elegance.  There was, somewhere, a correct way to write expository prose.  Then, slowly, over a decade or so, chinks began to appear in the armor of `The Elements of Style’.  Even with their expert guidance, comma usage still baffled me (leading to a long-lasting and still problematic addition to the semi-colon). I became more aware of English as a set of only partially related dialects and jargon.  I read feminist critiques focusing on the classist and racist implication of proscriptive grammar.  I learned that the field of linguistics existed and that linguists were barely more than guessing about how language works.

I became a descriptivist; forgoing my former dedication to the disciples of  Strunk, I was convinced that language was an impenetrable maze of conflicting structures, individual and chaotic as humanity itself.  The fact that anyone manages to communicate at all is a small miracle (and happens less frequently that we might assume).  Dictionaries and usage manuals out to be field research journals, noting the current behaviour and recording it for reference and posterity.

Both DFW’s excellent essay and the pleasant book by Pinker do a good job of finding a middle way.  Both reject two common models for the grammarian: the legislator that decrees what good usage shall be and the researcher that describes accepted usages whatever it might be.  Instead, DFW’s model for the grammarian is a lawyer.  The lawyer hasn’t written the laws and is capable, at some level, of indifference towards their moral value.  The lawyer has, however, studied the laws and how they play out in certain contexts.  The lawyer can advise her client on how to make best use of the law in a particular situation.  Such is the goal of the grammarian: to know, from years of experience, the usage of language in particular context and to give advice to the writer on how to produce a certain effect on a certain audience through prose.

Book Review: Joseph and his Brothers

Everyone time we go on a vacation of more than a week, I take a lengthy book.  On vacation, especially at the pace that Steph and I usually prefer, there are frequent periods of some hours to fill.  I prefer to fill them with reading.  Moreover, I find that the long hours on planes or trains allow me to jump into a long, detailed, thick book (though some selections are much more ambitious than others).  I can still associate books with some vacations from the last few years.

  • 2006 Cycle Tour Vernon – Edmonton: Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
  • 2008 Cycle Tour Nova Scotia: War and Peace by Leo Tolsoy
  • 2009 Cancelled Bicycle Tour due to injury (Stay at home vacation) – Le Ton Beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter
  • 2012 Quebec (including sitting on a train across the country): Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
  • 2013 Croatia: East of Eden by John Steinbeck
  • 2014 Anne’s Wedding: Middlemarch by George Elliot
  • 2014 Washington State Bicycle Tour: Anathem by Neal Stephenson

The summer 2015 monumental book was Joseph and his Brothers by Thomas Mann.  Published in four volumes in the 1930s and 1940s, the book is a 1500 page dramatic retelling of the second half of the book of Genesis, starting with most of the major events of Jacob’s life and finishing with his death.

The book is ambitious.  Among its many goals and accomplishments, I’d like to focus on four aspects that particularly struck me.

First, as you might expect for a book turning a 20 page story into a 1500 page novel, the characters are extensively filled out from their relatively sparse biblical descriptions.  All of the major characters in the original story, as well as some of the minor ones, are given detailed, rich, psychologically complex characterizations and motivations. Perhaps the most notable is the effort and detail given to Eni, Potiphar’s wife.  (Unnamed in the original, Eni is one of several names given to the character in Mann’s novel).  Given only three words in genesis: `Lie with me’, Potiphar’s wife has become a caricature of woman as temptress.  Mann goes to great lengths to redeem her character from that unfair and simplistic description.  Given a full 200 pages, the story of Eni and Joseph is expanded into a deep, complicated three-year tragedy of unrequited love.   The blame for the eventual crisis between Eni, Joseph, Potiphar is shared among all three characters and several other minor figures.  It’s compelling enough that I often found myself hoping for Joseph to give himself up to the affair and I felt heartbroken for both characters by the end.  The novel felt like a real story about mythologically-influenced by psychologically human characters.  This shatters the simplistic distance of the original myth in a marvelous way.

Second, the story is put in a vivid and intricate cultural context.  Extensively researched, the story connects the characters and their settings with the various towns, cities, empires, cultures and religions of the particular historical period that Mann has chosen.  Biblical scenes which give only the most basic details are now full of secondary and tertiary characters.  A good example is Joseph’s time in prison, where we are given great detail on the warden, his living situation, the role and organization of the prison, the location of the prison and its culture and atmosphere.   There is a temptation, probably from deeply buried impressions of childhood Sunday School stories, to see the biblical stories as isolated.  It never occurs to me, even rereading as an adult, to visualize the complicated surrounding world.  Mann does an amazing job giving that world in great detail.

