Cannonball Read IV

A bunch of Pajibans reading and reviewing and honoring AlabamaPink.

Archive for the category “4 stars – a great book”

Jen K’s #CBRIV Review #52: Graceling

Just under the wire. Picked this one up based on some recommendations from Pajibans/other Cannonballers. I’m surprised by how much quality literature is being churned out in the YA section of the book store. Although it helps when I’m only picking up novels after reading lots of raving reviews from intelligent adults with discerning tastes.

Jen K’s #CBR IV Review #51: To End All Wars

Nonfiction about the antiwar/pacifist movement in England during World War I. Worth the read for a perspective that isn’t usually discussed.

Amurph11’s #CBR4 Review #52, The Testament of Mary by Colm Tóibín

“It was not worth it.” -Mary, Mother of Jesus

My relationship with the Virgin Mary has always been a little complicated.

I grew up in a religious household, so I was of course introduced to her at an early age. Every year, she was trotted out in Christmas pageants and nativity scenes, where they would tell her story––the angel, the donkey ride to Bethlehem, the virgin birth in a dirty barn––and then put her away with the rest of the Nativity set, not to be seen or heard from until next Christmas.

This was fine with me, because as Biblical figures go, aside from being my introduction to the term “virgin,” Mary never held much interest for me. We had nothing in common, I felt, and yet as I grew older she was constantly thrust in front of me as the ultimate role model for women. You can see the value a character like Mary would have as a tool for reinforcing traditional gender roles, given that her defining characteristics are virginity, motherhood, and submissiveness to God. But traditional gender roles didn’t appeal to me, so I just found her boring. She had no thoughts or opinions of her own, she was simply a means to an end, a side note in a larger story.

It’s fitting then, that in Colm Tóibín’s The Testament of Mary it is her interpretation of the events surrounding her sons life that takes precedence. Though the narrative itself does not stray much from its source material, the Mary Tóibín imagines is completely her own, a full-fledged character worlds away from the shallow, one-dimensional figure we’ve come to revere from Renaissance paintings. This Mary does not believe her son was the Son of God. She can’t stand his followers, does not approve of their mission to evangelize the world on his behalf, and though she acknowledges the existence of his miracles, she finds their effect dubious at best.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the example of Lazarus. Lazarus, for those of you who did not go to Bible school, is a man that Jesus raised from the dead. After his death and resurrection, not much is said about Lazarus. Like Mary, he fades into the background after he has played his part in the narrative. As a child, I used to wonder what happened to Lazarus after he was raised from the dead, and the picture Tóibín paints is not pretty: having experienced death, Lazarus finds himself removed from the world. He does not speak, he can barely eat. And through his example, Mary begins to question the value of the work her son is doing.

This is what differentiates Tóibín’s Mary with the Mary most of us are used to. Unlike the serenely knowing, quietly submissive Mary we are so used to seeing, this Mary does not understand who her son is or what he’s trying to do. In fact, she tries actively to prevent him from doing it. Much of The Testament of Mary details her struggles to reconcile the son she loves with the Son that is headed willfully to his own death, and to do what she can to stop it. At the wedding in Cana (which Biblical scholars will recognize as both the site of the water into wine miracle and one of the only other times Mary is mentioned in the New Testament), she confronts him, attempting to get him to see the danger his life is in and agree to come home with her. He responds by saying (as he does in the Bible), “Woman, what have I to do with you?” At this moment, she knows that he is lost. And yet up until the end, she continues to ask whether there is something that can be done, whether his death can be prevented.

Colm Tóibín is a master of detail, and this is seen nowhere so much as the climax of the book, Jesus’ crucifixion. Unable to process the horror of what is happening, Mary finds herself focusing on details of the scene around her: the way the thorns embed into her son’s forehead, pushing themselves deeper as he tries to pry them out; the way the crosses keep tilting over when they are being put into the ground, the people nearby, playing dice, or in one memorable case, a man feeding rabbits to a live hawk in a cage (this image, incidentally, calls to mind a painting that Tóibín credits for giving him the inspiration for the book). After hours of bearing witness to her son’s suffering, afraid for her own safety, she flees before he’s even dead.

It is her decision to flee that most haunts her, in her old age. She constantly searches for gaps in her memory, places in the narrative where by acting differently she may have been able to save her son. Even as she finds none, even as she knows there are none to find, she continues to look for them, to the point where her memory becomes confused. First she dreams that she saw her son alive, then she dreams that she was with him when he died, and she starts to think that maybe she did stay, maybe she cried over his broken body and washed it in preparation for burial. These false memories have a dreamlike, Titian quality to them, a genius stroke of authorial subtlety, comparing the reality Tóibín imagines to the myth we’ve all accepted. In the end, reality wins out. At night, she still dreams of her son alive and well, of herself as a dutiful mother, but in the harsh light of day, she is forced to reckon with the truth: she had a son, and now her son is dead, she could not save him and no protestations about eternal life from his disciples will bring him back.

