Review: “The Book of Strange New Things,” Michel Faber

Rating:  4/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  A monumental, genre-defying novel more than ten years in the making, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is a masterwork from the author of the renowed The Crimson Petal and the White.

Peter, a devoted man of faith, is called to the mission of a lifetime, one that takes him galaxies away from his wife, Bea.  Peter becomes immersed in the mysteries of an astonishing new environment, overseen by an enigmatic corporation known only as USIC.  His work introduces him to a seeming friendly native population struggling with a dangerous illness and hunger for Peter’s teachings – his Bible is their “Book of Strange New Things.”  But Peter is rattled when Bea’s letters from home become increasing desperate – typhoons and earthquakes are devastating whole countries, and governments are crumbling.  Bea’s faith, once the guiding light of their lives, begins to falter.

Suddenly, a separation measured by an otherworldly distance, and defined both by one newly discovered world and another in a state of collapse, is threatened by an ever-widening gulf that is much less quantifiable.  While Peter is reconciling the needs of his congregation with the desires of his strange employer,  Bea is struggling for survival.

Replete with emotional complexity and marked by the same bravura storytelling that made The Crimson Petal and the White such an international success, The Book of Strange New Things is a gripping, hauntingly profound meditation on faith, love tested beyond endurance, and our responsibility to those closest to us.

May I take a moment to appreciate that synopsis?  It takes you up to the last page of the book and gives you almost no information.  It’s really a thing of beauty.

I might just be procrastinating because I’m not sure what to write.  I am glad I read this book, but I haven’t the faintest idea what I think about it.  I was going to put off writing the review, but I don’t think my thoughts will get much clearer, so this might be a little different.

Let’s start with something easy:  I didn’t like the main character.  It’s fairly unusual that I like a book in which that is the case, but this seems to be an exception.  Peter is mildly obnoxious and runs through the pages of most of the books sticking faith on wounds like Band-Aids on a bullet hole.  He is trite and full of fake sincerity that made me want to vomit.  His wife is similar for most of the novel.  However, it is truly masterful how well Faber communicates what is happening to her through only her letters to Peter.  It is unbelievably easy to imagine what she is going through and how she is feeling (and, also masterfully, the fact that it is so easy to imagine is an important plot point).

For the first two-thirds of this book, I enjoyed the world-building, but not much was happening.  Then, all of a sudden, things started to happen.  Then, much to my surprise, they stopped just as suddenly.  It was strange.  At the end, I’m fairly certain that there were more questions left unanswered than were answered.

Michel Faber has said that this will be his last novel.  It was written as his wife was dying of cancer, and that very much informs the narrative.  There are multiple passages that are utterly beautiful and heart-wrenching.

I don’t know what else to say about this.  One reviewer noted that it seemed like a wonderful first chapter to an apocalyptic novel that will never be written, and there is something to be said about that.  But it’s more than that.  It’s a novel about the failings (or not) of faith, the non-alienness of alien life, and the strength (or not) of love through adversity.  I can’t describe it adequately.  Just read it.


Redhead in Scrubs: Perspective

In absolutely no way is anything in this series to be taken as advice.  I am not an expert in how to get accepted to medical school – I’ve been rejected exponentially more than I’ve been accepted.  If there was a formula to get in, I’d share it – but there isn’t.  Everyone who is accepted gets to that point a different way.

Waiting is the worst part.  Waiting for interviews is easy – you don’t know if or when they’re coming.  Waiting for decisions seems impossible.

After my last interview, we were all told to expect news in 2-3 weeks.  Then, there were two major ice storms and the mail got all discombobulated – and that was even IF the admission committee had met as scheduled.  Friday was four weeks from the interview, and for the first time, a few people who leaved in the Southeast had heard news.  They were all holding status – on the wait list, essentially.  As soon as I found that out, I started preparing myself for the same news.

On Saturday, the news came – holding.  I was disappointed.  Matt was disappointed.  I had felt good about the interview and I was really hoping for an acceptance.  Now, I have one acceptance and I’m on three wait lists – it seems like the waiting will never end!  I know that I’m lucky to have that acceptance, but that’s hard to remember when I keep not getting the news I want.

But then, a funny thing happened.  I told my mom the news, and her first response was “Congratulations!”  I thought it was striking how different her reaction was to mine.  It wasn’t just more positive or optimistic, it was probably more realistic.  Out of everyone who applies to medical school in any given year, about 5% will ultimately be accepted.  Roughly 1/4-1/3 of the people on each of the wait lists that I’m on will ultimately get into the class.  That’s not too shabby.

Am I still disappointed?  Yes.  But it’s not bad news – and in a process with much more bad news than good, that’s nothing to sneer at.

Review: “All the Light We Cannot See,” Anthony Doerr

Rating:  4.5/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks.  When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home.  When Marie-Laure is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris, and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea.  With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find.  Werner becomes and expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance.  More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war, and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

I listened to All the Light We Cannot See as an audiobook (this may or may not be important information).

As a general rule, I do not like books set in times of war (I may have to rethink that assessment, however).  They either tend to sacrifice humanity for the depiction of war, or vice versa.  I found that most masterful aspect of All the Light We Cannot See to be the ways that Doerr avoided doing exactly that.

This story is told through linked, third-person limited vignettes.  The time jumps around from 1941 to 1944, with the narratives gradually converging.  This was done extremely well – each vignette drove the reader (or listener) forward through the narrative without sacrificing the stories of the others.  I think this is something that I may have lost a bit of in listening to the audio – it was somewhat difficult for me to keep track of the timelines.

In a strong contrast to the last book I reviewed (which I was reading at the same time), all of the major characters in All the Light We Cannot See progress.  They are all multifaceted and have sufficient background to illustrate their personalities and development.  As a reader (listener), I never quite knew what they were going to do – I certainly do like that in my characters.  Although they sometimes behaved unpredictably, they seemed to move to where they ended up in a way that seemed neither contrived nor forced – in some ways, it seemed inevitable, even though a single decision at any point of the narrative would have changed their outcome.

At about of a quarter of the way through the novel, I remarked that it was a fascinating look at propaganda and how things like the Third Reich come to happen – and I maintain that is true, although those themes diminished somewhat through the rest of the narrative.  There is a focus on rhetoric and communication, and somewhat less so on propaganda, and the ways that it influences people – not to mention how different people interpret it.  This isn’t preachy, and it certainly isn’t a history lesson.  One thing that I found particularly intriguing was the way Doerr avoids the terms that we use for that period of history – there isn’t a single mention of Nazis or swastikas or concentration camps, although all are present in the narrative.  The characters wouldn’t have used those terms, I supposed, so the narration doesn’t.  When the word ‘camp’ is finally used explicitly in the last quarter of the text, it’s rather shocking – it is bleak and jarring in a way that it wouldn’t have been had that been the vocabulary of the rest of the novel.

My one criticism of All the Light We Cannot See is the ending – not the events so much as the style.  The conclusion dragged on a bit, and revisited stories that I didn’t feel needed tying up.  It’s a minor criticism, but there were parts at the end that I just didn’t feel added anything to my experience of the novel.

Overall, though, I think this is a masterful look at the people of war and how that war shaped them.  It’s not preachy, optimistic, or pessimistic – it just is.  I find that to be much more realistic than the books that made me dislike war settings.

Review: “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry,” Gabrille Zevin

Rating:  2.5/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  A.J. Fikry’s LIfe is not at all what he expected it to be.  He lives alone, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen.  But when a mysterious package appears at the bookstore, its  unexpected arrival gives Fikry the chance to make his life over – and see everything anew.

Do you know that feeling when you finish a book and you’re underwhelmed, but the more you think about it, the more you realize you liked it?  I am experiencing the exact opposite of that with The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.  It’s lost a star and a half in the 12 hours or so since I finished it.

When I initially set it down, I felt all warm and fuzzy inside and gave it 4/5 on Goodreads.  Almost immediately, I decided that was too high.  After I slept on it, I think that was way too high.  It’s amazing what that warm fuzzy feeling can make me do.

I know that I am in the minority of bibliophiles if I say that I didn’t particularly love this book.  I raced through it, certainly – I would even go so far as to say I enjoyed reading it.  In retrospect, though, there was just nothing to it.

I hope I don’t make enemies by saying that I think The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry relies too heavily on making bibliophiles feel warm and fuzzy.  There is a deep and seemingly genuine love of books and reading and readers that echoes through every word, and I appreciate that.  I share that.  At the same time, there are contemporary and not-so-contemporary novels and short stories painstakingly name-dropped through the text as if Zevin wanted every reader to find the name of a story they loved.  I didn’t like that.

The characters are (for the most part) likeable enough and superficially dynamic.  That being said, we don’t know any of them well enough before they start to evolve to say for sure if they are truly dynamic!  They aren’t even static in any interesting way.  They go through their lives and with only one or two notable exceptions, they react to the events of the novel exactly the way the reader expects them to. They don’t do anything particularly shocking and the ‘twists’ in the plot are more like gentle turns.  Maybe in retrospect I just didn’t care enough to feel shocked?  There is minimal appreciable conflict and events unfold in what feels like a logical progression of ‘if this, then that.’

If I hate a book I don’t finish it, so any book I finish gets at least 2 stars (if I’m reading it completely of my own accord).  I didn’t hate reading this.  On the contrary, I enjoyed the process of reading it. I can appreciate a love letter to bibliophilia.  But I feel a bit like I was tricked into thinking that I liked the story when I really only loved the theme, and there are just better bibliophilic books out there (Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore comes immediately to mind).

I’m Reading Too Many Books!

It’s not what it sounds like.

It’s not that I’m reading too much, I’m just literally reading too many books at the same time.  I normally don’t do that, and now I remember why:  I don’t finish them as fast.

When I was a kid, I could have 6 or 7 books going at one time just fine.  My parents used to tease me about it.  I haven’t done it (except as required for school) as an adult.  And then, this past week, it just happened.

