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Eyes and Ears
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Eyes and Ears

I promised book reviews, and you are going to get them :)   2009 has been a great year for my reading/listening pleasure.  I have come across some of the best books I have read in years – some of them already reviewed here.  Well, I have a few more to add to that list – some really good ones!

My little kick with fiction continues – specifically “speculative fiction” - a little bit sci-fi, a bit dystopian, but also rooted in some reality as it really just imagines a future world and asks “what if?

Recent Reads (and Listens)

I have read a couple of Margaret Atwood’s books and liked them well and good, but it was not until I read her two most recent novels that I understood the true genius of this author.  I say it in no small way – these two books absolutely blew me away.

Oryx and Crake / The Year of the Flood: A Novel

 After hearing a significant amount of buzz about Atwood’s newest book, and hearing that it was sort of a “companion” piece to the older novel, published in 2003, I decided to take the plunge, picking both audiobooks up at the library.  The books do not have to be read together, but I felt that reading them in succession helped me pick up each little reference, nuance, and passing observation.  So tightly interwoven and so elegant… it was perfect.

Oryx and Crake introduces an imagined future where we meet the main characters: childhood friends Jimmy and Glenn, and learn about their life growing up cloistered on a scientific compound.  The book is told from Jimmy’s perspective, switching back and forth in time; before and after an apocalyptic event that has dessimated the population.  

Year of the Flood is neither a prequel or a sequel to Oryx and Crake, but occurs at the same time. My GoodReads review of Year of the Flood follows:

Profoundly brilliant. Had I not read this directly after reading Oryx and Crake, I would have missed so many things – little nuances, passing comments made by the characters… it just enriched the earlier story and brought so much depth, context, and elegance. Like looking at the Rubin’s vase optical illusion and only seeing it one way for so long, and then someone points out the other image right before your eyes. Of course, it was Ms. Atwood herself who constructed the image and slowly sheds light on it with each chapter in her books – alas, I think she has one (possibly two!) more story to tell here.

Year of the Flood has two narrators – both survivors of an apocalyptic event (a “waterless flood”), and both linked from their associations with “God’s Gardeners”, a religious sect. The two women are of different generations but share the foundations of the Gardeners’ beliefs long after they have left the group’s compound. The story moves back and forth in time (before and after “The Flood”), describing the lives of the women as they move about, and how they eventually come back together after “The Flood” mentioned in the title of the book.

Atwood’s creation of the “Gardeners” is so fascinating – she has gathered the cult’s doctrine and principles from 19th-century transcendentalism, Jain and Hindu philosophies, post-modern environmental thought, the zeal of 1970′s “born-again” movement with a tad of Hare Krishna devotion, the apocalyptic asceticism of the Essenes, as well as the homesteading, return-to-the-land movement of post-Industrial North America. The hierarchy is based around a group of senior leaders, called the Adams and Eves. “Adam One” is the group’s leader and “pastor” of sorts, because he teaches the group and is featured in several chapters in the book with some of his sermons, followed by songs that are sung by the Gardeners. (The audiobook version had all of the composed songs with accompaniment, and the songs are also available on Atwood’s website.) The group canonizes scientists like Dian Fossey and Jacques Cousteau, and has feast days for St. Rachel Carson and so many other well-known luminaries in the fields of ecology, zoology, and life sciences. They also celebrate days like “Mole Day” and “Predator Day”, noting the importance of food chain, the smallest creatures and their contributions, etc.

I will admit, there were a few times that I just had to take a pause, Atwood “blew my mind” more than once.
  

The books were read in succession – perhaps as they were meant to be – so they fit together perfectly in my mind like a jigsaw.

Even a week after finishing the second book, I can’t get this story out of my mind. I think the two should definitely be read together, and I think that they are among the best books I have ever read.

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

This book is getting a good amount of buzz as a possible 2010 Newbery Award winner.  It is a young adult novel for the 10 -16 set, but younger and older (like me!) readers will undoubtedly enjoy it.  The book was mentioned and excerpted on National Public Radio’s website - go read a bit of it!

A little gem of a book – a unique storyline that is wonderfully crafted and executed. Miranda’s character is this encapsulation of what it is to be 12 years old – going back and forth between this world of childhood and adulthood. I wouldn’t really characterize this as a coming-of-age story though… more like a day-in-the-life with a twinge of mystery and sci-fi thrown into the mix. I really liked the setting in 1979… it was a lot like my childhood, so there was a nostalgic element there… Loved the little bits of fantasty woven throughout, as well as the musings and the references to late 1970s/early 1980s pop culture.  Very enjoyable book ~ highly recommended.

Maybe even some time to pick this one up before Christmas?  Although the narrator is a 12-year old girl, I think that this book could be enjoyed by boys.  It has a science fiction element to it (sort of the undercurrent of the entire story) that will appeal to them.   I listened to the audiobook, which was also quite good.

Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Another day… another dystopian!  This one was probably the most realistic of the speculative fiction because it really just seemed like this *could* happen. 

The story follows a family of four and how they survive through a catastrophic/apocalyptic event – a meteor hits the moon, knocking it off balance, eventually moving the moon closer to earth, thus shifting all of the tides and the gravitational pull – tsunamis, earthquakes, volcanoes… just about every disaster ensues. It is told in a diary format, written and narrated by 16-year old Miranda, who lives in small-town Pennsylvania.

