Blueprints of the Afterlife

I was given Blueprints of the Afterlife with the following instructions:  1.  Read this book.  2.  Get past the first fifty pages.  At page 51, I was engaged.  Reading this novel was a major achievement in itself.  I’m a high achiever, so the novel was a good fit.  I actually took notes and logged my every impression on scraps of notebook paper, receipts and any other paper good lying within my reach.  Dense with provocative perspectives on modern Western society,  I felt like I was reading the post-Modern edition of Jared Diamond’s Collapse — with an added mocking commentary.

This post-apocalyptic world is accessed through a silly string entanglement of pre- and post- apocalyptic memories.  Here, technology is taken to its extreme.  Nanotechnology has advanced to the point of overtaking human control.  Weapons and entire militaries are sponsored by Coke and Sony.  Obvious and guaranteed disaster bears down from the North in the form of a sentient glacier, yet, “Americans never paid much attention to Canadians anyway unless they were good at telling jokes.”

How peculiar is this world?  Cloning, organ harvesting, biometrics, and corporate sponsorship are all part of our current cultural vernacular.  Ridiculous reactions to impending doom are likewise part of human history. See:  Herculaneum and Mount Vesuvius, Greenland and Deforestation, Louisiana and Hurricane Katrina.   Every generation from the beginning of recorded history owns a ruling class that overspends on luxuries only to ignore the destruction of its own people.

Ryan Boudinot presents a powerfully prophetic IF, THEN statement.  IF the West continues its addiction to material goods, to technology, THEN the West will ultimately lose its freedom.  The progeny of the Internet will become the new addiction.  People will lose control of their bodies, their thoughts, and even their memories.  With the collapse of whole ecologies and the nosedive of Western economies, are we, too, ignoring a Titanic-sized glacier?

Blueprints of the Afterlife

Grove Atlantic 2012

Sea of Trees

Sea of Trees takes the reader on an emotional hike through Aokigahara, a renowned forest sanctuary where some Japanese retreat to take their lives.  The main journey of this novella involves a Japanese woman, Junko, searching through these woods for remnants of her sister’s final hours.  Author Robert James Russell alternates the streaming point of view of her boyfriend, Bill, with anecdotes of others who have ultimately taken their own lives.

The temptation to read this novella as a commentary on suicide patterns in Japan is very high.  The topic of suicide is almost too potent to set aside, yet there are layers beneath this very grim subject.  Russell explores the disconnect between an observer, a person who lacks emotional or experiential context, and the participant, the person with a direct emotional connection to a particular experience.

This story, strangely enough, reminded me of a lecture I attended given by a Lost Boy of the Sudan.  When asked how he coped psychologically with running from one refugee camp to another while dodging the constant hail of bullets, he gave a response that opposed any perceived rational response from his American audience.  He said, “I didn’t think about it.  The gunfire was always there.  It was normal.”  While I was pondering the long term emotional scars he must bear, this young Sudanese man hadn’t given the experience a second though.  I am like Bill who can never be Japanese or ever feel the searing pain of loss to suicide.  I can research and report what I see, but I cannot connect to the sensations, the pain, the emotion, or the lack thereof.  I am an outsider.  I will never connect to these experiences in the same way that someone who is there, is in that culture, will.

Never have I read a work so balanced, so pleasing, and yet so strange, in its very structure.  At first my inclination was to cite precision editing to this near-perfect alternation of the main story line and the other stories of suicide.  The lush setting of the forest complemented the story line…a little too well.  Then I understood – what I perceived as artificial was the very essence of Japanese culture. My American reverence of individuality, of imbalance made Russell’s exquisite detail of balance in Asian cultures difficult to see.  If for no other purpose, this distilling of Japanese culture and setting is not to be overlooked.

Sea of Trees

Winter Goose Publishing

To be released:  May 21, 2012

Robert James Russell is a founder and fiction editor of Midwestern Gothic, a literary journal “dedicated to featuring work about or inspired by the Midwest, by writers who live or have lived here.”  The very Asian character of Sea of Trees begged the question:  why not Midwestern Gothic?  Russell’s very thoughtful response was this, “ You can either write a story explicitly set in the region of your choosing, or you can take the deeper, more engrained parts of that place, the things that make up the uniqueness of each region and the people in it, and apply it to a story. For Sea of Trees—and, in fact, for a lot of my writing—this is the approach I take. I use all the elements of growing up in Michigan, all the Midwestern values and strengths and weaknesses I have, and apply them to people/settings that may not have specific Midwest connections.”

