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Book Review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book Review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley RobinsonSummary:
Imagine a world where the Black Death of the 14th century wiped out the majority of the European population, rather than one-third of it.  This is the world Robinson imagines, one where Buddhism and Islam rise as the two major religions of the world (with no religion a close third).  See the history of the world through the eyes of two souls who keep reincarnating in different cultures, struggling to better both themselves and their world that could easily have been ours.

Review:
I originally picked this book up because I have long held a fascination with the various religions of the world (I was actually a Religious Studies minor in undergrad).  The “what if” at the center of the book seemed like a great starting place to me.  Indeed, what if most of the followers of currently largest faith (Christianity, source) had died off?  What things would change and what would have stayed the same?  Robinson chooses to tell this tale through reincarnating souls, which sometimes gives us a lot of access to these changes but other times leaves the reader feeling like they got just a passing breath of a culture and a century.

I didn’t realize going into this that Robinson had chosen to tell this story through the eyes of the same souls reincarnating over and over again.  It’s an interesting choice that I am uncertain about as it lends a sort of “this much we know” to the spiritual side of the story.  We, the readers, know that the souls of people in this world definitely exist, they go to the bardo to await judgment and reincarnation.  The bardo they go to appears to reflect whatever faith they had (Muslims have their own, Buddhists have their own, etc…)  The idea is also put out there that each of the faiths is a different path to the same end (enlightenment).  Much as I may personally believe this idea, I’m not sure how I feel about this particular story being so mythology heavy.  The History BA in me very much wanted to see a more analytical power-structure play-out, which we do get some of, but not as much as we get of the how to better our souls question.  I suppose what I am trying to say is that, although I was anticipating a book that was scholarly with a dash of spiritual, what I got instead was the reverse.  That’s not a bad thing, and I still enjoyed it, but it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting, and I do wonder how the story may have played out differently if Robinson wasn’t so tied to the same souls over and over again.

One aspect of the same souls reincarnating that niggled at me a bit was that throughout history, no matter where they were born (or what gender or species), their names always started with the same letters.  So a character whose first name in the first incarnation started with the letter K always had a name that started with the letter K.  It got so I could predict who was who and, to a certain extent, how they would act in each incarnation.  On the one hand, it was a cool idea, although highly unlikely someone’s name would start with the same letter throughout time and cultures and languages.  On the other hand, it distracted me from the more interesting story of the different world developing with the rise of different cultures than actually appeared in our own history.

Similarly, I think there is far too much story and richness in this idea and timeline to limit it to one book.  There were multiple incarnations that I really wanted to know more of.  I wanted to know the whole story of these lives and this place.  Instead, the reader gets a quick glimpse into one time in their lives, and then we are left jumping ahead to the bardo to find out how they died and oh here comes the next incarnation.  Perhaps the point was to make the reader feel as if each life is only a blink, but the scholar in me was left wanting to know so much more about every area and life the book briefly visited.  It was like getting only a small morsel of each chocolate in a box of delicious chocolates, instead of getting to savor them all over a long period of time.

All of this said, let me now discuss the parts of the book I really enjoyed (and would have liked to have seen more of).  My favorite is how Robinson reimagined the Americas.  The same essential problem of real history still exists for the Native Americans even with the change of the Christians mostly dying off.  Mainly, they lacked easily sourced heavy metals to make higher-tech weapons and they were susceptible to all of the germs European explorers brought with them.  (I learned about this in my classes in US History for my BA, but my professors told me this whole idea is also presented in the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, written at a level for those who are not history scholars, if you are interested in the topic).  Robinson figures out a creative way for select tribes in North America to avoid entirely succumbing to this fate, thus allowing them to band together and become the nation Hodenosaunee.  This means that one matriarchal, communal culture survives into the 20th and 21st centuries.  (Also of note, the West Coast is colonized successfully by the Chinese, so it is also vastly different in this imagining).  I was so intrigued by the idea of a Native culture surviving and holding on to their land against invaders.  But, on the other hand, I do feel that the author cherry-picked those tribes whose values most closely aligned with his own to “save” in this imagining.  (For instance, all human sacrificing tribes still die out/are enslaved, the Plains tribes are all presented as extremely violent and thus not eligible for inclusion in this forward-thinking group).  To a certain extent, the Hodenosaunee save the rest of the world with their communal and matriarchal ideas, and that verges a bit close to the stereotype/idea that select Native American tribes were/are just simply more spiritual than the rest of us, and we could all be saved if we would just listen.  (Think of the old commercial about littering and the Native man in traditional dress crying over our hurting “Mother Earth.”)  This stereotype removes humanity from Native Americans.  Native Americans consist of diverse nations with pluses and minuses, just like every nation in the world.  If Native Americans hadn’t been decimated by invasion, persecution, and disease, their existence as a power in the world would have been much more nuanced than presented in this book simply because Native Americans are humans, and humans are flawed. Just as no culture is all bad, no culture is all good.

