Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm

where lateI must have been 17 when I first read this book.  Always a precocious reader I took a class in science fiction/fantasy at the local junior college back before we had AP classes in high schools.  Once a week, my friend and I drove 20 miles to Hayward, California, the nearest junior college at the time, where we spent the evening discussing books like Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, which blew us both away back in the day.

Re-reading a book like that, decades later, can make one anxious.  Just how well will it hold up?

I’m pleased to say that Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang held up very well.  The story is set in a not too distant future, when various things have worked to render the human race infertile.  The only hope for our survival is reproduction through cloning.  But the clones all begin to break down after the fourth generation, and  they don’t act quite human.

The book is divided into two sections, the first dealing with the decline and fall of humanity.  The story is entertaining on its own as we follow David, a scientist who moves to a remote laboratory complex where he works on the initial stages of the cloning project.  The book raises lots of questions about the value of  individuality versus the value of community.  Here David talks to one of the clones just before the clones take over:

“Remember when one of your women killed one of us a long time ago, David? Hilda murdered the child of her likeness.  We all shared that death, and we realized that each of you is alone.  We’re not like you, David.  I think you know it, but now you must accept it.” He stood up.  “And we won’t go back to what you are.”

David stood up also, and his legs felt curiously weak.  “What exactly do you mean?”

“Sexual reproduction isn’t the only answer.  Just because the higher organisms evolved to it doesn’t mean it’s the best.  Each time a species has died out, there has been another higher one to replace it.”

“Cloning is one of the worst ways for a higher species,” David said slowly.  “It stifles diversity, you know that.”

“That’s assuming diversity is beneficial. Perhaps it isn’t,” W-1 said. “You pay a high price for individuality.”

This is one of the few times in the book when the plot slows to discuss issues.  For the most part, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang moves along like most plot driven novels, though the second part of the book is much more character based.

The second part takes place several generations later when a fertile clone manages to reproduce sexually, something that has become both very difficult and against the law.  She keeps her son separate from the community and attempts to raise him as a fully human individual.  After they are discovered, she is forced to flee and the boy is raised by the community of clones.

By this time, it has become clear that the clones will not survive unless they move to a new location and  go back to reproducing sexually, become individual again.  They have used up their supplies, and they lack the individuality needed to come up with new solutions.  Clones can only do what their ‘parent’ taught them to do.  They cannot innovate.  The boy, Ben, is the only one left who can still think on his feet, like an individual, so he is the only who can lead the rest of the community to a new life.

It’s a great story, full of interesting ideas and questions that are still relevant today.  And I was delighted to find a lot of darn good writing in it, too.  I’ll be keeping this one around and may very well end up reading it again in a couple of decades.

 

 

Posted in Book Review, Classic, Fiction, Science Fiction | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

It’s March 1st, TBR Double Dog Dare – Just One Month to Go!

Are you still with us?

There is just one month left in the TBR Double Dog Dare.  I think once you’ve made it through February, the TBR Double Dog Dare gets a bit easier, right up until the very last week.

The very last week is tough.

Since we’re nearing the end, I thought I’d run a check-in post today, just to see how everyone is doing.  I have bought some books.  The evil souls at Vintage released new editions of Hemingway’s works with these fabulous covers this week.  When I wondered into Bell’s Books done in Palo Alto Friday and saw them on the front table, how could I resist.

I couldn’t, of course, but I won’t be reading them anytime soon.  Remember the TBR Double Dog Dare is not a book buying ban.    I bought the two pictured here and have put them in a little stack of books that will go on my TBR shelves after the Double Dog Dare is over.  I should end up with a net reduction of 8 to 10 titles by the end of March.

I have found a couple of gems hidden in my TBR shelves this week. One is an old favorite, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm.  This is one I read way back in high school and was very taken with.  I’ve always intended to reread it.  Now, almost 40 years later, I have.  I’m pleased to say that it held up very well.  I’ll be reviewing it later this week.

I also found a fascinating book about Pope Celestine V called The Pope Who Quit.  This is a true account of the 13th century pope who resigned from office after only 15 weeks.  It’s quite a story, not what I expected at all either.

So how has the TBR Double Dog Dare gone for you so far?  Find any treasure?  Buy anything you’re now desperate to read?

