Monday, May 27, 2013

Book Review: "While the Women Are Sleeping" by Javier Marías

While the Women Are Sleeping (1990) 
Javier Marías (1941)

Translated (2010) by Margaret Jull Costa

129 pages

The nebulous region between our daily lives and the supernatural world of our imaginations and dreams provides the stage for Javier Marías in this collection of ten short stories, While the Women Are Sleeping. His characters in these stories lead normal lives, and seem to feel largely in control of their destinies, until Marías presents them with a person or an event that lies outside their previous understanding of the world. At that moment they are forced to confront the uneasiness, and sometimes fear, that come with facing the unknown.

In the title story, the narrator and his wife are enjoying a long holiday at a beach resort; they pass their days on the hot sand watching their fellow bathers, commenting on their peculiarities. One day a new couple arrives at the beach, drawing their interest, and, over the next many days they observe this couple, watching the man spend all his time circling the woman with a video camera, as she sits tanning herself or wades briefly into the water. The narrator and his wife notice that the man “didn’t ask the young woman to do anything … he seemed content with making a visual record, day after day, of that naked statuary figure.” Late one evening the narrator meets the man next to the hotel pool and, as the wives sleep unaware in their rooms, he learns the strange compulsion behind the daily videotaping.

Gualta opens with a man attending a company dinner, where he meets a colleague who could not only be his twin, but who in fact has all his same mannerisms and attitudes. After the initial shock wears off, the narrator engages, experiences and judges … himself. Surprised at what he finds, he returns home from the dinner with a new awareness --- and a new obsession.

A man looks up on the world from his grave in The Life and Death of Marcelino Iturriaga. As the story opens, it is the one year anniversary of his death, and his wife is visiting, bringing “a bouquet of flowers which she very carefully places on top of me … blocking my view.” He remembers back to the sudden illness he developed in the months leading up to his death, and the strange and unexpected transition to a new state of being that he experienced upon dieing.

The majority of the stories in this collection are told in the first person, which heightens our connection and empathy with the characters as they confront these unforeseen shifts in their conception of the world. Marías writes with a mix of sly humor and directness that draws us into the stories, and allows us to see ourselves in them --- including our largely subconscious fear that we do not actually have it all under control.

Other reviews / information:

For American readers of a certain age, these stories will have a bit of the feel of a literary version of the old Twilight Zone television series.

Other works I have read by Marías, though I read them before I began this blog of reviews:
  • When I was Mortal: A collection of short stories.
  • A Heart so White: A novel of a man who upon getting married reconsiders his past.
  • Dark Back of Time: A novel written as a kind of imagined biography; a study of human nature that will pull you in deeply and force you to consider ideas and fears you had tried to leave buried in your subconscious. 
 You can find quotes from these works here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your feedback.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Book Review: "Wool" by Hugh Howey

Wool (2012)
Hugh Howey (1975)

514 pages

Whatever you do, don’t read Hugh Howey’s novel Wool --- unless you are prepared to drop everything else you are doing and stiff-arm any interruptions. Once you have entered into his dystopian view of earth’s future, you won’t want to set the book down until you finish.

The story is set in a giant, underground city that its residents refer to as the “silo”. Though sealed off from the toxic atmosphere and barren landscape on the surface, the people lead seemingly normal lives, raising families and working at the jobs needed to maintain the silo and its population. With only a hazy understanding that anyone had ever lived on the surface above, they have largely adapted to the rigid and structured roles that living in such a confined space requires.

The one taboo, the most serious law that can be violated, is to speak of the world the silo or express a desire to go ‘outside’. To even show an interest in going outside the silo condemns one to being exiled to the surface, and so nearly immediate death. The novel takes its name from a part of the sentence the condemned face: to clear off the silo’s outside cameras and sensors with wool and cleaning solution in the time before they succumb to the deadly conditions on the surface.

 These facts come out in the first few pages of the novel; to say more would rob a reader of the joy of discovering the details for themselves. Howey’s writes in a style that heightens the tension of the story, with relatively short chapters alternating between different characters and places in the silo. I found myself pulled forward through the story, reading faster and faster, so that at times I had to consciously slow myself down. And he avoids settling into a predictable narrative; as the novel develops it becomes impossible to predict which characters will survive the events of the story and which will not. This fits neatly with his answer in a short addendum to the book, ‘A Conversation with Hugh Howey,’ to the question “Is this really the end?”: “There’s always another story to tell. Just maybe not the one readers expect.”

What can safely be said without revealing too much is that the novel’s themes are universal: in any society there will be revolutionaries who want to know more and do more than what the rules allow, and reactionaries who will stop at nothing to preserve the status quo. Between these two groups, the rest of the population will split into pieces, some following the one side or the other, while most simply keep their heads down to avoid trouble. Timeless themes, but ones around which Howey builds a compelling view of a dystopian future world that feels all too possible.

Other reviews / information:
The books were originally published as e-books, before being brought together into this print edition.