Make Your Mother’s Day SHINE SHINE SHINE

Your mother is carrying more burdens than you know.  Let her know you love her just the way she is with this gift basket inspired by Lydia Netzer’s debut novel, SHINE SHINE SHINE.  Accompanying the glittery ARC are a bald Barbie, a whiteboard with mathematically inspired Mother’s Day sentiments, a red dry-erase marker, a toy astronaut, an autism-awareness puzzle piece and an imitation Mont Blanc pen.  Your mother will SHINE SHINE SHINE when you give her this unique gift.

Maurice Sendak: A Different Read As A Parent

 I have discovered more from reading Maurice Sendak’s books as a parent than I ever did as a young child.  Where the Wild Things Are forces me to remember all of the times where my children have disappeared into a fantasy world only to completely lose judgment.   At eight, my eldest played T-Rex with such sublimation of character that he bit a young herbivore, ahem, eight year old girl.  His roots of mischief were revealed much earlier in life, though, when he and his then two year old brother constructed a detailed network of train tracks – with shampoo, hair gel and nail polish – all over the wall, cabinets and tiled floor of our newly added bathroom.  Sendak’s tender illustrations of the Little Bear series have helped me see deeply into my six year old daughter’s thoughts.  There is not one moment of personification; every stuffed animal, every doll is very real in the mind of a little girl.  As my little girl applies a bandage to care for her doll, I can see Emily, Little Bear’s friend, putting her head down to her doll Lucy and listening for a small voice.  I hope to remember to ask my children, when they become parents, what they see in Sendak’s pages.

Your Favorite Author is Very Good at Math

Here’s a different author interview to try:  ask your favorite author what his/her math skills are like.  It doesn’t take a great probabalist to predict the answer will be negative.  “I was never good at math…I could do the math problems, but I didn’t know why…”  One of my favorite authors is famous for the latter quote.  But, seriously, she could wrap you in equations and expressions – the funny thing is, she doesn’t know it.

The educational world segregates the creative arts from the technical from the first standardized test a child takes in school.  The words right brain and left brain are thrown around as if one hemisphere does the processing, and the other lies permanently dormant.  I often wonder if these classifications are simply our culture’s academic prejudices:  people are bred to believe that they are either good at one (liberal arts) or another (mathematics and sciences).   The few people who excel at both are regarded as profoundly gifted.  They buck the belief system, so we pretend to applaud them, while secretly we hate them.  It’s simply not logical to have a union with art and science.

In elementary school – through seventh grade—I was lumped into the liberal arts category.  All of my test scores, my projects, and my papers highlighted excellence in writing and visual arts.  I still have my awards for these products, the tarnished silver platter, the framed certificates.  In math, I was competent, but nothing special.  I switched schools for eighth grade and interacted with a technically-focused teaching model.  Even the writing classes were formulaic – the ‘Maury paragraph’ format, named after my high school, reigned.  By junior year, I had accumulated numerous state level awards for science, and my standardized test scores flipped:  suddenly I appeared to be talented in math and ho hum in the liberal arts.  By graduate school, my scores screamed, “Non-native English speaker!”

And here I am writing again.  Remember the Venn diagram?  The Myth:  the intersection of math and art is null.  The Truth:  there is no segregation of math and art.  The union of the sets overlaps – completely.  Mathematics is firmly embedded in painting, sculpture, and writing, performance via symmetry, temporal sequencing and set theory.  Math and art have such an inbred marriage that one cannot exist without the other.   See a painting you find particularly pleasing:  chances are there is symmetry of color, a scientific use of light and a subconscious use of the Fibonacci sequence.  Read a book you don’t like?  The sequence of plot layers may not converge, or there may not be symmetry in the points of view.  The rate at which the plot progresses may be counterintuitive:  any plot with a conflict requires a steep slope, while a romance does not.

Here’s an example:  A typical murder-mystery has a very predictable graph.  There is an initial spike – the murder – in tension, followed by the development of a foundation, background on who died, who is investigating.  Then the slope of the tension versus time graph steepens.  The increased rate may not even be linear, but exponential.  Finally, the graph plummets as the conflict is resolved, the murderer discovered.  A book series will end with a jump in tension at the end…the graph continues, in the next novel.

A novel structured alternating between the past and present also has a symmetry and parallel structure that builds the sense making framework.  The past must align with itself, and there must be a balance between the past and present.  Can’t follow who is speaking or when?  The math is missing.  The electrons must flow on parallel circuits or the system shorts out.

The outline of a novel is its equation, the driving force the path of the words will take.  If the equation does not balance, or if there are an excessive number of variables, the words will not read with flow.  Just as symmetric features on a face yields beauty, there is elegance in an efficient, mathematical delivery.  The subtle delivery of the pleasing elements of math separates the good from the bad, the great from the good.  If you’re a reader, you sense the math, but don’t articulate it.  If you’re an editor, the math is sublimated in your bones.  If you’re a writer, make sure you have an editor who is good at math, even if he or she doesn’t know it.