In the end, the story was one of love, courage, strength, and endurance. The family of four (mother, two sons, and Miranda, the daughter) struggles to live through these terrible events as they watch the world crumble around them. It definitely had a very eerie element about it – so much so that as I was listening on the audiobook, it was almost like these things were actually happening. So, the author definitely set the tone and the landscape for the readers.  

I hesitate to fully recommend the book because it can be pretty depressing, sad, and annoying (see full review on GR), but in the end, I am really glad I read it. It made me think a lot about the things we all take for granted – running water, electricity, family bonds.  It inevitably leaves you with the question of “How would I handle this type of situation? would I make it?”

Pretty interesting premise, and like I said, major points for making it so believable – but I had some major criticisms of the book as well.  You can read my full review on GoodReads to find out what I didn’t like (and why I rated it 2.5 stars out of 5). 

…and now for something completely different… (and happier!)

A non-fiction book of essays by one of my favorite authors!

‘The Moon by Whale Light: And Other Adventures Among Bats, Penguins, Crocodilians, and Whales by Diane Ackerman

Ooh, Ackerman knows how to make you relish every word!  She is a naturalist, but also a poet, interweaving science and nature with the most delicate of language. 

Ackerman’s writing style is so lyrical and her descriptions are so vivid – reading her work is like biting into the juiciest of fruits. This particular collection highlights bats, crocodiles, penguins, and whales. Ackerman spends time with these animals, learning about their biology and psychology, talks with their keepers, trainers, and researchers.

While all of them were wonderful, the chapters on bats and crocodiles were my favorites of all – perhaps because I knew the least about these two creatures. The bat essay, in particular, sent me to my computer many times to see images and photos of these amazing animals. Just days after reading this essay, I had the experience of being in the open desert (Joshua Tree National Park in southern California) and witnessed the Mexican Free-Tailed bats coming out to feed at dusk… just me, my husband, and these beautiful bats. It was amazing, and is something that will stay with me for a long time. I am sure that I would have been amazed by this sight even if I had not read the book, but the experience was all the more enhanced by the knowledge I gained from this essay collection.

This is a book I will return to, I am sure, to remember these paragraphs filled to the brim with facts and stories… and will fall in love with the writing each and every time. 

I think Ackerman writes best when she writes about nature. I have enjoyed her other topics (like An Alchemy of Mind, about brain science) but they did not hold my attention quite like this collection and the book that “hooked” me on to her work over a decade ago, A Natural History of the Senses.  I have not yet read any of her poetry, but I am sure it is great, because I love her prose.

…onward and upward… I am already listening to and reading new books.  Makes for a great time while working on these sweaters!
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12 Responses

  1. Sharon

    Love your book recommendations, thanks. I read Oryx and Crake when it came out a few years ago and now need to read The Year of the Flood, but based on your words I think I’ll re-read Oryx first. Have you read Atwood’s The Blind Assassin? Phenomenal!

  2. Kim

    I LOVE Diane Ackerman. A Natural History of the Senses is one of my all time favourites. :)

  3. Kim

    I love dystopian novels. Thanks for posting about these. I had been really interested in “Year of the Flood” but will make sure to read “Oryx and Crake” as well!

  4. patricia

    Thanks for the book list! I like those dystopian type novels, too. I also like Diane Ackerman and Margaret Atwood!

  5. Mom

    Liked your recommendation/ reviews. “The Moon by Whale Light” reminded me of when your Dad and I were in AZ this fall. One evening we went out for a walk, just as the bats were beining their hunt . THey were everywhere, fluttering and diving. I loved watching them! I laid down in the grass and watched them and looked at the stars for a while. It was a nice memory.

    I have always been fascinated with them. One of my favorite things about Carlsbad Caverns was being there at dusk to see the multitude of bats come out to feed. There were clouds of them. Do you remember that?

  6. Andrea

    I’m happy that you’ve seen the beauty of one of my favorite authors – Atwood. She’s a genius. My husband and I still laugh about chickie nobs. But I always return to her short story collection – Bluebeard’s Egg. Thanks for pointing out her newest book. I hadn’t heard it was out!

    Selkie on Ravelry

  7. suzanne

    I really liked When You Reach Me–it would be an excellent choice for the Newberry. I think I read it in one sitting–quirky, short chapters that nearly stood alone as stories. It reminded me of Paul Zindel!

    Brilliant Atwood review!

  8. Elizabeth

    I’m a big Atwood fan, and I agree completely with your appraisal of her two most recent novels – they’re awesome!

  9. mick

    Thanks for the reviews, Lolly! I’ll definitely be checking out Oryx and Crake over break.

  10. liz

    Lolly,
    Just a question…I’m thinking about becoming a vegetarian – not quite ready for vegan yet – and wondered if there are certain books/blogs/blog posts you’d recommend.
    It’s something I’ve been thinking about for awhile & I think with the new year, I’m ready to start!

    I’d appreciate any input/advice/suggestions.

    Thanks!

  11. LisaB

    Thanks for this – I loved Oryx and Crake and didn’t realize she had a new book out that was related!

  12. elizabeth

    I’m a huge Margaret Atwood fan and always have a book or two on my xmas list. This year I got Year of the Flood and read it in a few days – I couldn’t put it down. I didn’t realize Oryx and Crake was a companion book but plan to get that soon. The story has stayed in my head too, and even though it’s futuristic, I see the potential for some things coming to pass (particularly with the Supreme Court decision this week).

    Thanks for the reviews!

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