Sunday, June 19, 2011

Saturday, June 11, 2011


Embassytown by China Miéville
Random House, May 2011
Hardcover, 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780345524492
highly recommended

From the cover:
...with Embassytown, Miéville has crafted an extraordinary novel that is not only a moving personal drama but a gripping adventure of alien contact and war.
In the far future, humans have colonized a distant planet, home to the enigmatic Ariekei, sentient beings famed for a language unique in the universe, one that only a few altered human ambassadors can speak.
Avice Benner Cho, a human colonist, has returned to Embassytown after years of deep-space adventure. She cannot speak the Ariekei tongue, but she is an indelible part of it, having long ago been made a figure of speech, a living simile in their language.
When distant political machinations deliver a new ambassador to Arieka, the fragile equilibrium between humans and aliens is violently upset. Catastrophe looms, and Avice is torn between competing loyalties—to a husband she no longer loves, to a system she no longer trusts, and to her place in a language she cannot speak yet speaks through her.
My Thoughts:
Embassytown by China Miéville is a science fiction novel narrated by character Avice Brenner Cho. The actual titular Embassytown is an outpost located within a city on the planetary home of the indigenous intelligent species called the Ariekei. Humans are unable to live in the planet's toxic atmosphere without the help of the Ariekei's bio-technology. In fact, everything on the planet is based on their living bio-tech. 
The Ariekei themselves have two mouths and use both of them at once to speak. Interestingly, they only speak what is true. Everything has one meaning. They can not lie. They even have a Festival of Lies where they try to tell a lie (after having an Ambassador lie.) The Areikei don't recognize language in most other humans, except the Ambassadors. Ambassadors have been specially bred and are chosen based on their ability to work with their "twin" while both are fitted with technology that allows them to speak in unison. They are the only humans able to speak with the Areikei.
Avice, the narrator, is also unique. She is a simile in the Ariekei language. They had her do a task as a child and she became, in short, "The girl who ate what was given to her."  Since everything in their language is true, they needed her and others to do some task in order to make a comparison. Avice is also able to travel and help pilot ships through the immer, which allows travel to distant worlds and outposts. Avice returns to Embassytown, which is unusual for those who have left, with her husband, Scile.
At the beginning the chapters in Embassytown  switch back and forth from past events to the present. Once the new Ambassador arrives, EzRa, they switch to the present. In fact, EzRa's arrival ends up setting off a whole chain-reaction of conflicts and events which makes Embassytown a science fiction novel full of political intrigue.
But, after saying all of that, Embassytown is, most importantly, a  treatise on the uses of language and communication and their effects on civilization. Even the way Miéville uses word derivations and neologisms, or new words, in the character's language is inventive. (See the quotes below for examples.) He uses language in unique ways while telling a story where language is a key plot element as well as a theme.
To be honest, though, Embassytown is uneven. It is brilliant and original in some places while slow and dull in others. I was about to set it aside, sad that I wasn't enjoying it as much as Miéville's other works, when suddenly the plot took off at a gallop. Then much to my frustration, it once more slowed down before again resuming the quick pace. Even while this was happening, the implications driving the plot make it a most worthwhile novel.
Highly Recommended 


The children of the embassy all saw the boat land. Their teachers and shiftparents had had them painting it for days. One wall of the room had been given over to their ideas. It’s been centuries since any voidcraft vented fire, as they imagined this one doing, but it’s a tradition to represent them with such trails. When I was young, I painted ships the same way. opening

I could see her thinking, You chose, and it was true. I’d been going to leave, until half a year before, until the last miab had descended, with the shocking news of what, who, was on the way. Even then I’d told myself I’d stick to my plan, head into the out when the next relief came. But it was no real revelation to me when at last the yawl had crossed the sky and left it howling, and I’d realised I was going to stay. Scile, my husband, had probably suspected before I did that I would. pg. 5

At this edge of town the angles and piazzas of our home alleys were interrupted by at first a few uncanny geometries of Hosts’ buildings; then more and more, until our own were all replaced. pg. 10

It was a Host. It stepped to the centre of the carpet. I stood immediately, out of the respect I’d been taught and my child’s fear. The Host came forward with its swaying grace, in complicated articulation. It looked at me, I think: I think the constellation of forking skin that was its lustreless eyes regarded me. It extended and reclenched a limb. I thought it was reaching for me. pg. 13

