November 9, 2015

Recent Reads

127. Here
Book blurb: Built in six pages of interlocking panels, dated by year, it collapsed time and space to tell the story of the corner of a room - and its inhabitants - between the years 500,957,406,073 BC and 2033 AD.

I love books that experiment with a different way to tell a story. If you have yet to read Building Stories by Chris Ware, stop reading this review and start there. So very cool. This one is nothing like Ware's book, but is equally brilliant in weaving a story.

What's this graphic novel about? Well, it is the story of a corner of a room. And if you think that sounds boring, think again. Here's what I mean. Look up right now and gaze at a corner of the room you are in. If you are outdoors, shut your eyes and imagine a corner of your bedroom. Are you there? OK. Now imagine that you have the ability to wind time back and forth - like a time machine - only you do not move from your current position. You can move time back and forth a few years, decades, or even millennia, but you remain in the exact same location on the planet. What do you think you'd see in that corner over that time scale? Right??!!

I have never read a book like this, and it does something that only graphic novels can do so well. Check it out and let me know what you think. Rating: 4 stars.

128. Fifteen Dogs
Book blurb:
— I wonder, said Hermes, what it would be like if animals had human intelligence.
— I'll wager a year's servitude, answered Apollo, that animals – any animal you like – would be even more unhappy than humans are, if they were given human intelligence.

This story starts with two gods walking into a Toronto bar. How could I resist?

What makes a human human? This question has niggled homo sapiens since we first had that thought. This novel explores whether other animals (dogs in this case) would handle themselves better if granted human consciousness and language. 

This story is both humorous and dark, thoughtful and meditative, and explores deeply philosophical questions. I read it in two sittings, and if you are a fan of Animal Farm, I'd highly recommend this one, though this one has less politics and more poetry. A warning to dog lovers out there - remember what these fifteen dogs have been granted, and gird yourself for what you know is coming. 

An interesting coincidence is that I started reading this book while listening to The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan, and it works wonderfully as a companion piece. Rating: 4 stars.

129. The Narrow Road to the Deep North
Book blurb: In the despair of a Japanese POW camp on the Thailand–Burma Death Railway in 1943, Australian surgeon Dorrigo Evans is haunted by his love affair with his uncle's young wife two years earlier. His life is a daily struggle to save the men under his command from starvation, from cholera, from pitiless beatings—until he receives a letter that will change him forever.

It is not a surprise to me that this book won the Man Booker prize in 2014. Finest fiction indeed. 

“A good book, he had concluded, leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul. Such books were for him rare and, as he aged, rarer." 

I cannot think of the last book that made me examine my own soul as much as this one. It is not an easy read by any measure, but so, so worth it.

A couple of things to keep in mind if you decide to read it:

1. The first 20 to 30 pages setup the entire book, and in my opinion the author gives us hints as to how to read the story.

2. Most stories have a beginning and an end, and the story tends to move in a linear manner from one to the other. There is nothing linear about this story. It is like a nautilus - the story folds in on itself again and again.

3. There are several points and counterpoints in this story; lots of duality, and one of the keys to fully immersing yourself in this story is to find those points. For example: Doorigo and Nakamura, Keith and Ella, etc.

4. We often talk about the notion of walking in someone else's shoes, but can we really? The author is incredibly skillful in his ability to create multiple first person narratives, and we do get the chance to walk in those proverbial shoes. 

5. War is hell, we all know this yes? And yet, we are asked to spend time in this partuclar hell. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

This book explores so many themes: love and loss, fidelity and betrayal, honor and duty, morality and war, family and belonging. The thing about most war stories, is that they are written from a particular point of view; we often get only one version of the story. This one switches sides frequently, and I have never read a book that examines something from such various points of view without an axe to grind. 

A note on the audiobook production. This book is wonderfully narrated by David Atlas. The thing about the audio is that I could not skim, or close my eyes during the hard parts. I heard every single word, and that made me feel like I was embedded in the scene.

Yes, the writing is lyrical and beautiful, but the most important thing to me is that I am not the same person I was before I read this book.  Rating: 5 stars.

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