As an aside, I’m thinking we need some sort of name for ourselves.  TBR Double Darrens?  Double Doggers?  DDD’s? Double D’s?  Any ideas?

Enjoy the last month of the TBR Double Dog Dare.  Here’s hoping you find something wonder has been right under you nose all along.

Posted in Ramble | Tagged | 27 Comments

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Several years ago a Japanese movie called Battle Royale created some controversy both when it opened in Japan and then again at art houses in the United States. Battle Royale, based on the manga series of the same name, took place in a alternate Japan where an annual competition glued everyone in the country to their television sets. The competition featured one class of graduating middle school students, chosen at random, who were flown to a secured island camp, given weapons, and told to kill each other until only one student remained. That student would be lauded with prizes and made a national hero. To ensure a competitive game, the students had explosive rings placed around their necks which would go off if they didn’t make enough of an effort.

Battle Royale really is an over-the-top gore fest, but it also makes a point about the competitive nature of Japanese society and the pressure to excel that is placed on Japanese students. There’s a reason why the suicide rate in Japan is so high.

In her novel The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins takes this basic idea and cleans it up enough to avoid the controversy that stalked Battle Royale and to safely market it to the younger ends of the YA spectrum. In spite of it’s horrifying theme, there are only a few moments of PG, maybe PG-13, violence in The Hunger Games. This is a Scholastic book, after all.

The setting for The Hunger Games is the distant future. North America has become a wasteland, devastated by years of war and famine which have left the continent divided into 12 districts. The central ones were the victors, and they control the outlying districts through an oppressive system based on continual famine. Katnis, aged sixteen, lives with her healer mother and her 12-year-old sister. She has done all she can to make sure her family has food to eat including hunting in quarantined zones others are afraid to enter and accepting extra rations handed out by the government. These extra rations come at a steep price. Each year, beginning at age 12, the name of every child is entered into the drawing for The Hunger Games. At age 16, Katnis’s name would have been entered four times, even without the extra rations. But each time she took the rations, her name was entered in once more.

The Hunger Games are a nationally televised event, shown on large screens in the town square in District 12 where Katnis lives. One boy and one girl are selected at random to compete. They are taken to the capital city in District 1, feted as national heroes before they are thrown, unarmed, into the Hunger Games playing field. Once there, they must fight first for weapons, then each other until only one remains.

Lately, The Hunger Games has been getting a lot of play on several of the book blogs I read so I came to it with high expectations. It largely delivers the goods. The story is compelling, the characters are real characters with much more than the standard cookie-cutter backgrounds you’ll find in similar novels. The workings of the Hunger Games are described in enough detail to always be interesting and believable in the context of the future Ms. Collins has created. The contestants in The Hunger Games do not know each other ahead of time, except for Katnis and Peeta the boy chosen from district 12, which makes the premise a little easier to take than it was in Battle Royale where the students had all spent many years together. The violence in The Hunger Games is also much easier to take. There are no shocking scenes of graphic death in The Hunger Games. In fact, almost all of the deaths occur off-stage, out of sight of Katnis, our first person narrator.

All of which puts me in the uncomfortable position of preferring the more violent story, the one I hesitated to admit I’ve seen when I started writing this review. Battle Royale shocked and offended the viewer, but shouldn’t a story like that shock and offend? Friends forced to turn against each other to fight to the death makes an emotional impact on the viewer and offers a comment on a system that pits students against each other in academic settings. The deaths, with one or two exceptions, fail to move the reader in The Hunger Games. Through a series of rule changes, that almost feel like cheating on the author’s part, the main characters fall in love and then escape having to fight each other to the death. The resulting novel is entertaining, and will probably be very popular, but it fails to say much of anything about our times.

And then, in the end, I found out that The Hunger Games is the first part of a trilogy. I hate when that happens. But, I’m sure, many of the younger readers The Hunger Games was written for will be happy to hear that volumes two and three are on their way.

Some reviews by people who liked The Hunger Games more than I did:

I seem to stand alone in my lukewarm reaction to The Hunger Games. But that’s okay. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think and please feel free to leave a link to your own review, whether you liked it or not.

 

It’s kind of fun to read this old review which first ran on my previous blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in 2009 just about a day or two before The Hunger Games became household words.  I certainly would not write the same review were I writing a new review today.  Now that everyone in the world knows the story so well.  I do, however, stand by my lukewarm reaction to the book. 