 The indigenes, in whose city we had been graciously allowed to build Embassytown, Hosts were cool, incomprehensible presences. Powers like subaltern gods, which sometimes watched us as if we were interesting, curious dust, which provided our biorigging, and to which the Ambassadors alone spoke. pg. 14

Look instead at a map of he immer. such a big and tidal quiddity. Pull it up, rotate it, check its projections. Examine that light phantom every way you can, and even allowing that it's a flat or trid rendering of a topos that rebels against our own accounting, the situation is visibly different.
The immer's reaches don't correspond at all to the dimensions of the manchmal, this space where we live. The best we can do is say that the immer underlies or overlies, infuses, is a foundation, is langue of which our actuality is a parole, and so on.  pg. 31

What we do, what we can do - immersers - is not just keep ourselves stable, sentient and healthy in the immer... pg. 33

"This is the third universe," I told Scile. "There've been two others before this. Right?" I didn't know how much civilians knew: this stuff had become my common sense. "Each one was born different. It had its own laws - in the first one they reckon light was about twice as fast as it is here now. Each one was born and grew and got old and collapsed. Three different sometimes. But below all that, or around it, or whatever, there's only ever been one immer, one always." pg. 34

Ultimately, as a carta-carrying Embassytown native immerser, crewing and vouching for my fiancé, it only took tenacity to get him the rights to entry, and me to reentry. Scile had been preparing for his work there, reading, listening to recordings, watching what few trids and vids there are. pg. 40

A classic unspoken agreement among escapees from a small town: don't look back, don't be each other's anchors, no nostalgia. pg. 53

"Everything in Language is a true claim. So they need the similes to compare things to, to make true things that aren't there yet, that they need to say." pg. 56

It felt like being a child again, though it was not. Being a child is like nothing. It's only being. Later, when we think about it, we make it into youth. pg. 66

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

In the Garden of Beasts

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson
Crown Publishing Group, May 2011
Hardcover, 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307408846
Very Highly Recommended

The saga of an American father and daughter who in July 1933 suddenly found themselves, and the rest of their family, transported to the heart of Hitler's Berlin. The father was William E. Dodd, a mild-mannered history professor from Chicago who, much to his surprise and everyone else's, was chosen by Roosevelt to be America's first ambassador to Nazi Germany; Dodd's daughter, Martha, was 24 years old and came along for the adventure, and to escape a dead marriage. At first this new world seemed full of energy and goodwill, nothing like what newspapers back home had portrayed. But slowly a pall of intrigue and terror fell over the family--until the cataclysmic weekend that changed them all forever.
My Thoughts:

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson chronicles a year in Berlin, from 1933-1934, during which time William Dodd was the U.S. Ambassador to Germany. Dodd, a University of Chicago professor, brought with him to Berlin his wife, son, and daughter, Martha. In the Garden of Beasts follows the experiences of William Dodd and his daughter Martha. As Larson writes in the prologue:
Once, at the dawn of a very dark time, an American father and daughter found themselves suddenly transported from their snug home in Chicago to the heart of Hitler's Berlin. They remained there for four and a half years, but it is their first year that is the subject of the story to follow, for it coincided with Hitler's ascent from Chancellor to absolute tyrant, when everything hung in the balance and nothing was certain. That first year is a kind of prologue in which all the themes of the great epic of war and murder soon to come were laid down.

I have always wondered what it would have been like for an outsider to have witnessed firsthand the gathering dark of Hitler's rule....Hindsight tells us that during that fragile time the course of history could so easily have been changed. Why, then, did no one change it? Why did it take so long to recognize the real danger posed by Hitler and his regime? (pg xiii)
Dodd was unprepared for his role as Ambassador. For example, Dodd was under the assumption that an Ambassadorship would provide him with the free time he needed to finish writing his history of the old South; he soon learned that this assumption was false. Even before he left American investors were concerned that Germany was going to default on her loans while Jewish leaders were concerned about the anti-Semitism taking place. Additionally, most ambassadors were independently wealthy - this was most decidedly not the case with Dodd.

Once the family arrived in Germany, Martha, with a startling and disturbing lack of discernment and propriety, threw herself into late night parties and affairs, including a dalliance with the first chief of the Gestapo, Rudolph Diels. William Dodd ignored the warnings of George Messersmith, who worked at the Berlin embassy. While it became clear that American's were not necessarily safe in Germany, no recommendation for a travel warning was made. Even as the anti-Semitism escalated, Martha herself began to share some of the same sentiments. Dodd repeatedly chose to believe Hitler wanted peace. It really isn't until it was too late (The Night of the Long Knives) that Dodd and Martha really understood the direction the New Germany was taking.