There’s a verse in Luke 2:19 about Mary, that takes place soon after Christ’s birth: “And Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.” My mother always loved that verse for what it said about Mary’s character, but it made me want to scream. If she was meant to be a role model for all women, I thought, it stood to reason that she should have more to say about what happened to her, about what happened to her son. It never occurred to me that maybe Mary never wanted to be a role model. I think I would have liked her more if it had. 

At the end of the novel, Jesus’ unnamed disciples, Mary’s protectors and bane of her fragile existence, attempt to make her understand the value of her son’s death. It was all part of the plan, they say, to redeem the world, to which she responds:

“I was there. I fled before it was over but if you want witnesses than I am one and I can tell you now, when you say that he redeemed the world, I will say that it was not worth it. It was not worth it.”

meilufay’s (final) #CBR4 review #101 The City & The City by China Miéville

For me, the last third of 2012 was all about China Miéville.  After watching his polemic at the World Writers Conference in August, I rapidly read every article about and interview with him that I could get my hands on.  Then I moved on to his essays and lectures.  Finally, I decided I should probably read this guy’s books already.  I read Kraken first, and loved it.  Then I dug into Dial H, and ditto.  For The City & The City, I thought it would be interesting to do a little bit of genre reading as a companion so I read a selection of crime novels (Hammett, Chandler, Highsmith & more).  And then, because it felt appropriate, I read some Kafka and Philip K Dick.  I watched Brick, Miller’s Crossing, The Big Sleep and Blade Runner.  I’d been meaning to reread Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy so that went into the mix too.  This reading project has been a really entertaining, thought-provoking and intellectually stimulating ride.  I definitely feel as if I have a deeper appreciation for all the works I read than I would have if I’d just read them solo.

It just so happened that my reading this book coincided with The City & The City being Twitter book club #1book140’s December choice.  So I was able to further enrich my experience by participating in the discussions there.

Having written all that, I feel as if I should write a really amazing essay about this book but, honestly, I’m kind of tired.  I just wrote 20 reviews in two days.  So apologies to my readers, the tweeps at #1book140 and China Miéville if my review fails to adequately capture this book.  All failures in this review are my own.

One of the things I really like about China Miéville (other than the AWESOME acute accent in his name) is the fact that he’s incredibly rigorous about following through on his ideas.  Miéville describes The City & The City as a crime novel and its plot is definitely structured in the same way as the procedurals we all know so well.  But because Miéville is not satisfied until his work has some element of the fantastic or surreal, the murder his detective is investigating is overshadowed by a larger mystery – that of the relationship of the two cities of Beszel and Ul Qoma.  These two Eastern European cities are entangled with one another but it is unclear if this relationship is magical (like London Above and London Below in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere), or if they are simply intricately and absurdly sharing the same geographical space.  In order to emphasize the separation between the two cities, citizens learn as children to “unsee” any elements from the other city.  Certain colors are limited to either Beszel or Ul Qoma.  In crosshatched areas, areas which are shared by both cities, traffic and pedestrian from the two cities mingle yet retain their separation by unseeing one another.  To violate these precepts is to risk the ire of Breach, a mysterious power that enforces barriers between the two cities.  Breach is spoken of as being “invoked” and it is unclear if Breach has supernatural powers.

Procedural murder mysteries are like the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. In order to maintain the audience’s tension all possible solutions exist simultaneously until the “true” solution is finally revealed and all possibilities then collapse into one.  Miéville takes quantum physics theories and applies them to his novel in a astonishingly rigorous way.  There are the obvious ways: the two cities are entangled, and the aforementioned collapsing of possibilities.  But he also applies Schrödinger’s paradox to the genre of the book.  A supernatural and a natural solution to the mysteries of the murder and the entanglement of the two cities exist in tension to one another until the end of the book when Inspector Borlú, his hero, finally observes the truth, collapsing all possibilities.  It’s a high wire act and throughout the book I and my fellow book club readers were questioning whether or not Miéville would pull it off.  That he did absolutely astonishes and delights me.

Based on what I’ve heard about his other books, I don’t think that The City & The City is destined to make my list of favorite China Miéville books, but this book is so inventive, so well-structured, so extraordinarily carefully well-crafted, so smart, that I am rather dazzled by his achievement and talent.

