Barker’s Book Blather, 2016.06

When I first started the monthly Book Blather, I thought consolidating a full month of reviews in one blog post was the way to go. I thought I’d only be writing a few sentences about each and that way I’d have one solid post. As it turns out, I have more to say. Shocking! These reviews are rather long. Perhaps I should reconsider the consolidation?

As the Poppies Bloomed – Maral Boyadjian. Note to self: a love story set during a genocide is unlikely to have happy ending. Damn, this book. . . I’m slightly embarrassed to admit it, but I was almost wholly unfamiliar with the Armenian Genocide. Perhaps that isn’t entirely surprising. Looking into it a bit more after reading the book, it seems that this is not entirely uncommon and it may be, partially, to do with the fact that Turkey will not admit such a thing occurred and that Turkey is an important ally of the U.S. So, perhaps it’s maybe glossed over in history classes. After all, the early 20th century has enough drama to teach about, what with WWI and all. At any rate, I was unprepared for this book.

It follows the lives of teenagers Anno and Daron, and their families and village during the late Ottoman Empire. The first half of the book is a charming portrayal of village life and the blossoming romance between Anno and Daron. The characters are beautifully drawn and you fall in love with them all. The writing isn’t perfect. There are some quick shifts and jumps between characters, and the author’s use of an omniscient point of view sometimes made it difficult to follow those jumps. I found myself having to pause and take a minute to realize whose point of view I’d shifted to, before the narrative shifted quickly back again to a more central character.

There are also a couple of seemingly superfluous characters. One entire chapter early on focuses on a bee keeper, but I think his character only made one, maybe two, brief appearances later in the narrative, so I was never quite certain why he warranted that initial section.

Finally, the dialogue felt very stilted and formal. However, not being at all familiar with the way people spoke to each other in that time and place, I’m entirely willing to allow that it may be an accurate representation of the forms of speech of the area, time, culture, and dialect.

There are shadows of the coming conflict throughout the first half of the book. Anno and Daron’s village is Christian and, therefore, under suspicion and subject to mistreatment by their Muslim Turkish and Kurdish neighbors. The shadows grow deeper until finally the genocide boils over and threatens the village and its families. Going into the end of the story, as the danger comes closer and closer to the remote village, what you think is going to happen isn’t what happens. It’s worse. It’s heartbreaking. Have a tissue ready. Or a whole box.

This book strikes me as very timely, indeed, as we discuss once again, in what seems to be a never-ending cycle, a refugee crisis. And while I would hope no one would read this book and limit their thinking to the specific religious groups in conflict, the perpetrators and the victims, I could also totally see that happening. So, while it matters to history that the Armenian Genocide involved Muslims killing Christians, that’s not the point to dwell on for the novel. Because to me (and I know some will disagree vehemently), both are just human constructs that have been used to bludgeon other people for centuries, whether it’s one against the other, or different flavors of each, or involving another religious group as bludgeonee or bludgeoner altogether. The book isn’t about Muslims killing Christians. It’s about a minority group of people, of human beings, just trying to live their lives and being set upon by another group of human beings with their own agenda. It is people being inhuman to other people. The villagers were, could have been, are refugees.

Last December, author George Saunders was being interviewed on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and he made a statement that really struck me and has stuck with me ever since. When talking about why books can feel like friends, he said, “Prose, when it’s done right, is like empathy training wheels.”

That statement came back to me in full force as I finished this book. We seriously need more empathy in our world. Reading this book should make you feel empathy. And if you read this book and focus on the specific religions of the historical event, rather than on the truth that those Christian refugees from 1914 are just the same as Syrian refugees today, then you are big time missing the point. And perhaps you need to read more. #standwithrefugees

Well worth reading for insight into another culture, a horrific historical event, and the refugee crisis of the moment. Just be prepared for an ending that will break you.

The Song of Achilles – Madeline Miller. Set in the years preceding and during the Trojan War, this book follows Patroclus from childhood and details his relationship with Achilles. Apparently the notion that Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship was probably something more than brothers-in-arms is relatively common among classical scholars, with such debate going back to at least Plato’s writings. However, this possibility was certainly not discussed when we were learning about the Trojan War in Catholic high school.

This is a romantic love story that is striking in that it is both unlike anything I’ve ever read before and also just like many books I’ve read before. I have never read a historical romance about a same sex couple before. The book jacket description does not dwell on this particular feature, so I completely missed that the “epic love story” had nothing to do with Helen of Troy. Patroclus goes to live with Achilles as a foster child to Achilles’ father, and the two boys become close friends. As the narrative unfolded, I kept thinking basically, “Huh. That seems like an odd way for Patroclus to describe Achilles. This is almost like a romance novel.”

Well, duh, that’s exactly what it was. I did figure it out before too much time had passed (and certainly before their first kiss), so, while I was clueless going in, I’m not completely obtuse. But it was a beautiful love story, in which the homosexual nature of it was only an issue in that Achilles’ mother did not approve. But even this could have been replaced in a different version of a romance with, let’s say, a Duke disapproving of his son’s relationship with a commoner.

Told from Patroclus’ point of view, the story is extremely easy to read and I know more about Achilles’ role in the Trojan War than I did before reading the book, as well as the other well-known names of Odysseus and Agamemnon. My memory of learning about the Trojan War in school focused much more on Helen as the face that launched a thousand ships and on the wooden horse, both of which are quickly glossed over in this book.

Of course everyone knows it doesn’t end well for Achilles, and anyone with a passing knowledge of Patroclus knows it doesn’t end well for him either. It isn’t a particularly happy ending as they shuffle off their mortal coils, but the book concludes with a moment of redemption and immortal peace that takes the edge off what was looking like a pretty bleak conclusion to their story.

An Inheritance of Ashes – Leah Bobet. The story is a mix of post-apocalyptic and supernatural, I guess is the term, in that the external conflict is generated by what seems to be a hole between parallel universes. It’s set at the tail end of a war that has been fought, and apparently won, against some mysterious Wicked God Southward. The cities have fallen, but that happened years earlier and not as a result of the current war. The main character is Hallie, who is desperately trying to manage running the family farm with her older sister, Marthe.

But what this novel is really about is the long legacy of child abuse and how it can warp and corrupt a person’s relationships and ability to communicate well past the abuse itself. It’s about being afraid every day that your older sister could someday become violent, or worse, that you yourself could turn out to have the same horrible rage that seems to run in the family. It’s about a person’s inability to ever fully connect or commit or even be physically close to another person for any length of time, because you have, for years, kept a bag half packed and have been ready to leave at any moment because you just know that moment will come eventually.

I have read several other reviews of this book by people who just didn’t get it for some reason that I can’t explain. Some people complain because Marthe is so “mean” to Hallie and is so unlikeable. They don’t seem to get that both Hallie and Marthe are damaged by the history of their father’s physical and mental abuse. Neither of them can communicate well with each other and, since the book is told from Hallie’s point of view, Marthe’s actions and words are tainted by Hallie’s interpretation of them, weighed down not just by Marthe’s baggage but by Hallie’s as well. And let’s not forget that Hallie is 16-years-old and, let’s be honest, 16-year-old girls can be volatile and, at times, logically challenged. And Marthe is 7-8 months pregnant and has just lost her husband in the war. So, yes, she’s probably a bit volatile, too. Both characters are just trying to hold their shit together.

Other reviewers complained that they didn’t understand what was going on with the Wicked God Southward or the Twisted Things until close to the end of the novel or even the fact that it was set in a post-apocalyptic North America as opposed to, inexplicably, being a Civil War novel. For the latter, seriously? Just pay attention. For the former, seriously? Have you never read a quest fantasy novel before? The Wicked God Southward and the Twisted Things aren’t clearly explained from the start because the novel’s characters don’t clearly understand what has happened either. It’s okay that you don’t understand at first because the reader is figuring out what is happening right along with the characters. From Wheel of Time to The Game of Thrones, that’s fairly standard questing right there.

I won’t explain what the Wicked God Southward or the Twisted Things turn out to be, because you should read it yourself, but in case it needs to be said, they are also metaphors. Pay attention to them and what they turn out to be. They aren’t just “monsters”. And if they were fully described and explained at the start, before you really got a feel for what the book is about, they wouldn’t have the same revelatory impact anyway. It’s almost as though the author had a plan all along!

Okay, that all sounds harsh, I suppose, but I was really surprised by the number of “I don’t get it” reviews out there, and it disappoints me a bit because this is a layered book about complex communication and emotion and I think it’s worth a read. Is it perfect or the most awesome thing ever? No, but it’s different and original and really high quality.

Other things I really liked about the book: in many respects society has continued to develop in a good direction past the fall of the old cities. Life’s still hard and people still aren’t perfect, but there are married homosexual couples that simply exist and aren’t at all remarkable or remarked upon; multi-racial families are the norm; and all religions are accepted just fine (except maybe the one that is hell-bent on destroying the world to make way for the Wicked God, that is).

Also, I noted in my reviews of the McCaffrey Pern books that I was bothered by the overall role of women in Pernese society – that, as the people of Pern had lost knowledge and technology and became a more pastoral society, the women had fallen back into a submissive “traditional” role, in spite of the fact that the women who first came to Pern were scientists. Well, there’s none of that in this book. The great cities may have fallen, technology has been lost, and people are just trying to survive, but women are on equal footing as men. The problems Marthe and Hallie experience with the Mayor and the other good people of town have much more to do with their youth upon inheriting the farm and the fact that their father was an asshole than with the idea of women owning and running a farm on their own.

The other thing I really liked about this book has to do with the romance part of it. “Ick, blech, romance? After all that, you’re going to settle on the romance part.” Well, yes, I am, because it’s different, too. It’s slow and respectful as Hallie and the neighbor boy start to explore their feelings for each other, but the important part is a message repeated a few times in the book. Hallie, as I mentioned earlier, has a bit of trouble with relationships, communication, and physical contact. When Tyler asks if he can kiss her, she hesitates and thinks to herself, “You can say no… it doesn’t have to mean never.” Then she also thinks, “You can say yes, and it won’t mean always.” These are both such important messages for young women to hear, and it’s the first time I’ve encountered them so strongly and clearly presented in a Young Adult novel.

Really, an astoundingly good book for the genre.

Georgiana Darcy’s Diary: Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice continued – by Anna Elliott. After reading three emotionally heavy books back-to-back, I really just needed something where the stakes weren’t so bloody high. And, somehow, Austen fan fiction just seemed like the right call.

Focusing on the romantic interests of Darcy’s sister Georgiana, this is a super quick read with a standard-issue romantic plot that benefits by having a familiar and beloved cast of characters that one might wish to follow past the end of Pride and Prejudice. Elizabeth and Darcy have been married a year and are living their happily-ever-after at Pemberley. Lady Catherine de Bourgh has insisted on a house party of seemingly infinite duration at which “eligible” suitors stay at the estate to try to win Georgiana’s hand. There are long walks and balls and trips to town to buy hats.

It’s cute and entertaining, but with hints of more modern ideas and themes than you’d perhaps expect to find in an Austen-esque novel. For example, although it is veiled, one of Georgiana’s potential suitors turns out to be gay. Also, Lady Catherine’s daughter Anne is so smothered and constrained by Catherine that she actually contemplates suicide before Georgiana is able to help her wiggle out from under Catherine’s thumb.

There’s nothing particularly compelling about the work, nor is there anything off-putting. People who just can’t get enough of the Darcy opus will probably enjoy it. And it served as just the break I needed after a month of significantly heavier reading selections.

2 Comments

  1. Well, I am going to read the one about the Armenian genocide first!
    So when are you going to try Pat Conroy?

  2. Looks like it will be tonight or tomorrow morning. I’m just about done with my current book, and another book I’m on the library waiting list for isn’t available yet. So, I’ll start a Conroy next!

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