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Fantasy, Fiction, Novel, Science Fiction, Young Adult | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

Two Visions of Blindness by Jose Saramago

This week Sandy Nawrot of You’ve GOTTA Read This announced her retirement from book blogging to pursue other  interests.  Sandy found my blog back when she first started, said hello and then found herself involved in a bunch of crazy little projects.  So to celebrate her retirement, I thought I’d run one of our collaborations, this one done for Book Blogger Appreciation Week back in 2009. 

I wanted to do something out of the ordinary for Book Blogger Appreciation Week. Sandy Nawrot of You’ve GOTTA Read this has done several guest posts for Ready When You Are, C.B. over the past year.  I’ve done one for her blog as well. So I suggested we try doing a tandem book review. We each read Blindness by Jose Saramago, since it was on both of our TBR shelves anyway, and had an email discussion about the book which we immediately compared to the recent film adaptation. The book conversation is below, the movie conversation is over at Sandy’s site. Both published today at the exact same time in celebration of Book Bloggers Appreciation Week.

James: Let’s start with the source of the blindness. It starts mysteriously and seems to spread like a virus from one person to another. Saramago never tells us where it comes from; the characters in the book don’t know either. I guess a religious person might see it as a punishment from God, but I don’t remember this line of reasoning discussed in the book. Mass blindness is not an unusual idea, almost everyone on earth goes blind in John Wyndham’s The Day of The Triffids for example and I just know this happened on Start Trek at least once.

Saramago is more interested in how universal blindness affects the world than he is in what caused it or in how to cure it. It’s very similar to P.D. James’s novel The Children of Men which looks at what the world would be like if no one had anymore children. But Blindness is a story of individual survival. How could the individual survive in a world gone blind? He can’t. So how will the characters adapt to a situation with no happy ending possible? How long can they remain civil? These are the questions I think Saramago is interested in exploring. He does not appear to have a high opinion of civilized man.

Sandy: I must admit, I like explanations, but wasn’t going to get any with this story. To me, it had a definite feel of Stephen King. Sort of a supernatural, you’re-not-meant-to-understand-so-just-go-with-it kind of plot. Personally, though? To satisfy my need for answers, I am choosing to believe that this is a warning, or lesson from God. Like the flood. A comment is made later in the book (I can’t seem to find the quote), a realization, that when they COULD see, they were still blind – they saw without seeing. It implies that there are lessons to be learned from the sins of the past. The jury is out on whether they will move forward and actually learn from their mistakes or not. What do you think? 

This also brings up the question…why did one woman NOT lose her sight? Am I not meant to have an answer for that one either? Is she supposed to bear witness, and use it to lead the masses down a higher path? 

You are absolutely right, we see first-hand what Saramago thinks of man, and it isn’t good. What the blindness does is strip away all the layers of decency and dignity and reduce us to animals, fighting to survive. I found myself thoroughly horrified at how quickly everything disintegrated. The infected immediately abandoned hygiene and modesty, and the strong (aka the ones with the weapons) take what they want and dominate the weak. I imagine it wasn’t so different back in the stone age. It causes me to look inward, and ask myself a few questions. Would I maintain my dignity in this scenario? If I were forced to choose between eating and succumbing to the criminals, what would I do? Would I have the courage to fight back?

James: You raise two good points here: what is the moral purpose of the blindness epidemic and how would the reader behave in this situation? The two are closely tied. Once the blindness epidemic is over, the survivors will have to face what they did to survive. There’s going to be a lot of survivor guilt.

While reading Blindness, especially the section in the hospital, I kept thinking back to Viktor Frankel’s book Man’s Search For Meaning. The way the concentration camps were run is reflected in the way the hospital culture developed. In the camps, a select group of prisoners were put in charge of everyone else and ruled through brute force. Frankel describes them as often more vicious than the actual guards were. In their defense, the capos did what they thought they had to do in order to survive. The thugs who rule the hospital where the blind are quarantined do the same, they become much more vicious than the capos ever did, but they are trying to survive, too. Reader’s can’t help but wonder what they would do in this situation. Would they cause others to suffer in order to ensure their own survival?

Frankel described people in the concentration camps who acted selflessly and generously towards other prisoner in his book. In Blindness there is a core group of characters who look out for each other and the doctor’s wife who can see but chooses to go with her husband. She has historic parallels with the concentration camps as well; there were people who chose to follow their loved ones to the camps.