Robinson does a much better job painting Islam and Buddhism with a nuanced brush.  Since their cultures dominate the book, this means most of the book is much more gray area, rather than presenting everything as black and white.  One element that demonstrates this, is how Robinson handles Islam and women.  All sides of the arguments about Islam and women are presented here.  There are incarnations of the souls that are Muslim women who argue strongly that the men are misinterpreting the Quran, what Mohammed said, etc… There are of course other incarnations that say no, the extreme fundamentalism is the right interpretation.  Through showing Islam through many different lenses in a world that is different from our own, Robinson demonstrates how religion is so incredibly open to interpretation, and good and bad people can shape it to their own agendas.  One passage that I think demonstrates how well Robinson walks this line is a conversation some characters have about the women wearing the veil or not:

The veil has a kind of power, in certain situations.  All such signs stand for other things; they are sentences spoken in matter.  The hijab can say to strangers, ‘I am Islamic and in solidarity with my men, against you and all the world.’ To Islamic men it can say, ‘I will play this foolish game, this fantasy of yours, but only if in return you do everything I tell you to.’ For some men this trade, this capitulation to love, is a kind of release from the craziness of being a man.  So the veil can be like putting on a magician queen’s cape…. Or it can be like putting on a slave’s collar, certainly. (page 592)

If this passage appeals to you in how it presents the various nuances and gray areas of religion and culture, then a lot of this book will appeal to you.

One final issue with the book I will note that may turn off some readers is that out of all the many incarnations, only two are in Native American bodies (and then, they are both Native Americans in North America.  South America is completely left out for incarnations, although incarnations visit there).  Similarly, there are no incarnations to Australia, New Zealand, Central America, or any island nation anywhere (Caribbean, Pacific Islands, United Kingdom, Iceland).  There is only one incarnation where one of the souls is in an African, and that African is a slave on a Chinese slave ship who then goes to China (we thus spend very little time in Africa, just at the beginning on the slave ship).  One character in an incarnation mentions that in the past she went to Africa but the reader does not see her time there.  I definitely think that it’s a weakness that so many areas of the world are left out.  For instance, I have zero idea what happened in Australia now that it clearly was never a penal colony of the UK (since the UK never existed).  Similarly, it seems Africa would be very different with all the changes in global power, and yet the only passing mention we get of modern Africa in the later incarnations is that one of the characters visits there to fight against Female Genital Mutliation (FGM).  If so much else changed, why not in Africa?

I know it may seem like I listed out a lot of issues, but it is a very long book that tackles a huge task.  My review is almost as if I was reviewing an entire series in one fell swoop.  Each individual part had issues, as did some of the overarching ideas, but I mostly really did enjoy reading it.  It’s a fascinating thought experiment that wasn’t as well executed as it could have been, but parts of it were brilliant.  I also enjoyed the feminist themes throughout.  Men and women are both just souls, reincarnating into a woman is not a punishment.  In fact, neither gender nor race is a punishment for previous incarnations, just species.  Similarly, the more a society advances the more equal their genders and races are.  There is a lot of thought given to what it means to be a woman in various areas of the world, which could easily have been passed over or not handled well.