As Larson notes: their first year reached its end, and event occurred that proved to be one of the most significant in revealing the true character of Hitler and that laid the keystone for the decade to come. For both father and daughter it changed everything. (pg. xiv)
Larson does address reasons why the United States kept silent during this time, as Hitler rose to power. Many chances to speak up and try to change the course of history were not taken. Larson writes:
There are no heroes here, at least not of the Schindler's List variety, but there are glimmers of heroism and people who behaved with unexpected grace. Always there is nuance, albeit sometimes of a disturbing nature. That's the trouble with nonfiction. One has to put aside what we all know - now - to be true, and try instead to accompany my two innocents through the world as they experienced it.
These were complicated people moving through a complicated time, before the monsters declared their true nature. (pg. xiv)
A complication for me is that I found both William and Martha to be unsympathetic historical figures. They were, most certainly, flawed individuals. I found Martha's behavior especially disturbing. As a result of this, it was hard to relate to either of them. Much of this is based on their recorded actions and Martha's behavior. But, as Larson makes clear, I had to try a put aside what I know and concentrate on what they knew at the time.

Erik Larson is one of my favorite nonfiction authors. (Isaac's Storm is one of my favorite nonfiction books.) What I especially appreciate about Larson is his narrative style. You are reading a nonfiction book based on facts, which Larson makes clear:
This is a work of nonfiction. As always, any material between quotation marks comes from a letter, diary, memoir, or other historical document. (pg. xiv)
but it flows like a fictional account of an historical event.

Immediately after I finished In the Garden of Beasts, I wasn't sure how I felt about the book. I'm glad I waited to write my review. Even Larson acknowledged the darkness he felt while writing the book:
While I did not realize as I ventured into those dark days of Hitler's rule was how much the darkness would infiltrate my own soul. I generally pride myself on possessing a journalist's remove, the ability to mourn tragedy and at the same time appreciate it's narrative power, but living among the Nazis day in. day out proved for me a uniquely trying experience. (Sources and Acknowledgments, pg. 369)
I feel like some of that darkness seeped into the narrative too.
All in all, this is a very interesting book and a must read for students of history, especially WWII. Larson includes chapter notes, a bibliography, and an index.
Very Highly Recommended


For Messersmith it was yet another indicator of the reality of life under Hitler. He understood that all this violence represented more than a passing spasm of atrocity. Something fundamental had changed in Germany.
He understood it, but he was convinced that few others in America did. He was growing increasingly disturbed by the difficulty of persuading the world of the true magnitude of Hitler's threat. pg. 4

Dodd was anything but the typical candidate for a diplomatic post. He wasn't rich. He wasn't politically influential. He wasn't one of Roosevelt's friends. But he did speak German and he was said to know the country well. One potential problem was his past allegiance to Woodrow Wilson, whose belief in engaging other nations on the world stage was anathema to the growing camp of Americans who insisted that the United States avoid entangling itself in the affairs of foreign nations. pg. 18-19

In the course of a wide-ranging conversation, Dodd learned for the first time how far he'd been from being Roosevelt's first choice. The news was humbling. pg. 38

Messersmith's view of Martha's behavior hardened over time. In an unpublished memoir he wrote that "she behaved so badly in so many ways, especially in view of the position held by her father."
The Dodd's butler, Fritz, framed his own criticism succinctly: "That was not a house, but a house of ill repute." pg. 115

For Martha, however, Thomsen's display had a lingering effect of surprising power, for it eroded - albeit slightly - her enthusiasm for the new Germany, in the way a single ugly phrase can tilt a marriage toward decline. pg. 147

It was a strange moment. Here was Dodd, the humble Jeffersonian schooled to view statesmen as rational creatures, seated before the leader of one of Europe's great nations as that leader grew nearly hysterical with fury and threatened to destroy a portion of his own population. It was extraordinary, utterly alien to his experience. pg. 236

Sunday, June 5, 2011


You were a great dog.
In fact, you were the nicest dog I ever met and
I will miss you.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Sister

The Sister by Poppy Adams
Knopf Doubleday, 2008
Hardcover, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781616880408
highly recommended

From her lookout in the crumbling mansion that was her childhood home, Ginny watches and waits for her younger sister to arrive. Vivien has not set foot in the house since she left nearly fifty years ago; the reclusive Ginny has rarely ventured out, retreating into the precise routines that defined her days, carrying on her father's solitary work studying moths.
As the sisters revisit their shared past, they realize that their recollections differ in essential and unsettling ways. Before long, the deeply buried resentments that have shaped both of their lives rise to the surface, and Vivien's presence threatens to disrupt Ginny's carefully ordered world.
Told in Ginny's unforgettable voice, this subtle and chilling debut novel tells an extraordinary story of how families are capable of undoing themselves - especially in the name of love.

