Books Finished in February 2015

1. Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo
2. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon
3. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg
4. The Orphan Master’s Son (audio book) by Adam Johnson
5. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Still in progress at the end of the month: Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson and Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente.

REVIEWS:

1. Flora & Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo

Looking out her window one day, Flora (a reader of superhero comics and self-professed cynic) witnesses an extraordinary event — an ordinary squirrel is sucked up into a rampaging vacuum and returns to life with amazing powers. Dubbing the squirrel Ulysses, Flora takes him home certain he will prove himself worthy of fighting evil and defending the defenseless.

This is an adorable little adventure story/family comedy. Flora and Ulysses are wonderful characters, especially Ulysses, the flying superhero squirrel, who writes poetry and is always hungry. The other characters are mostly one-dimensional, but it’s in a quirky, fun sort of way, so I didn’t particularly mind.

The most action packed sequences of the novel are presented in soft-toned comic book format, which sticks with the lighthearted comic book theme. I enjoyed these sequences for the most part, though it always took me a second to mentally transition from one form of storytelling to the other and back again.

2. Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas A. Blackmon

Discussed elsewhere.

3. Smilla’s Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg

“Deep inside I know that trying to figure things out leads to blindness, that the desire to understand has a built-in brutality that erases what you seek to comprehend. Only experience is sensitive. But maybe I’m both weak and brutal. I’ve never been able to resist trying.”

Smilla’s story is a complex one. It is in part a thriller about the suspicious death of a young boy and a woman’s unrelenting search to find out the truth despite the danger to her own life. But it’s also a character study about Smilla, a half Greenlandic, half Danish woman whose years of growing up on the ice as a child has taught her and innate sense of the subtleties of snow and ice, a woman like an iceberg, whose surface hides much larger depths within.

The pace is too plodding and contemplative to be a page turner as I would expect a thriller to be, but there are moments that are gripping. I enjoyed working my way through this.

However, I have a love/hate relationship with the ending. I don’t know what to do with it or how to feel. On the one hand, it’s clever and suits Smilla’s personality perfectly. On the other hand, it’s clever instead of satisfying and that pisses me off.

4. The Orphan Master’s Son (audio book) by Adam Johnson

Summary: “The son of an influential father who runs an orphan work camp, Pak Jun Do rises to prominence using instinctive talents and eventually becomes a professional kidnapper and romantic rival to Kim Jong Il.”

At the end of the audio book, Johnson talks about how he traveled to North Korea as part of his research, something I wasn’t even aware that it was possible to do. It’s clear that he put in a lot of time performing research, though I’m still not sure how much of this book is imagination versus “reality”. If even a portion of this book reflects actual conditions in North Korea, then it paints a horrifying picture.

I didn’t know what to think of this story at first, but it Jun Do’s tale quickly became riveting, as he was moved through various positions in North Korea, from kidnapper to radio operator to a visitor to Texas on a not-so-diplomatic mission. It was fascinating to see how Jun Do held on to his autonomy in subtle ways, through an internal world and perception of his life. This story surprised me several times as it unfolded, and it was one of the few audio books that I listened to compulsively. Really fantastic.

5. The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Military stories are usually not my cup of tea, but The Forever War is compelling from a number of angles. It begins with the main character Mandela drafted into a war against an alien species, though it’s unclear how the war started or why. The training is almost as brutal as the war itself as the soldiers learn to handle harsh conditions on alien worlds in specially designed battlesuits. We see Mandela face battle and then deal with the return to Earth.

The most fascinating aspect of the novel, for me, is how space travel and its associated time dilation, which means that though only a year or two of a battle campaign may pass for Mandela, decades and sometimes centuries have passed on Earth. Thus, Mandela and the readers get to see a glimpse into the dramatic technological and social changes that occur to the human race.

Mandela remains the “everman,” standing in for the reader experiencing these strange new realities. Throughout all the horrors and accidents and death he witnesses on his journey, he holds on to himself and his own sense of what it means to be human. The ending was perfect and left me thrilled to have read this book.


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