The first two points are perhaps exactly what you would expect for a novelization of myth.  Myth has a sparse, simplistic form; a novel should extend both character and setting in a natural way.  Mann does this well, but I would have expected a similar effort from any talented writer.  The last two observations are much more surprising and particular to the goals of this author.

Third, Mann takes stories and archetypes from throughout both biblical testaments and mixes them into his story.  I noticed dozens of such examples and I’m sure I missed others due to lack of familiarity.  To give a sense, the stories and archetypes of Adam, Eve, Noah, Abram, Sarai, Eliezer, Jonah, Job, Ezekiel, Jeremiah, Jesus, Paul and others are applied to Jacob, Joseph and many other characters.  In particular, Joseph is more strongly set-up as a Christ figure than I have ever seen.  A long, complicated reason is given for treating his mother as a virgin, hence giving him a virgin birth.  Both his experiences in `the pit’ (the literal pit for three days before being sold, and the prison in Egypt) are treated as death and resurrection narratives.

Joseph as a Jesus-figure is an idea I have heard before, but Mann isn’t content with conventional parallels.  One of the more amazing and surprising choices was his mythology of the Pharaoh under which Joseph serves.  Mann has chosen the historical Pharaoh Akhenaten to be Joseph’s Pharaoh.  Akhenaten was historically notable for enacting a temporary shift in focus in the Egyptian pantheon, away from the previous sun-god Amun to a new sun-god Aten.   Aten is a more abstract deity (one of the few Egyptian deities to be represented as an object, in this case the sun, instead of a human or human/animal hybrid) and Mann makes Akhenaten’s story about searching for a universal monotheism.  A great part of the appeal of Joseph to Akhenaten is his monotheism, delivered in mythic stories about Abram turning his back on his Chaldean gods and seeking `the Highest’.  This, in itself, is fascinating, but when Akhenaten starts preaching about Aten, his quasi-monotheistic sun-god, the language Mann has chosen is a exact parallel of the the first chapter of the gospel of John.  Akhenaten himself is cast as the word-made-flesh.  The pharaoh, as mythologically the son of the sun-god,is on earth to show the glory of the One and Only.

Lastly, it’s not only biblical archetypes that Mann incorporates.  The surrounding archetypes of many ancient religions are also included with playful exuberance.  Moreover, they aren’t cleanly separated from the biblical archetypes.  Quite the opposite: the biblical stories are very intentionally presented as re-interpretations and adaptations of the stories of the surrounding religions.  All of the Christ-figure discussion of Joseph is also the story of Osiris and Horus and the death/tomb/rebirth narrative of ancient Egypt.  Likewise, it is also the story of the Cannanite and Babylonian gods, where death and rebirth are frequent themes.  The overwhelming impression given by this mixing is that the stories of Joseph are anything but novel.  Growing up with the Sunday school versions and becoming aware of historical biblical criticism as an adult, I found this impression absolutely fascinating.  One of the greatest things about reading this novel is getting a sense, through fiction, of one way the Hebrew stories might have originated among a rich cultural tradition of myths and archetypes, as opposed to the Deus-Ex-Machina delivery of the bible out of the ether that my childhood self tacitly assumed.  Mann does give the Hebrews some claim to originality when talking about the monotheistic idea of a singular higher power above all the Gods, though even here, he finds that same tendency in the Pharaoh Akhenaten.  The book is full of lovely mythological play between the surrounding culture informing and donating the stories of the bible and the Hebrews re-interpreting this gift in the understanding of Abram’s goal of serving a singular Highest.

What is Science Fiction?

When I wrote the review of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go some time ago, I ignored a tangent about the definition of science fiction.  This post is picking up that tangent: what is science fiction?  When is the term used?  What about fantasy?  What about the new catch-all term speculative fiction?  I’m sure places on the internet are full of lengthy threads debating these subtleties with great vigor; in a more relaxed environment, I thought I’d give my thoughts.  One point of context: I read and enjoy science fiction and fantasy (whatever is it), but not exclusively.  I feel I have enough experience to talk about the genres as an insider, though by no means an expert.  Since I tend to enjoy literature that pushes some conventional boundaries of the genres, I am certainly biased.