So, this is my passion.  I like to see the mathematical relationships in people, in their interactions with people, and both of these in the pages of a book.  In this blog, I’ll occasionally bring these relationships to life with graphs and expressions…a mathematical kind of book review.  My book review formula?  Zoom out to see the writing in a broader context; diagram as necessary.  Repeat.


A Review: I Do, I Don’t

Most of my posts should reveal that I’m not interested in simply summarizing the plot of a novel.  This job is sufficiently accomplished in the book jacket and replicated on vendor sites.  While some bloggers may derive pleasure from synthesizing salient facts from a novel, this production does not motivate me.  What does interest me is finding some outside connection to the book.  Sometimes these connections take the form of familiar sensory experiences, as in A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash and Christopher Tilghman’s The Right Hand Shore. Other times I’m able to forge a new connection, such as the uniquly presented point of view of fathers in Matt Bell’s Cataclysm Baby,  or perceive contemporary women’s issues in a new light, The Crown by Nancy Bilyeau.  I’d like to communicate a book’s utility, whether it be grippingly informative, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner, or potently philosophical, The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau.  

My sister asked a very relevant question a couple of weeks ago, “Why do you only give good reviews?”  Well, there are two answers to this question.  One answer reflects the manner I receive books, and the other represents my basic worldview on reviewing.

To date, I have only reviewed books that have passed through the hands of people who know me well.  In the scientific community, we call this selection bias.  There is a much higher probability of me favoring books that have survived an initial screening with me in mind.  I have a high stack of novels waiting to be read, and some genres are conspicuously absent due to this bias.  One topic in particular, the I’m-trying-to-get-pregnant theme is known to be taboo.  I have four children, don’t desire more, and have a deeply seeded, though neurotic, fear that somehow such writing will yield a second line on the dipstick.

I personally do not find pleasure or purpose in filleting a novel.  My days as a statistical analyst contributing to peer-reviewed journal articles give me screenshot on the frustrating process that is publishing.  The work passes through countless hands, drowns in gallons of red ink and may or may not actually make it to print.  There is a lot of work that goes into even the shortest publication, and the simple fact that a work is in print shows that someone, somewhere, gave the work merit. 

This is not to say that we’re all winners, and every book is worthwhile reading.  What I am saying is that my likes and dislikes vary with my mood, the time of year, and the stage of life I’m in.  While my kids were younger, a memoir encompassing the joys and frustrations of motherhood or Navy wifehood might interest me.  I went through a phase, accidentally, and much to the dismay of my friends, of devouring medieval Norwegian historical fiction.  Currently, you couldn’t pay me to read any of these now. (Well, actually, I would be interested in more of the Norwegian historical fiction, but I’m afraid I’ve tapped the source.)  Does that mean these types of novels have no literary merit?  Absolutely not!  Most novels have an audience, sometime, somewhere, albeit few have the coveted popular vote of the bestseller list. 

Have I read novels that would function better as kindling for a Girl Scout campout?  Sure!  I once was given an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) that gave a fictionalized account of some colonists at Jamestown.  I stopped reading by the end of the first page when I passed over the words citing the founding of Jamestown in 1609.  While I realize ARCs have not been scrubbed for final edits, such an error is inexcusable at any stage of the process.  If a fourth grader on the East Coast can identify the error, the author, the agent, the editor, the friends who were passed a copy, all should have identified the error early on, too.

Another stop-read novel that comes to mind came across as whiny-women-are-always-supressed-by-men victim driven drivel.  Yes, there is still discrimination of women in some situations.  No, it is not appropriate nor accurrate to blanket all men as suppressors in this decade.  While I was reading, I could hear my male former graduate school advisor, a middle-aged first-generation Indian male, screaming into the phone, “I will pay for childcare!” as it became clear I was quitting.  As a white, middle-class female, I could not connect to the “downtrodden” white, middle-class female character of the 21st century.  Sorry.

The times of reading pre-screened books is rapidly coming to an end, as I contemplate the first anonymously-tossed novel in my queue.  The temptation to critique rather than reflect is high.  I’m still not likely to write anything with the purpose of discouraging readership.  As I type, I conjure some unique exceptions including the glorification of suicide or rape.  A charismatic author crossing the line of fiction into harmful propaganda will probably get a giant red flag from me.  Here is my public health/public service announcement gene expressing itself.  What if, lacking in harmful potential, a novel is simply terrible?  I doubt I’m even going to review it. I simply don’t have that kind of time.  I have laundry to do instead.