Khamis, 10 April 2014

The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

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The Star Online: Lifestyle: Bookshelf

Red Rising

Posted: 09 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

A reviewer who isn't a fan of young adult fiction is won over by this engaging novel.

If history shows us anything, it is that humanity will not remain repressed and enslaved for very long. The inevitable rebellion usually ends badly for everyone involved and all kinds of valuable lessons are learned. Such are the events that take place in Red Rising, unfolding quickly, with the author giving us no time to recover between blows.

This first book in the Red Rising trilogy is extremely well written and gave me an interesting set of themes to explore. The author has managed to weave together threads of love, loss, intrigue, excitement and action in amounts that are just right without the scenes becoming too contrived. The relationships formed between characters in the book are skilfully depicted and easily convinced me about either the depth or superficiality of feelings between characters.

Red Rising begins with an introduction to the life of the protagonist, Darrow, a Red living on Mars.In a society split into classes by genetics and named after colours, the Reds are on the bottom rung. Born and bred to mine the rare elements that are needed to terraform Mars and make it habitable, the Reds live in complete subjugation to the upper colours.

They live and die quickly in the mines, and are kept in check by sanctions on food and other necessities if they cause problems. The carrot comes in the form of hope, that one day, once they have mined enough of the elements required, they will be recognised and that their sacrifices over the years will make them heroes to the first generation on a habitable Mars.

What the Reds don't know, however, is that Mars was terraformed generations ago, together with a sizeable chunk of the solar system. The Golds at the top of the food chain keep up the pretence because, really, who doesn't like slave labour? They, together with the hulking Obsidians (bred for war) and the Grays (the society's bureaucrats and coppers), keep the Reds under their collective thumb.

Darrow, the narrative voice of the book, is recruited by a terrorist group, the Sons of Ares, and pulled into a lonely and terrifying mission that will ultimately bring down the ruling power of the Golds and their elite master class, the Peerless Scarred.

In turns ruthless, then frightened, the young Darrow must survive the training he is dropped into as well as the merciless political arena of the Gold hierarchy. Along the way we are introduced to the other colours as well, Greens and Browns and Pinks, who all serve, and are bred for, some specific function within society.

The book flows along well, with surprising twists in the plot every now and again. There are a lot of deaths, almost on the level of George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. Many likeable characters are killed off, but every loss has a deeper meaning and contributes to future events in some way. Because of the author's masterful skill at building character relationships, every death of a primary character tugged at my emotions, ranging from anger to sorrow.

One of the really interesting things about this book is the way Brown has managed to build not only the world of Mars, and to a lesser degree the rest of the solar system, but he has also built a complete society of humans from the ground up. The society is divided into factions based around early Greek and Roman mythology, with familiar names such as Ares, Persephone, Apollo, Jupiter and Minerva cropping up frequently.

The result is a very deep and rich story, so much so that the book feels much longer than its 382 pages. This does not take away from the flow of the story in any way, but rather enhances it, with the story never becoming too fast or too slow, always paced just right for the events that are happening. The concentrated richness of the story also allowed me to feel as though I was completely immersed in the narrative and gave me a very visual and visceral experience throughout.

I would thoroughly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys well-paced, immersive science fiction/fantasy. Be prepared to spend some time reading this book, it is best read in long pieces lest you lose yourself in the detailed tapestry of Pierce Brown's writing. I am not generally a fan of young adult fiction but I absolutely loved this book, and am eagerly awaiting the next instalment.

An Unnecessary Woman

Posted: 09 Apr 2014 09:00 AM PDT

Rabih Alameddine's beautiful new novel is ostensibly about an elderly woman living alone in her Beirut apartment. Once married but quickly divorced, Aaliya appears to be, as the title says, An Unnecessary Woman. But Aaliya's solitude is filled with incident and wonder. She lives in a city whose very name is synonymous with conflict and disorder. In Beirut it's perfectly normal for a spinster to don a pink tracksuit and pick up an AK-47 in defence of her abode.

The wonder in An Unnecessary Woman comes courtesy of Aaliya's voracious reading habits. The imagined worlds of writers as diverse as WG Sebald, Marcel Proust and Roberto Bolano are Aaliya's constant (and unfailingly interesting) companions. She translates their books into Arabic, filling up her home with three dozen translations – which no one else has ever read.