My Thoughts:

The Sister by Poppy Adams opens with seventy year old Virginia (Ginny), a recluse, waiting for her sister Vivien (Vivi) to return to Bulburrow Court, the decaying family mansion, after being away for nearly fifty years. The novel focuses on the four day period of time when Vivi returns home. Ginny is the narrator and as she reflects about her life a picture of her childhood begins to emerge. Their mother, Maud, is gregarious and often answers for Ginny. Their father, Clive, was a famous lepidopterist and Ginny follows in his foot steps, making the study of moths her life's work.

It becomes clear right at the start that Vivi's visit is going to disrupt Ginny's carefully planned days. It also becomes clear that Ginny is an unreliable narrator and that something is not quite right about her. We know from the start that she is obsessively focused on time. We learn that she has exact rituals for making tea and for making her bed. We learn that she is unable to show emotion or interpret emotion in others. Ginny also doles out large, obsessive amounts of information about moths - so much that the moths become another character in the book. Ginny tells us that she, like her father, is a world famous lepidopterist.

While it didn't bother me, in earlier reviews of The Sister some readers were bothered by the vast amount of information and facts about moths. That may be something to take into account if you think it might annoy you. I felt that it became clear that the information about moths is important to the story and raises questions about the role of biology in a person's actions - is it nature or nurture that dictates our actions.

Adams is a talented writer and did a wonderful job building the suspense. As the present events unfold, details about the past are told in alternating chapters. It soon becomes clear that events may not be exactly as they are presented and there are more questions raised than answers given. A draw back to this is that all the loose ends are not tied up in the end so it requires some speculation on the part of the reader.

I wish some of the questions raised had been answered in this atmospheric Gothic thriller. Basically I enjoyed The Sister right up until the end when I was left feeling a little let down.
highly recommended


It’s ten to two in the afternoon and I’ve been waiting for my little sister, Vivi, since one-thirty. She’s finally coming home, at sixty-seven years old, after an absence of nearly fifty years. opening

Did I tell you that Vivien said in her letter she was returning for good? For some final peace, she said, because now, she said, we ought to be keeping each other company for the rest of our lives, rather than dying lonely and alone. Well, I’ll tell you now, I don’t feel lonely and I certainly don’t feel as if I’m dying, but even so I’m glad she’s coming home. Glad, and a little nervous - a surge of apprehension is swelling in my stomach. I can’t help wondering what we’ll talk about after all these years and, I suppose, if I’ll even recognize her. pg. 4

She is late, however. I look at my wristwatch—the digital one on my left wrist. Her letter most specifically read one-thirty and, believe me, it's not my timekeeping that's gone awry. I keep a number of clocks just so I can be sure that, even if one or two let me down, I can always find the correct time. When you live by yourself in a house that you very rarely leave and is even more rarely visited, it's essential that you don't lose track of the time. Every minute lost - if left uncorrected - would soon accumulate to an hour, and then hours, until - as you can imagine - you could easily end up living in a completely erroneous time frame. pg. 4

It was a childhood in perfect balance, so I’m wondering what it was that came along and changed everything. It wasn’t just one thing. There’s rarely a sole cause for the separation of lives. It’s a sequence of events, an inexorable chain reaction where each small link is fundamental, like a snake of upended dominoes. And I’ve been thinking that the very first one, the one you push to start it all off, must have been when Vivi slipped off our bell tower and nearly died, fifty-nine years ago. pg. 5

Truth be told, it was Vivi who dreamed and I who listened, enraptured, for I was very aware that it was a gift she had been given and I had not. pg. 13 the time neither of us realized the rue significance of her accident. Only that she'd been so incredibly lucky. pg. 21

I wonder what Vivien's left behind in London; I wonder if this is the start of another special bond, like the one we had many years ago. Most of all I wonder why she's decided, finally, to come home. pg. 31

I can mimic the scent of a flower so that a moth will direct itself towards the scent, even if I have made sure that in doing so it goes headlong into a wall and kills itself. Each time each moth will kill itself. It is this constancy that makes them a scientific delight - you do not need to factor in a rogue element of individuality. pg. 55