Captain Tuttle’s CBR4 Review #51 – The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

I tell people I love Oscar Wilde, but I had never really read anything beyond The Importance of Being Earnest. Until now. Wow. Dorian’s a naughty boy.

An artist, Basil Hallward, paints Dorian’s portrait. He’s so beautiful, Basil is enraptured.  Basil’s a good guy, who has some pretty bad friends. One such friend is Lord Henry Wotton, who becomes friends with Dorian, and shows him the ropes of degenerate high society. Dorian falls in love with an actress because of her skills.  They become engaged, he brings Basil and Wotton to see her act, and she totally throws it. She did it because she was leaving the stage and didn’t care. So of course he falls out of love with her, breaks the engagement, and leads her to kill herself. It’s a black mark on his soul. When he looks at the painting, he sees that it’s kind of sneering at him. He realizes that the painting takes all of his sin, so he can still appear to be a beautiful angel.

Dorian takes complete advantage of this, getting into all sorts of mischief, and developing quite a nasty reputation (well-deserved). A lot of the debauchery takes place “off camera (page?),” but there’s enough said about it that we can figure out what he’s done. He has also ruined a few people, and is well known down in the seedy parts of town.

There’s murder, mayhem, revenge, and all kinds of nasty bits. I can’t believe it took me this long to read Dorian Gray. If you’ve been waiting, get to it.

Jen K’s #CBRIV Review #47: The Emperor of All Maladies

Subtitled “a biography of cancer”, the book covers history and research into cancer, mostly focusing on this century but occasionally going back further. Very informative but also written in an engaging style so that even non scientific types can understand.

Jen K’s #CBRIV Review #46: The Name of the Wind

Very enjoyable beginning to a fantasy trilogy. Parts of it are reminiscent of other fantasy novels, but not in a bad way.

meilufay’s #CBR4 review #97 Devil’s Cub by Georgette Heyer

As some of you may have noticed, I’ve been rereading Georgette Heyer’s historical romances chronologically.  Devil’s Cub is a sequel to These Old Shades (which is one of my all-time favorite of Heyer’s novels) and has as its hero Vidal, the son of Avon and Léonie from the earlier novel.  Because the book is set a generation after These Old Shades, it can be read on its own.  While this book isn’t my favorite of Heyer’s books, it’s easily in the top ten of her best books.  It’s laugh out loud funny, moves along at a smart pace and is peopled by vivid characters.  Great fun.

meilufay’s #CBR4 review #96 Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

I know it’s too late to make a top three list for 2012 but if I were to do so this book would be on it (along with Redshirts by John Scalzi and Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay).  Magic for Beginners is a collection of short stories and novellas and it is… extraordinary.  I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like her before.  I can understand why pretty much every fantasy and science fiction writer I admire is slavish in their praise of Kelly Link’s writing.  She’s definitely working in the tradition of Charles De Lint and Neil Gaiman, using mythological and horror tropes to inform her fiction.  These stories read like forgotten folk tales as David Lynch might tell them – dark and funny and weird, really really weird.  Wonderfully weird.  Her writing is delightful, witty, exquisite and haunting.  These stories are heartbreaking and beautiful, filled with unforgettable images.  Seriously, just do yourself a favor and download this book.  It’s available for free on her website.  You’re welcome.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR4 Review #48 – A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin

Ok, Book 5 and the most recent one.  No one seems to know when Book 6 (The Winds of Winter, ooh, ominous) is coming.  Everyone’s still scattered to the four winds: Jon Snow’s still in charge at the wall, but some people aren’t happy about that; Bran Stark (one of Ned’s younger ones, the one that was paralyzed by Jamie Lannister) is North of the Wall, being led by some creature (and I have theories about who that may be); the horrible Boltons are in the north-Winterfelly areas, being horrible (poor Jayne Poole); Theon Greyjoy has been through quite a bit, most of it deserved; Davos is alive and still working for Stannis; people want to go looking for little Rickon Stark (the baby) who may be hiding on an island somewhere; Cersei’s still in King’s Landing, paying penance for (some of) her bad deeds; Jamie’s working his redemption arc in the Riverlands; Tyrion’s back in the west with a potential Targaryen; Arya’s still in Braavos, learning to be faceless; Daenerys is having trouble with slaves, dragons, and a Dornish prince.

I’m sure there’s more, but I keep losing track. According to Wikipedia, this book is told from the point of view of 18 people. For comparison’s sake, the first book was told from the point of view of eight.

We’re left off with a number of cliffhangers, so we’re now stuck for as long as it takes. And from what I’m told, it might take a while. Martin’s teased us with a couple of chapters, just to keep us on tenterhooks. And there we shall remain.

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