"I imagine looking at this room through a stranger's eyes," Aaliya says of her apartment. "Books everywhere, stacks and stacks, shelves and bookcases, stacks atop each shelf, I in the creaky chair... I have been its only occupant."

Alameddine is the Lebanese-American author of four previous works of fiction (including the international bestseller The Hakawati). He is a resident of San Francisco and Beirut. The latter city and its violent recent history provide the setting for An Unnecessary Woman, as Aaliya witnesses a series of battles between militias and an invasion by the Israeli army. She suffers the indignities of endless power outages and shutdowns of the city's water supply. Through it all, she reads.

After the battles are over, Aaliya keeps a war "relic" on her desk: a copy of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities (1978), its cover scorched in the lower right corner.

"I was reading the book by candlelight while people killed each other outside my window," Aaliya says. "I had an incendiary mishap, something that seems to have happened regularly to Joseph Conrad – the incendiary mishaps, not the burning cities."

Much of An Unnecessary Woman reads in this fashion, with Aaliya dialoguing with the lives and works of great writers while simultaneously recounting the events of her life, from girlhood to sunset years. Her reading varies from Jean-Paul Sartre and Virginia Woolf to Javier Marias and Fernando Pessoa. Aaliya's taste in literature is so wonderfully varied, and Alameddine writes with such lucid and swift-moving prose, that his novel never loses momentum, even though Aaliya herself is the most passive of protagonists.

An Unnecessary Woman is an allegory about how notions of beauty and civilisation can endure in a world that periodically descends into barbarism, and how women can persevere in a society that never ceases to devalue them in both war and peace.

In Alameddine's telling, Beirut is a city caught between the pull of the cosmopolitan (it is famous as "the Paris of the Middle East") and persistent traditional Muslim notions of what women's roles should be. At an early age, Aaliya is married off to an older man. But he's useless, stupid and impotent, and their marriage is never consummated. After he mercifully divorces her, Aaliya is left with their spacious apartment, much to the chagrin of her family, who thinks she should hand it over to one of her child-rearing siblings. She refuses, and her family hates her for it.

"I am my family's appendix, its unnecessary appendage," she says.

Besides her literary curiosity, Aaliya's stubbornness and independence are her defining characteristics. If there weren't bombs going off periodically, Aaliya might be, like her hero the Portuguese poet and critic Pessoa, a flรขneur – an idle wanderer about town.

Pessoa's words in his autobiographical The Book Of Disquiet (1982; first English translation, 1991) define Aaliya's personal philosophy: "The only attitude worthy of a superior man is to persist in an activity he recognises is useless, to observe a discipline he knows is sterile, and to apply certain norms of philosophical and metaphysical thought that he considers utterly inconsequential."

Absorbing the creative spirit of the great writers she admires by translating them allows Aaliya to live alone without feeling like a tragic figure. She's a thinker, a lover of life and ideas. She works for years at a Beirut bookstore, where the owner is a dilettante who doesn't appreciate her vast knowledge of literature. When the bookstore closes, she gets to keep the desk she had there; for Aaliya, this is enough. She moves the desk to her apartment and uses it to sit and work on her never-to-be-read translations.

As Aaliya reads and periodically observes the ageing of her family and neighbours, she cannot escape the pain of loss. Her most enduring friendship is with another unmarried woman, a doomed, kindred spirit. But not even the worst possible end to that friendship can strip Aaliya of the unique sense of belonging that books and reading give her. To read is to be alone – and also to be immersed deeply in the emotions and the ideas that make us human.

As Pessoa's alter ego, or "heteronym" Alvaro de Campos writes:

"I am nothing.

"I'll always be nothing.

"I can't even wish to be anything.

"Aside from that, within me I have all the dreams of the world."

An Unnecessary Woman is a unique love poem to the book and to the tenacity of the feminine spirit. And it's a triumph for Alameddine, who has created a book worthy of sitting on a shelf next to the great works whose beauty and power his novel celebrates. – Los Angeles Times/McClatchy-Tribune Information Services


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