Friday, September 20, 2013

Book review: Try the Morgue by Eva Maria Staal

Goodreads: “Ten years ago, “Eva Maria Staal” kept a gun in her purse. It was a present from her boss, Jimmy Liu, the international arms dealer extraordinaire with a taste for high-class male escorts. Together, Jimmy and his devoted assistant traveled the world’s most dangerous hotspots, closing deals with ruthless warlords and corrupt generals, and trading Stinger missiles in Karachi, AK-47s in Chechnya, and hollow-point bullets in Islamabad. But burdened by her conscience, Eva Maria finally got out, married an optometrist, and had a baby. Now, assailed with memories of her secret life, she must reconcile her suburban present with a repressed but ineradicable past, one that blasts a hole so deep she doesn’t know how to love her own daughter. Writing with a knowing intelligence only an insider could provide, this pseudonymous author has created a debut with remarkable intensity that examines the razor-thin line separating those who are drowned from those who are saved.”
This was a gripping, intense book that I am not sure how to classify. It’s probably fict-ish, a mostly-memoir with creative license. The shocking, blase nature of the global underground arms trade is laid bare, and it’s horrifying and mesmerizing.

I can’t really critique the story (not that I would, because I enjoyed it) since it seems so based in truth and experience. I do wish, though, that I had a little more insight into the author/narrator’s motives. The novel starts in media res and outside of what seems like a loyalty (or just obligation?) to her boss, I never got a great idea of how Staal found herself in the arms trade or what was really keeping her there. Staal must have expected a curiosity, not only about the trade, but also about the people in it, so the dispassionate way she wrote can be a bit unsatisfying — we want to know what drives someone like her to such amoral, destructive work.

The only other criticism I have is regarding the linearity — I have no preference for a linear timeline at all, but if one is going to jump about, it should be pretty clear where in the narrative we are at any given point. In this book, there were definitely chapter openings where I wasn’t certain when the conversation was taking place or who she was referencing. When this happened it does eventually become clear, but I was caught flipping pages a bit to try to catch on. Overall, this was a very quick and fascinating read on a topic I know very little about. I’d love to know more about the author’s story and in a way wish this book were longer, but it seems she shared about as much as she was willing to so I have to accept what I got.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

I dub thee

By my fifth year working in a lab, I was fairly jaded about the amount of excitement one could get up to. The New Thing that happened yesterday wasn't strictly lab-related, but I doubt I would have gotten this opportunity had I not been working in a lab.

We have an exchange student from a medical school in China. We introduced ourselves to each other yesterday, and I asked her how she would prefer to be addressed, since I'd heard about three different names from three different people in reference to her. "Oh," she said. "I don't have an English name yet. We can choose one -- how about Sophie?"

I sputtered.

"Oh, you don't like it?" She asked.

"No, it's not that!" I said. "I just don't know if I should pick your name! You don't even need an English name, if you don't want. Whatever name you want to use is fine!"

"What about Amy?"

"Amy is nice!" I finally said, bemused.

Afterwards, she gave me a really awesome dragon pendant and expressed surprise that my boss/mentor communicates through text, since apparently that is too casual of an interaction to warrant a response in her experience.

This is going to be my first experience working so closely with an exchange student, and I already know I am going to learn a lot.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Book review: Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Goodreads summary: “On a cold and snowy night in 1910, Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. Sadly, she dies before she can draw her first breath. On that same cold and snowy night, Ursula Todd is born, lets out a lusty wail, and embarks upon a life that will be, to say the least, unusual. For as she grows, she also dies, repeatedly, in any number of ways. Clearly history (and Kate Atkinson) have plans for her: In Ursula rests nothing less than the fate of civilization.”
Life After Life is a fascinating conceptual novel, the potential of which I am not sure was ever fully realized. In many ways, it comes across as a refurbished and more bombastic “Groundhog Day”: more historically captivating (WWII setting) and with the chance to observe Ursula Todd throughout her life as opposed to on just one day, we feel like there is more at stake, but the same basic conceit of being able to re-do your life until you get it right applies.

Ursula, here, doesn’t exactly know that she is re-living her life. She does have premonitions and sometimes strong feelings that she needs to take some kind of decisive action in order to prevent something that feels instinctively bad, which is a clever choice by the author because it keeps the novel grounded in reality despite the somewhat fantastical premise. By connecting Ursula’s “multiple lives” to her intuition and a sense of deja vu, rather than an exact knowledge that she has lived that life before, Atkinson plays on the reader’s questions about life and existence — what does it mean when we get deja vu or that intangible, yet powerful, feeling that something is amiss?

There are some parts of this novel that are extremely difficult to read. I don’t want to get into specifics as they will probably constitute spoilers, but some versions of Ursula’s life are depressing, and others are deeply uncomfortable in different ways. There is one specific version that I found to be incredibly problematic, but again, I can’t really discuss it without giving away a major event. What I will try to say, as cryptically as possible, is that in a story like this, there is the implication that Urusla, or whatever protagonist, is responsible for the outcome by the choices they make. There are some outcomes here that Ursula had absolutely zero control over, but the way the narrative develops suggests that she did, and I found those particular threads to be kind of presumptuous at best and offensive at worst.

Otherwise, the overall story was very engaging and the prose lyrical and tight. It was sometimes hard to tell when one life was ending and a new one beginning, but there is a pattern to the chapters to help make it more clear. At the end, despite being harrowing at times and problematic at others, I really enjoyed this book and would recommend it. I have seen some reviews with proclamations that this book may be some kind of manual or have a moral message; I wouldn’t go that far. When you look at the choices that led Ursula to her happiest life, they weren’t necessarily the most enlightened or selfless, but they did make the most sense. Maybe that’s what the message is, then: have some common sense.