Overall, this is a book that tackles a huge philosophical question in a fantastical way.  It is a large task that probably would have been better suited to a series to fully flesh-out the world, the lives, and the nuances in both.  Readers interested in spiritual questions with a tendency to view all religions as different paths to the same enlightenment and a curiosity about how the world might be different with different religions in the lead will be most suited to the book.  Readers interested in a more thorough exploration of an alternate history will most likely be disappointed by the reincarnation aspect and the brief time spent in each time period and culture.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge
and
Once Upon a Time IX

Book Review: A Room with a View by E. M. Forster (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Black and white image of Italian countryside as seen through a window with the book's title and author name on it.Summary:
When Lucy Honeychurch goes to Italy, accompanied by her spinster aunt, she doesn’t want or expect much, except perhaps a room with a view.  But she meets George Emerson and his father, two socialist atheists, and they put her world in a bit of a tizzy.  That all gets left behind, though, leaving room for her to meet the man who will become her fiancee, Cecil.  Back in England, her courtship is soon interrupted by the unexpected arrival into their little town of the Emersons.

Review:
I wanted to like this book.  It sounded like an older progressive, feminist romance novel, and that’s something I can definitely get behind.  The romance, though, turned my stomach, and all of the characters left me sour.

This is a slow-moving book.  The scenes it sets are neither rich nor interesting.  I expected to feel more enveloped in Italy, akin to how I felt when reading Adriana Trigiani, but this didn’t happen.  It felt a bit like your cousin who isn’t very good at describing things is trying to tell you all about her vacation to Italy without the help of pictures.  In a book where not very much happens for at least the first 2/3 of it, this is more important of a shortcoming than it might otherwise be.

I cannot name a single character in the book I enjoyed, although Lucy’s brother at least elicited a neutral feeling from me.  They’re all about what you would expect from upper middle class British in the early 1900s.  Lucy is dull and timid. Her aunt is mean and overly concerned about appearances.  One suitor is is an upper-class prick, and the other is a supposed “bad boy,” although only in the sense that if this was a boarding school he might not tie his tie properly.  It all was so predictable and dull.  I was expecting a fiery heroine but instead I got Miss Plane Jane from down the road.

What really swayed me against the book, though, was one of the scenes we are clearly supposed to find very romantic, but which I found problematic at its most basic level.

Lucy was playing tennis with a bunch of people, and she winds up walking through the garden back toward the house with George.  George knows she is engaged to Cecil, and Lucy has expressed to him a few times that she is not interested in pursuing a relationship with him.  He grabs her, at which point the following happens:

“No–” she gasped, and, for the second time, was kissed by him. (page 174)

This is the second time, because the first kiss was a mutual one that happened in Italy many months prior.  So what happens is that George grabs her without asking, knowing she is uninterested and engaged to another man, she tells him no, and he proceeds to kiss her anyway.  This sexual assault is supposed to endear George to us!!! It is incredibly offensive, and I was so turned off I wanted to stop reading.  I didn’t so I could write an honest review for you all, but honestly the entire rest of the book was soured for me because we are expected to root for Lucy to estrange herself from her friends and family to marry a man who clearly shows zero respect for her as a person, a man who has sexually assaulted her.  How is that a romance? Putting forward stories like this as the desired norm, as a couple who are deeply in love and should be looked up to and aspired for, isn’t good for anyone reading these books.  Relationships and romance should be based on mutual trust and respect.  It’s ok for a person to make a mistake.  We’re all human.  But these mistakes should be acknowledged as mistakes and apologized for, never to be done again.  Not held up as the romantic actions of a person in love.

This reads as a mid-range, late 1800s style British romance, in spite of being published in the early 1900s.  I could see this being for someone else who enjoys that style more than I do, but I cannot in good faith recommend it when the romantic hero of the book sexually assaults the heroine, and we are supposed to root for him to win her heart.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: won from a book blog

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Book Review: Across the Table / Dancing on Sunday Afternoons by Linda Cardillo (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

Image of a restaurant.Summary:
This book actually consists of two different books packaged together into one. They are both standalones, not in a series together.