Howey has written three stories that serve as a prequel to Wool, called Shift.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy reading your feedback.

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION

Monday, May 6, 2013

Book Review: "After the Apocalypse" by Maureen F. McHugh

After the Apocalypse (2011)

Maureen F. McHugh (1959)

188 pages

What I find intriguing about the subset of science fiction dealing with apocalyptic visions --- enough so that I give the books a shelf of their own, both at home and on this blog --- is learning how authors imagine we might react when faced with the new reality that comes After the Apocalypse. How will we wrap out heads around it? How will we interact with our family, friends, neighbors and strangers? How will we move forward?

Precisely these questions lay at the heart of the nine short stories in the collection of that name by Marueen F. McHugh. As shown by the picture on the book’s cover of a clock reading 12:05, McHugh begins these stories just after the apocalypse has occurred, or at least is well underway. It is no longer 11:59; the characters can no longer hold out hope of preventing the fateful turning point at midnight. And, unlike most apocalyptic fiction and movies, in which a deadly asteroid, super-plague or nuclear war figure prominently in the plot, McHugh focuses here on how people experience and get by in the new worlds created by the various versions of the apocalypse that she imagines. To borrow from the end of Laurie Anderson’s performance piece From the Air, the human race in each of these stories “had passed through a door. And we would never be going back.”

McHugh sets the stories in the near future, sprinkling in cultural references, such as movie titles, stores and products that will be familiar to most all readers. This approach gives added punch to the telling --- as readers we have little trouble identifying with the characters, or at least imagining ourselves in their shoes, as they fight to survive in the new reality. With the exception of one story that features zombies, and another in which some people can fly, McHugh creates worlds that are immediately identifiable to us; even in the two outliers mentioned, the fantasy remains a prop in the story, not the point of it. Thus these stories are more accurately called speculative fiction than pure science fiction.

The collection opens with The Naturalist, in which an outbreak of some kind has turned a portion of the population into zombies, though the zombies have been contained into major metropolitan areas. One of these cordoned-off zones is Cleveland, which the government has also begun using as a penal colony into which to dump the worst criminals, the implication being that it is a cheaper alternative than to house them in prisons. The main character, a convict recently transferred into Cleveland, decides that to survive in this city abandoned to the zombies he needs to study them, to understand their patterns and habits. He goes about his research thoroughly and carefully --- and with whatever means he has at his disposal.

In several of the stories, McHugh imagines near futures in which the economy has partially or completely collapsed. These are perhaps the scariest of the stories in the collection, because the worlds that McHugh creates seem so much like our current one, but with one more trigger, one additional event that pushes things over the edge into chaos. In these new realities we find that there are still rich and poor, only there is little left of the middle class, and the ranks of the poor have swelled beyond measure.

One example of this type is the title story, in which a woman travels on foot with her thirteen year old daughter through the central United States, scavenging in abandoned towns as they seek out a rumored refugee camp in the north. They are escaping from the border area with Mexico, which has turned into a war zone as heavily armed drug cartels, suffering from the economic crisis unleashed by the chaos following a “dirty bomb” attack in the U.S., lash out in search of food. The mother, recalling her own self-sufficiency during a youth lived largely on the streets struggles to handle a clinging daughter with whom she can barely identify.

In another example of economic collapse, a strain of bird flew has killed many millions in China (where McHugh has lived for a time) in the story Special Economics. The ensuing economic crisis has created massive unemployment, allowing companies to gain the upper hand over workers and the government. Two girls, desperate for work, struggle to avoid becoming trapped by their company’s feudal system of employment.

Other of McHugh’s stories tell of more “local” disasters, in the way that 9-11, for example, created a kind of local apocalypse for the people of New York City, leaving them scarred and reeling. The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large is written as a newspaper article detailing the life of a teenager caught in a “dirty bomb” attack on Baltimore. The boy suffers amnesia, and gradually creates a new life for himself; when his mother eventually finds him several years later, he struggles to reconcile his two lives. In Honeymoon, a young woman participates for money in a medical trial that goes horribly wrong.

Perhaps the darkest story in the collection, The Effect of Centrifugal Forces, has a bit of the feel of the novel by Nevil Shute from 1957, On the Beach, in which a group in Australia await the inevitable spread of radiation, and so death, from a nuclear war that has taken place in the Northern Hemisphere. In McHugh’s story there is no war, but still the gradual inevitability of a spreading disaster that destroys hope and morale. Without giving too much away, it is safe to say the story will make any reader consider again the merits of becoming a vegetarian.

This strong collection of stories avoids the dramatics of typical apocalyptic fiction, the detailed descriptions of wars and plagues and such, and instead examines how we go about fighting for survival when we have no hope of going back to the lives we knew. McHugh shows with stark honesty how we might sometimes hold onto our principles and our humanity, while at other times compromise them at a most basic level.  

Other of my book reviews: FICTION and NON-FICTION