First, and most importantly, I think getting upset about the use of the terms is rather ridiculous.  I’m no purists and emotionally, I’m not particularly invested.  Unless you are writing or selling fiction, where a genre distinction or lack-there-of can mean a great deal to your sales, I don’t see the point of getting upset.  However, I do find the discussion interesting, hence this post.

I prefer a broad definition of science fiction and fantasy.  Any setting which includes a slightly unreal environment for stories satisfies.  Dystopian fiction certainly qualifies: 1984, Brave New World, The Handmaiden’s Tale are all science fiction.  Kafka’s Metamorphosis is science fiction.  Shelly’s Frankenstein certainly is.  I don’t think science fiction has to be directly about the changed environment.  Science fiction in space doesn’t have to be about space travel or adventure.  Science fiction based on a technological advance doesn’t have to be about primarily about that advance.  Ursula Le Guin is one of my favourite authors; she very intentionally uses her new settings to tell stories about fundamentally human characters and their relationships.  That’s some of my favourite science fiction.  In reference to the inspiration for this post, Never Let Me Go is certainly science fiction, even though it doesn’t share any stylistic conventions with most of the genre and leaves the technological details of the alternate timeline almost entirely mysterious (horrendously, tragically mysterious).

I also like the term `speculative fiction.’  It’s a nice catch all and it’s easier to say than `science fiction and fantasy’.  It can include Magical Realism.  It can include wonderful things like Totoro.  It can include myth and all mythically informed fiction such as Gaiman’s Sandman.  It can include basically all comic book genres, for that matter.  Maybe the term is too broad, but I approve of labelling the distinction that something is different from the usual world.

I don’t think that fantasy or science fiction are descriptions of style.  A story about elves and goblins can be told in as wide a variety of styles as any literature but still be fantasy.  I think policing style or insisting that stylistic conventions define the genres is far too limiting.

I very strongly reject any argument that science fiction, fantasy or speculative fiction are in anyway unable to produce the very best of human artistic endeavours.  The fact that our canon includes very few works of speculative fiction is a weakness in our canon, not a reflection of the inability of speculative fiction to be excellent literature.  I also reject the argument that speculative fiction is inherently escapist, as opposed to more serious mainstream literature.  It can be, but it also can be desperately immediate and humanizing.  Following Le Guin, I like the idea that it can often be easier to tell a truly human story by altering the setting.  It allows for a focus which can be difficult to construct in the so-called conventional world.  An excellent  example is issues understanding gender with Le Guin’s `ambisexual’ race in The Left Hand of Darkness.

Giving examples brings us back to Never Let Me Go, which is one of the least escapist books I’ve ever read (as well as one of the most amazing). The new setting tells stories about human cultures and what they are willing to do for their betterment.  It tells stories about humans stuck in a system so deeply that they can’t imagine even attempting to get out of it.  It tells of the noble attempts of small groups to call out injustice and how their efforts can be tragically crushed.  It tells these humans stories sublimely well because of its altered reality.

For further reading, Atwood’s collection of essays `In Other Worlds’ is recommended, even though I don’t agree with everything Atwood has said about the Science Fiction.

Book Review on Vacation

Vacations are for reading.  This trip’s epic undertaking was Thomas Mann’s `Joseph and his Brothers’.  However, I’m only 1000 pages into the 1500 of that novel, so it’s review will have to wait.  (It will come, though — I have many things to say about this novel.)  I did read two other books, about which I’ll share a few comments.

The first of the two was `The Secret Life of Bees’ by Sue Monk Kidd.  (Spoilers here.)

This is a fairly well known and well received American novel from a decade or so ago.  I also understand it was made into a relatively successful film.  I enjoyed the book well enough, but I have some serious reservation about certain aspects of it.

First the good: the main character was engaging, the prose was functional for the most part and occasionally exquisite, mostly when talking about the bees.  I like bees, honey and beekeeping, mostly due to some very, very early childhood memories about the bees my parents kept.  The title isn’t just a slight reference: there is a great deal of material in the book actually about bees.  Almost of all of the bee-related material was lovely.

The religious content was quite interesting.   The Black Madonna, a religious tradition that I was previously unaware of, plays a central role.  A number of the characters form a home grown Christian-influenced religion based on their experience of a Black Madonna statute.  This religion and its practice heavily inform the arc of trauma and recovery in a way I found fascinating.

Finally, the emotional arc of the novel was compelling as well; the best written scenes drew tears and I cared about the pain of the characters.