Across the Table
Follow three generations of an Italian-American Boston family, starting with Rose, who marries a navy seaman right before WWII breaks out.  The family ultimately buys a restaurant on Salem Street in the historic North End, and food and the family business both help keep the family together through trials and heart-aches.

Dancing on Sunday Afternoons
Cara goes to care for her grandmother, Giulia, who has fallen and broken her hip on a visit back to the old country of Italy.  While visiting her, Giulia reveals to her the story of her first love who died when Cara’s father was just a baby.

Review:
This book made it onto my tbr pile because I found it on trash day on top of a neighbor’s recycling pile.  It was one of those cases where obviously someone had given up actually packing for their move and was just chucking it all.  The book was in pristine condition, so I yoinked it away (along with two others).  Shocker: when I opened this to read it, I discovered that it’s signed by the author.  I also didn’t realize until I started reading it that there’s actually two totally separate books in it.  The cover only says the first title and mentions a bonus book in rather small type.  So this one was full of surprises!

Across the Table
This story is based on the author’s family history, and you can honestly tell. It’s full of so much heart and reality.  It’s not your typical romance or women’s fiction. The family felt entirely real, and you could understand why they made the choices they did, even if you wouldn’t have done the same thing.  I found Rose by far to be the most interesting, but that’s not really a surprise. I’ve always had a thing for the 1940s, and her life in that decade was simultaneously unique and typical.  She spent a couple of years before the war on a tropical island (whose name I cannot remember, I apologize) with her husband.  It all felt very South Pacific, but she states that spending this time there gave her and her husband a solid base for the rest of their lives together. They had to really depend on each other.  She also said that living there made her question the racism she was raised in and ultimately stop her racist thoughts and actions.  They were never extreme, just that avoidance of people visibly different from you that you sometimes see.  I also loved that the story is based to solidly in Boston. Cardillo obviously grew up here or visited family a lot here, since she understands simple things like how it takes an hour at least to get from the North End to Cambridge, or how different one side of the river is from the other.  The family business and food aspects were also perfectly handled. Just enough to set the atmosphere but not so heavy-handed you wonder if the author forgot about the relationships at the heart of the story.  There’s also a nice touch of an uncle/brother/son who is gay, and his Catholic family’s reaction to this is a positive, refreshing change.  Perhaps even more so since the reader knows the story is based on a real family.  Overall, I absolutely loved this book. It had everything I like in both historic and women’s fiction.
5 out of 5 stars

Dancing on Sunday Afternoons
In contrast, this book was far more tedious and full of cliches and….well basically everything that I don’t like about historic and women’s fiction. Giulia’s immigration story and her family are not particularly easy to empathize with.  Her family is incredibly wealthy in Italy, and everyone worries more about appearances than about actually doing the right thing.  Even Giulia’s rebellion of marrying the man she wants to marry isn’t all that admirable. She only does it ultimately with the family’s blessing, and her reaction when her husband dies is appalling. (This is not a spoiler. You learn in the first chapter that Giulia’s first husband died).  I know that old families really could be like this, but I guess it made less sense being told this way since Giulia was telling the story to her modern granddaughter. I didn’t see any wisdom of age coming through in the telling. I know when my older family members tell me something from their youth, they also discuss what they learned from it. They try to impart some wisdom on me so I don’t make similar mistakes or so that I’m willing to take similar risks.  Giulia’s story just doesn’t feel like an elderly person relating to a young family member. I suppose if you really love historic, clean romance novels, you might enjoy this one more than I did. Personally I need this genre to have something extra to really grab me.
3 out of 5 stars

Overall, then, I must average the two books out.  I loved the first, but felt that I was not the target audience for the second.  It is worth noting that the second was actually Cardillo’s first novel, so her second book was a big improvement.  I’ll be keeping my eye on this author, particularly for more work set in Boston.  As far as recommendations go, I recommend these books to fans of historic fiction with a focus on romance and women’s personal lives.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: recycling bin

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