I can see the first part of Blindness as an allegory for the concentration camps. The hospital becomes more like a camp as time passes and more and more people are imprisoned there. Things change in the second half when the hospital burns down. Instead of becoming free like the camp survivors did, the blind patients enter a larger prison/world.

Sandy: You know, when I spoke of the people in charge with the weapons, I wasn’t even thinking of the guards. You are right, they were just doing their jobs, albeit a little trigger-happy. I am actually hung up on the thugs. I find it interesting, almost like observing an experiment, how in just about any stressful or chaotic situation, the most brutal rise to the top and assert themselves. I’d like to say it is survival of the fittest, but I’m not sure I like that thought. I can’t seem to get past the idea of having sex with vulgar, stinky thugs for food. While my husband would stand by and say that I would probably do anything for food, I’m not sure I would do THAT. Unless my kids were starving. 

I like your parallel to concentration camps, which is basically what we have in the first half of the story. You probably also remember from Man’s Search for Meaning that when camp victims were eventually liberated, they had severe difficulties in adapting to the free world. The victims became angry and lashed out at the injustice of their imprisonment, plus, as you said, they have survivor’s guilt. So I maintain that if we were allowed to expand on a sequel to Blindness, we would see a lot of really serious dysfunction and chaos. If it was God trying to prove a point, I don’t think the point would be well-taken and lessons not learned. 

On a different subject, I wanted to bring up the topic of the prose in this novel. Very different, huh? Sort of stream of consciousness, almost like Cormac MacCarthy. I bet Saramago’s middle school literature teacher is rolling over in his or her grave. It was hard to read at first, but I became so engrossed in the horror of the story, I stopped noticing the quirky, run-on sentences and entwined dialogue.

James: It’s hard for me to judge the prose since I’m reading the book in translation. I’m just going to assume that it is a faithful translation, but the book is better in the original, and say what I want to say. After a short while I got used to the prose, the way Saramago intertwines the dialogue with the narrative without using standard punctuation and line breaks. But to be honest I don’t think it added to my reading experience. I felt he used too many literary devices when just telling the story would have done the job. Why make things harder on your readers; the book’s material must send enough people heading for the hills as it is. I didn’t like the fact that the characters are unnamed either. It just defied logic a little too much for me. In a world full of blind people knowing each others names will probably come in pretty handy. And that so many of the core group is identified by eyes–the eye-doctor, the girl with dark glasses, the man with the eye-patch–struck me as a little precious. This also leaves the only sighted person being identified as “the doctor’s wife” which got on my nerves. Why can’t the doctor be “the seeing woman’s husband”? I read the first page of the new sequel, Seeing, in the back of my edition. The dog of tears has a name, but she’s still “the doctor’s wife.”

Sandy: See, while the twisted, intermingled sentences were different and required some brain-tweaks, I thought it DID add to the book. To me, it made me FEEL the chaos. It implied that people were talking over each other, in a rush of panic and confusion, which I imagine would be pretty close to reality. I guess I did not view it as a literary device. What I DID see as a hokey device was the lack of names. I understand the author is trying to emphasize that when you are blind, names aren’t important, but like you said, the references (the boy with the squint, the girl with the dark glasses) required sight to identify. So unless you were the doctor’s wife, it made no sense at all. It didn’t bother me so much, it just didn’t add. 

Overall, this was an intense, disturbing but satisfying read for me. I generally don’t like gentle or predictable, and this was far from that. I’m a student of Stephen King, which has prepared me to embrace the cataclysmic collapse of society and dignity of mankind in literature. I like to have my nose rubbed in the fact that we are precariously balancing between civilized and animal behavior. It keeps me humble! Out of five stars, I’d give it a 4.5.

James: You make a very good point about feeling the chaos because of the prose style. And I guess it would be harder to identify who is talking if everyone was blind, the lack of standard punctuation does bring that home. I’ve read more Stephen King novels than an English Major should probably admit, too, which made reading Blindness easier for me than it probably is for many readers. That raises another set of issues for me: why does a book like this one help give an author a Nobel Prize for literature while a book like The Stand does not. (I would not rank The Stand as among Stephen King’s best work, by the way.) If forced to, I would say blindness is better than The Stand, but I would not give it a five out of five. I’m going to go with four out of five. I used to teach 5th grade math which includes fractions and decimals; I now avoid them whenever possible.