However, let’s talk about the pain of the characters.  This is a childhood trauma novel: it’s about a adolescent with a terrifying early childhood experience.  At age five, she accidentally killed her own mother with a pistol.  She spends the next decade repressing the memory and living with a emotionally distant and often abusive father.   The book, essentially, is about her coming to deal with this trauma.  It’s about starting to heal core wounds, in the language my own mother uses.  While a compelling and classic archetypical story, it’s also one that I tend to approach skeptically.  As I said before, the novel is well written enough that I was often caught up in the emotional journey.  At other moments, though, the severity of the situation serve to remove me as a ready.  The trauma is so extreme is it almost ridiculous. Sometime when reading these novels, it feels like there’s some competition between authors to see what’s the worst kind of childhood trauma they can throw their characters into.  Pushed too far, it feels like unintentional satire.

The other main issues with the book are about race.  The book takes place in the 1960 in the southern US, shortly after the passage of the Civil Rights Act.  Violence towards the supporting black characters is frequent and horrendous.  However, it’s still essentially a book about a white child protagonist and the issues (however horrendous) of her white family.  The black characters are all supporting and their struggles and sufferings secondary.   In addition, the protagonist finds her salvation in the support and wisdom of a black community.  This immediately set off alarm bells for me: I’ll let TV Tropes and their Magical Negro article sum up the issue:

This can work somewhat as An Aesop about tolerance and not dismissing individuals from underprivileged groups, and it’s certainly an improvement on earlier tendencies to either never depict minority characters at all or make them all villains. However, ultimately it’s usually a moral and artistic shortcut, replacing a genuine moral message with a well-intentioned but patronizing homage to the special gifts of the meek. Minority characters still all too often aren’t portrayed as the heroes of their own stories, but as helpers of standard white, able-bodied, middle-class heroes, and they aren’t depicted as, you know, actual people with their own desires, flaws and character arcs, but as mystical, Closer to Earth plot devices.

The second book was the short story collection (in translation) entitled `Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman’ by Haruki Murakami.

I’ll be more succinct about this second book.  Many of the stories were well structured and I appreciated the relaxed, nonchalant style of the writing.  Reminiscent of Douglas Copland, it wasn’t what I expected from a Japanese author.

However, the collection suffered from one very serious flaw, which I feel I can simply label as Male Gaze.  Most of the stories are from male perspective, and in those stories, female characters almost always are presented a available and willing sexual partners.  It felt like every man in the stories was non-descript and every woman was given explicit physical description, (almost always including the shape and prominence of her breasts, sooner or later).  By halfway through the collection, whenever a woman was introduced, I was asking how many paragraph would it take before she and the protagonist were having sex (or at least, she had offered to have sex with him).  Even in the (two or three) stories with female protagonists, the same problems arose.

In general, I’m happy with stories about sex.  Sexual relationships are so strange, rich and complicated that a collection of short stories about people and their sex lives is perfectly natural.  However, they need to be about pairs of real characters, not default men and always-sexually-willing-and-available women.  This collection, at many moments, felt like a sexist muddle of wish-fulfillment stories from the mind of an adolescent (heterosexual) male.

Book List

Books Read Since 2008

The above link leads to a list I’ve kept since 2008 of all the books I’ve read.  Other than a couple which were likely forgotten, the list is the near entirety of what I’ve read in the last seven years.  The only notable items left off the list are mathematical books which I’ve read professionally.

I’ve kept the list for myself, since I find it easy to forget what I’ve read.  So far, I’ve kept it to myself.  It occurred to me to post the list here.  Then it occurred to me to wonder why I should post it publicly.  Two reasons occur immediately.

First, some people just might find it interesting.  I’m curious what my friends are reading.  Over the last couple of years, I’ve been serious about asking for recommendations and actually reading most of the recommended books.  I’m lucky enough to know amazing people with a wide variety of opinions on reading; it’s good for me to know what they really enjoy in books.  So, people might want my reading list for a similar reason.  Or for any other reason, even if that reason is simple curiosity.  Being curious about what our friends do is natural, and I’m happy to let people know what I’ve chosen to read.

Second, and more concerning, I might be trying to enforce an impression about my character by my reading list.  It’s pretty easy to judge people on the book they read (or whether they read at all), and that’s a game I’m simply not interested in. If you only read fiction, that doesn’t mean you are shallow on uninformed.  If you only read genre fiction, that doesn’t mean you have poor taste or don’t have the depth to appreciate `real literature’.  If you only read non-fiction, it doesn’t mean you have no imagination or creativity.  Alternatively, if you read serious, depressing and dramatic novels, it doesn’t mean you are deep or emotionally mature or thoughtful.  If you read three nonfiction books every week, it doesn’t mean you are more intelligent that those who don’t. You are not determined by the books you read.  Yet, these tapes play in many people’s heads, both the positive and negative versions.  Psychologically, I have them myself; I can take pride in my love for Russian novels by thinking that reading them makes me come across as intelligent, sophisticated and deep.  This is nonsense, and I need to be in the habit of checking my own ridiculous self-deceptions.  I don’t really want to post the list if self-aggrandizing is the basic purpose behind it.

I think, for the most part, I choose to read books either because they are recommended or because I think I will enjoy reading them.  I often choose lengthy, complicated and emotionally heavy novels because, for some strange reason, I seem to enjoy reading them.  I get ridiculously excited about meta-fictional books.  I seem to enjoy non-linear narratives and books which sacrifice conventional plot for style or character.  Of course, maybe the desire to present a certain character by my reading is subconsciously turned into these simple desires.  I can’t be certain that the second reason isn’t the main subconscious purpose.  I hope it isn’t, and, in the balance, I thought it was worthwhile to post the list.  I hope some people enjoy looking at it.  The link is to a dynamic document, so the list will be regularly updated at that same link.

Stats are kept in four categories: Gender, Fiction/Non-Fiction, Canadian Authors and Books in Translation.  I’m quite content with the mix on the latter three, but the fact that 75% of the books I read are written by men seems problematic.

Book Review: Fields of Blood

Fields of Blood by Karen Armstrong is a historical survey of religion and violence.  I was drawn to the book when it was announced last year, having previously read Armstrong’s History of God.  I have great respect for Armstrong’s ability to capture the broad currents of religious history, so I was very interested what she would make of the difficult and important topic of how religion relates to violence.  The book did not disappoint: it is an excellent popular treatment of the subject, deep in its investigations and amazingly ambitious in its scope.

Armstrong’s major thesi seems to be this: the relationship between religion and violence is complicated; don’t over simplify.  In particular, she is writing against the popular polemic coming from Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, et. el, that religion is the primary source of violent behaviour throughout history and violence is reduced by reducing religion.  (This of course is not a new thought; Armstrong mentions version of this polemic as early in the modern period as the modern definition of religion, specifically the secularism of the French revolutionaries.)  Her consistent argument throughout the book is that religion has been invoked both for and against violence as long as religion has existed and that all religion wars and conflicts also have political, social and economic causes.  From my perspective, this is a completely sensible and almost painfully obvious thesis; however, I can appreciate the need for  a popular book to speak against the aforementioned polemic.

Even though I’ve just presented her thesis as `almost painfully obvious’, there are many subtleties explored in the book. Among these is the observation that the machinery of cities/states/nations/empires absolutely requires violence.  This idea is presented in the first part of the book dealing with ancient civilizations in the Mediterranean, Persia, India and China.  She recognized the non-violent themes in the great sages of the Axial Age: Confucius, Lao Tzu, Zoroaster, Gautama Buddha, the Greek Philosophers and the Hebrew prophets, among others.  Most of these non-violent teachings morphed into official religions of kingdoms and empires, all of which used them to justify their status quo of violence.  Typically, I’ve viewed this as empires co-opting and perverting religion.  Armstrong would mostly agree, but gives some thought to the reasons and mechanisms.  Particularly through the example of Maurya Emperor Ashoka in India, Armstrong makes the observation that the leaders of these empires may have consciously realized that their entire political structure was completely impossible without its systemic violence.  The only alternative they could imagine to the domination of empire was the anarchy of constant fighting between hundreds and thousands of local princes, warlords and thugs.  The choice in early human history (and perhaps in all of human history) may not be violence/non-violence, but which kind of violence.

This part of the book is where Armstrong leans most strongly toward the thoughts of René Girard.  She mentioned Girard explicitly at the very start of the book and end the last paragraph with Girardian language; however, I was hoping for more explicit interaction with Girard throughout the book.  There is a strange and powerful Girardian thesis that the original idea of sacred was violence made holy through a scapegoating processes saving early communities from their own destructive in-fighting.  I was fascinated by this idea when I read Girard last year and  I was hoping Armstrong would deal with it explicitly.  I was mildly disappointed on this score.

Armstrong writes as a very broad generalist, a style which I found somewhat unsettling in this book as in `History of God’.  She covers huge swaths of human history in a 400 page book; by necessity, she summarizes everything.  I’m much more accustomed to reading something in detail on a particular topic; the constant summarizing feels strange and often superficial.  While I’m sure that historians and theologians could argue with the necessarily simplifications of almost every summary, I appreciate the goal of trying to talk about currents and trends throughout many eras and locations of human history.  It seems to fit her goal of writing a holistic and accessible work (though even at that, the focus is almost entirely on Europe, the Middle East, Persian, India and China).  The overall effect of getting small pieces of stories and summaries from thousands of years of human history is a powerful effect.  It’s also has a very useful humbling effect in that it remind me how little I know about all the many details, events and causes of human history.  Impressively, this is accomplished without the tone of the book feeling distant or patronizing; many, many names are mentioned without giving the sense of name-dropping to establish authority.

The later half of the book focuses on modern and contemporary examples, particularly the recent history of Islam, terrorism and jihad.  This isn’t surprising given her goal to address the current of thought which blames the religion of Islam for much of the violence of the modern world.  Armstrong does excellent work giving just a brief introduction to many recent violence histories; enough to remind us that the simplistic narrative of our newswriters and politicians are not necessarily well informed, that much of the violence of the middle east cannot be understood without also considering secular movements, economic exploitation and colonial repression.  Moreover, she reminds us that Islam (like all major world religions) has inspired great peacemakers as well as reprehensible warmongers. Religion and violence: it’s complicated.

Book Review: Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, first published in 2005.

This is an amazing, heartbreaking book.

(Since a major device of the book is the very slow unfolding of the characters’ situation, a spoiler warning is required.  I will be talking about things learned late in the book; if you want the full experience of coming to understand the situation in bit and pieces, please don’t read this review.)

Five reasons (among many) that I loved this book, even while I wept through the ending:

  1. The reveal is just as amazing and terrifying are you thought/hoped/feared it might be.  A great deal of science fiction starts with great, mysterious unknown.  My experience is that most authors love their mysteries but don’t really know how to explain them.  This book is different.  Both the major reveals have no disappointment in them: they entirely live up to your expectation and dread.  (I count the two major reveals as the knowledge learned about halfway through the books that the students are all clones destined to be organ donors for the general population, and that the Gallery was a now-failed effort to try to convince the general population that these clones were, in fact, fully human and worthy of care and sympathy.)
  2. The style and tone of the book is so evocative and consistent.  It perfectly conveys so many things: the ordinariness of the lives of these students; the understated nature of their character’s view of reality; the way that so much conversation and communication between the characters goes unsaid; the acceptance of the world as presented.  Not since `The Road’ have I read a novel where the style/feel of the sentences was such a central, important and effective device.
  3. The subtle cruelty of the social games of children is expertly handled.  The narrator is most a victim of this cruelty, though she has moments of being its author as well.  I was amazed how easy is was to intuit the unspoken moods of the conversation, particularly the bullying and social maneuvering of Ruth.  A great portion of the book involves remembered social scenes and their emotional implications; the book would not have succeeded without such a command of subtle social presentation.  Moreover, the characters are mades to rich and real through their reaction to this social reality.
  4. For most of the novel, I was desperately waiting for Kathy to reach the conclusion that she wanted out of the system.  I was yearning for her to say, after all that happened, “I do not consent.  I don’t want to be a donor.”  This never happens, and as much as I am desired it, its lack makes the novel much more chilling.  In a dystopian novel, the natural inclination is to write about rebels.  1984 is terrifying in how Winston Smith’s rebellion is turned into complacency with the system, but he starts as a rebel.  Here, the characters never even get to the self realization that they could rebel against the system.  They accept it entirely and it is all the more tragic.  (I suppose Marie-Claude, Miss Emily and Miss Lucy are somewhat rebels, but they are secondary characters and their rebellion has already failed.)
  5. The book, among other things, is about how society hides its monstrous nature.  This society wants its amazing medical advances and is willing to sacrifice the cloned donors to have them.  To take the book a metaphor in a very strong sense is to realize that all societies are held up by some kind of violence (a major theme in Karen’s Armstrong’s new book, which I’m reading at the moment as well and will review shortly).  Societies are challenged by making up see, realize and empathize with the victims of our violence.  This book is an exercise in such empathy.

This is a very sad book, but one of the most amazing things I’ve read in quite a while.