Here’s how it happened:  I put aside The Emperor of All Maladies because I wasn’t getting though it fast enough.  Every so often, I pick it up a read a while, then I move on.  It’s working for me.  After I finished Outlander, I started reading The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber – that was my primary reading material for the last two weeks or so.  Then I had to take a road trip and needed a way to pass the time, so I started listening to the audiobook of All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Then (because I’m still not done!) I went out to eat last night by myself and forgot to take The Book of Strange New Things with me.  It was simply unfathomable to sit at a table and just eat (can you even imagine?!) so I went to the bookstore and picked up The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.

On the surface, that’s all well and good and I’ll finish them all in their own time.  But what I’m afraid of is getting overwhelmed by choice when I want to read and opting not to read instead.  We’ll just have to see how it goes, I suppose.

Can you read more than one book at a time?

Review: “Outlander,” Diana Gabaldon

Rating:  4/5

Publisher’s Synopsis:  The year is 1945.  Claire Randall, a former combat nurse, is back from the war and reunited with her husband on a second honeymoon – when she walks through a standing stone in one of the ancient stone circles that dot the British Isles.  Suddenly she is a Sassenach – an “outlander” – in a Scotland torn by war and raining Highland clans in the year of Our Lord… 1743.

Hurled back in time by forces she cannot understand, Claire is catapulted into intrigues and dangers that may threaten her life… and shatter her heart.  For here she meets James Fraser, a gallant young Scots warrior, and becomes a woman torn between fidelity and desire… and between two vastly different men in two irreconcilable lives.

That may well be one of the worst, most misleading synopses I’ve ever seen.  Please don’t judge the book by the cover.

I have a book hangover from Outlander, which probably says more about it that I can in the rest of this review.  I realize that I could just go ahead and read the second book in the series (Dragonfly in Amber, if I’m not mistaken), but I have other books to read first.

One of the primary criticisms that I’ve heard about Outlander is the Claire is too stoic.  I would phrase this another way – she takes everything that comes at her with considerable aplomb.  I don’t think that this makes her any less likable or believable as a character.  Actually, I think that it fits in well with her background as a combat nurse, and it isn’t at all in contrast to her personality as evident through her narration.  What I particularly liked was that it made this an historical adventure, rather than a fish-out-of-water story, as it would seem from the synopsis.

I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert in 18th century Scottish history, but from a lay-reader’s perspective, Gabaldon did an excellent job of establishing a sense of place.  This tends to be very important in fantasy novels (which you could argue this is, with it’s time-travel element), but I would posit that it is even more so for historical novels.  Not only does an author have to establish a sense of place, he or she has to do so while maintaining its historical integrity.  Outlander is clearly meticulously researched and feels quite genuine, but it doesn’t come across as boastful, ‘look how much I know about Scotland in the 1700s’ research.  There is a good balance between historical fact and narrative fiction, which I think is helped along by the fact that our narrator is from a different time.

This is truly a plot-driven novel, until the last 200 pages or so – at that point, the plot slows significantly and there is a lot of character development happening (that transition doesn’t seem forced – it feels more like a natural progression of events).  I certainly plan to read the next book in the series to see where these characters go.

Redhead in Scrubs: Surprises

In absolutely no way is anything in this series to be taken as advice.  I am not an expert in how to get accepted to medical school – I’ve been rejected exponentially more than I’ve been accepted.  If there was a formula to get in, I’d share it – but there isn’t.  Everyone who is accepted gets to that point a different way.

Until this year, I’ve gotten one interview each year, and always at the University of Tennessee.  Things have been different this year.  It’s funny how it’s become ingrained in me that I get one interview per year, and anything beyond that is a shock.

In July, I got my interview invitation for LECOM – Seton Hill.  I was napping after a graveyard shift at the time, and I thought (actually, legitimately believed) that it was a prank at first.  I’d never even heard of getting an interview invitation so early.

I had already been accepted to LECOM for about a week when I got the second interview invitation, for COMP-Northwest.  Matt and I were on our way out to dinner, and I was shocked.  I had thought that it was over for the year.  It really hadn’t ever occurred to me that I’d get more than one interview for the year, especially since I’d already gotten in.  Not only did I think I was finished, I was comfortable with that.

This year’s University of Tennessee interview was more of a surprise than usual.  UTHSC tends to send out their invitations at strange hours – my first came at 8:45 pm, my second at 5:30, and this year’s at 9:15 on a Friday night.  The really shocking part about that one was that it only gave me three days’ notice.  Even though the invitation came weeks after COMP-NW’s, the interview was over a week before it.

There is (in my head, anyway) a ‘sweet spot’ for interviews from September through January.  Anything before that seems unusual, and anything after it feels like interviewing for the wait list.  That being said, Osteopathic schools work on a slightly different timetable than Allopathic schools.  But anyway, my point is that yet again, I was pretty sure that I was finished with interviews. Shows what I know.

Yesterday at work, I checked my email only to find my fourth interview invitation of the year – for the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine’s Georgia Campus.  I had to read it three times before it sunk in.  So, with the thought process that options are always nice things to have – wish me luck!