 

Too often, when someone retires from book blogging it’s viewed as kind of a defeat even by the person who is retiring.  I think this is wrong  of us.    We should celebrate  our career in book blogging the way we would a “real life” career.   In her time Sandy became one of the better known book bloggers, one who touched and inspired many readers.  I have quite a few little projects at my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., that I’ll be moving over here as time goes one.  Each one of them terrific.  She was always fun to work with.  Sandy, I had a blast, especially with those little animated debates.

So I raise my glass, ‘Lunatic’ red wine just 4.99 at Grocery Outlet, and salute a job well done.  Didn’t we sound smart in this review and don’t we look cute in those pictures from 2009. ;-)

Posted in Book Review, Classic, European Literature, Fantasy, Fiction, Novel, Portugese Literature, Science Fiction, Translation | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Bleedout by Joan Brady

Joan Brady, the only American author to ever win the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, wrote one of my all-time favorite novels Theory of War. I had the good fortune to stumble upon Theory of War on the remainder table at A Clean Well-Lighted Place for Books in San Francisco well over 20 years ago, long before there were such things as book blogs. Ever since then, I’ve looked for more by her but never found any. I concluded she was a one-book-wonder, because Theory of War truly is a wonder. But last year her name started popping up on the blogs I read. It turns out she has been writing, slowly but steadily, since Theory of War found its way into my hands. She has moved to England, run into some trouble with her local council which took up much of her time, had a difficult bout of ill health which took up more time and started writing mystery thrillers to pay the bills. Her name made it into the book blogs because there was some controversy over whether or not she said mystery novels were easier to write than literary novels. She says she did not.

Theory of War is a complicated novel, both in subject matter and style. The story of a white boy sold into slavery in the American west at the end of the 19th century, it uses multiple narrators to describe how familial violence can affect several generations of one family. Ms. Brady demonstrated mastery of the writer’s craft in Theory of War and did not put her tools away when she turned to writing mystery/thrillers. Bleedout is a very literary thriller.

Bleedout has two narratives. The first is narrated by Hugh Freyl, successful lawyer, blind man, murder victim. Like the narrator in a film noir movie he tells the reader how he came to be killed, we suspect by the young man David Marion whom he once fought to have released from prison. The second narrative is the third person account of how David investigates the murder he is accused of in order to find the real killer. The book goes back and forth between the two building tension as each narrative moves towards its own climax.

Hugh tells us how he and his assistant Stephanie fought for years to find the truth behind David’s crime and the punishment he received. David, the product of many bad foster homes, ended up in prison convicted of beating his foster father and brother to death in the garage where they all worked. But was the then sixteen-year-old David forced to confess by abusive police officers. Why did he do what he did? Why did he never try to appeal his sentence? We know at the outset that Hugh and Stephanie were able to win David’s release from prison, but we don’t know if this was a fatal mistake, one that led to Hugh’s own murder.

David is the dispassionate hero of his own narrative. Once his alibi for Hugh’s murder is established, Hugh’s mother hires him to find the real killers. She does not think he is some sort of undiscovered great talent as a detective, but she believes he has it in him to kill her son’s murderers once he’s found them. That’s all she really wants. She does not know that David’s alibi is phoney, either. David soon finds that all was not what it seemed to be at Hugh’s law firm. Readers of noirish detective thrillers expect the plot to become more and more complicated before the end is reached and it certainly does here. The corruption going on at Hugh’s firm reaches into the police department, the governor’s mansion, the Supreme Court, and to one presidential candidate.

I’ll not give away the ending expect to say that most murder victims are killed by someone they know. The ending really should not have been the surprise it was.

Happily for me, Joan Brady has several other novels, some mysteries one not, that I’ve yet to get my hands on. Hopefully, now that her health has improved and the difficulties with the local council have been settled, she will write many more.

 

In the years since I first published this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B, back in 2009, I have completely forgotten this book.   My review does make me think I would like it, and I know I loved Theory  of War, so maybe once the TBR Double Dare is over a trip to the library is in order.

Posted in American Fiction, Book Review, Classic, English Literature, Fiction, Noir, Novel, Thriller | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment