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WE: A New Translation by Yevgeny Zamyatin (translated by Bela Shayevich)

Some words are worth repeating. If repeated enough and over an elongated amount of time, these words might even be worth refining, reshaping, and repurposing for a new age and for a new context. In Bela Shayevich’s new translation of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s classic dystopian, WE, words have undoubtedly been refined, given a new shape and purpose, and in some cases, just flat out repeated.

This latest translation of a science fiction standard is both refreshing and brilliant. It is refreshing in that it revitalizes a work of literature that was written over a century ago in a foreign tongue–between the years of 1920 and 1921 in the midst of the Russian Civil War–by using contemporary English prose that is both captivating and thought provoking. It is brilliant in that it uses said prose to bewitch the postmodern reader into believing that this work was written for them. Detach Zamyatin’s name and context from this work, and remove the hundred year gap between today and the work’s original audience, and one is left with a beautifully written novel about the perils of totalitarian authorities, the dystopian reality of a utopic vision, and the consequence of dissent. Shayevich’s translation is written for “us,” or for the “we” of today.

That said, not even a snake could writhe or contort out of Zamyatin’s contextualized grip on this work; and rightfully so, as WE was written for, to, and in a very specific time and context. While the idea of disassociating this work from its proper context in order to reveal the timelessness of its themes and meanings is enticing, it is also somewhat futile. For, the contextual background surrounding the composition and publication history of this novel is part of what makes this work so intriguing and impactful. Written in the throes of the Russian Revolution, Zamyatin and his works were suppressed by Soviet authorities. Though the novel was completed in 1921, it wasn’t published until 1924; and that publication was an English translation of Zamyatin’s work. After its original completion, WE became the first banned book by the Soviet censorship board. A Russian edition of the book wasn’t formally published in the Soviet Union until 1988–fifty one years after the author’s death. Thus, while a primary thread in the novel’s plot deals with chains of events caused by a dissident’s actions, this novel’s fictionalized happenings serve as a metanarrative of Zamyatin’s real-life circumstances, as the consequences of his actions mirror the themes of suppression and “unfreedom” described in the novel.

Shayevich’s translation is bolstered by a well written introduction by Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, whereby she eloquently situates this novel within its historical and literary context. Add the two essays that are tacked on to the back end of this new translation, and one is in for a rather enjoyable read. The first essay is a review of Zamyatin’s original work, written by George Orwell, the author of 1984. The second essay imagines Zamyatin as his own primary protagonist fending off the forces of Stalinsim. This essay was written by famed sci-fi and fantasy writer, Ursula K. Le Guin. These three reading materials are treasures in their own right. Place a genre defining work of art in the middle of them, and one is in for a real treat.

The primary protagonist of Zamyatin’s WE is D-503. Born within a world whereby individuality is a criminal offense and “unfreedom” is the ultimate goal of existence, D-503 is an exemplary cog in the autocratic machine he serves. In this state of being–known as the One State–rationality reigns supreme. While detailing the mathematical calculations involved in designing the One State’s “table of sex days”–a scheduled hour of time whereby each member of society is allowed to engage in intercourse with an assigned member of the oppsite gender–D-503 suggests that “[f]rom this, you can see how the powerful force of logic purifies everything that it touches. Oh, if only you, unknown readers, could also come into the light of this sacred force, if only you could also learn to follow it to its conclusion.”

Detailed through a series of log entries, D-503 acts as the story’s narrator while he describes the completion of the INTEGRAL, a massive ship that will be used to transport the message of the One State to the far reaches of outer space. Serving as one of the builders in charge of mathematics for this project, D-503 makes use of every opportunity given to explain the One State’s superiority over all other civilizations. Beginning with the One State’s decimation of all but .2 percent of the world’s population, thus putting an end to the the infamous Two Hundred Years War, and ending with his extremely personal struggle between the superiority of cognitive freedom and the allure of human emotions, D-503 paints a vivid picture of what it is like to serve the One State.

Throughout his story, readers surmise the impact that this fictional society has upon its individuals, even when said society is attempting to squeeze individuality out of its members. In D-503’s logs, readers encounter the ever present eyes and ears of the Benefactor–the One State’s all powerful, supreme ruler. This omnipresent awareness of the Benefactor is aided by the One State’s civic infrastructure. All of the buildings in this society, with very few exceptions, are made entirely of glass. Blinds are placed within living quarters, but are prohibited from use outside of “the sex times” mentioned above. Additionally, citizens are subjected to forced curfews and are only allowed to deviate from their “table of hours”–a detailed schedule that all citizens must follow–if given permission via a government appointed doctor.

At the start of his log entries, D-503 is paired with O-90, his appointed female counterpart who is just as happy with her place in society as he is. “O,” as he affectionately calls her, is registered as a non-child bearing female due to her being “10 centimeters shorter than the required Maternal Norm.” D-503 and O-90 are paired together due to logic and rationality. This is a stark contrast to D-503’s relationship with a woman he is introduced to early on his logs, I-330. The inconsistent emotions and lack of logical, calculated awareness D-503 displays whilst in I-330’s company produces the conflict needed to make this story work. While “O” is a conformed member of society throughout most of the novel, “I” is rebellious and serves as the primary instigator of dissent within “D-503’s” world.

As D-503 and his companions discover secret truths concerning the One State and the mysterious Green Wall that marks its borders, a seed of revolt begins to grow within. The budding of this seed, coupled with some engaging translation work on Shayevich’s part, provides the readers with an engaging and well developed story. However, be fair warned. This is classic science fiction. Ideological and philosophical musings are laced throughout D-503’s log entries. Thus, if one finds Asimov’s Foundation series off-putting, this might not be the book for them. Yet, if one is into classic dystopian tropes and storylines, this story might be the perfect fit, as it serves as one of the primary forbearers of such tropes and storylines, alongside Jack London’s The Iron Heel.

For those interested, this fantastic new translation is located in the New Fiction section of the Joplin Public Library.

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The Starless Crown by James Rollins

James Rollins has a bit of a reputation. The dude’s been writing action-adventure novels since the late 90’s–some of which you might have even heard of (think, Subterranean or the novel adaptation of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull). His Sigma Force series establishes him as a bonafide “master of the [thriller] genre” (according to BOOKLIST). Labeled by many as Michael Crichton’s “heir apparent” to the techno-thriller throne, Rollins has made quite the career of writing science-based, suspense-laden tales of mystery and reveal. Yet, thine truth easily forgotten is the tale of how this thriller-king forged his path into the literary realm (note: that was a bit of foreshadowing, not just an awkwardly phrased, archaic rhetoric of sorts). About a year before Subterranean hit the presses, Rollins published his first novel, Wit’ch Fire, under the pen name, James Clemens (which adds another layer of interest and mystery, as Rollins is a pseudonym as well). This was the first of a series, The Banned and the Banished. Now if the suspense is killing you (ba-dum-ching), I’ll go ahead and make the big reveal. Rollins got his start writing fantasy. (Well, he actually got his start by being a successful veterinarian, but that’s a whole other lead-in that we don’t have time for.)

In his latest entry, The Starless Crown, James Rollins introduces his readers to the fantastical planet of Urth (go ahead, pronounce it the same way you do your own planet). Set between the uninhabitable polars of a frozen tundra and a fiery desert is “the crown”–a land filled with all of the political, religious, and academic tropes a die-hard fantasy reader yearns for (myself included). To put it another way, there’s a school. Governing authorities are pulling most of the strings that are connected to this school (or at least, they think they are, due to the inclinations of a wise head master of sorts). Within the curriculum taught at the school, there’s a heavy emphasis on the merging of myth and science–as if the two are connected somehow. All of this mystery and apparent-string pulling sets the stage for our primary protagonist, Nyx.

Nyx is interesting. She’s almost blind (a cloudy haze covers both eyes, making it nearly impossible for her to see most objects). She’s a sharp, bright student that is advancing through the ranks of her school, which is hard to do as each new rank is preceded by a culling of sorts (don’t worry, it’s not the type of culling that leads to death, just the kind that says “get out of here, we don’t want you anymore”). Yet, as she advances, so does the mystery surrounding her. You see, her classmates are mostly made up of the high-born populace (i.e., those with enough money and status to use hyphenated words on the regular). Nyx, however, was raised by her adoptive father and his two sons, who happen to live in a swamp. Even in the crown, high-borns look down upon swamp-borns (we totally just made “swamp-borns” a thing). Here’s the kicker, though: Nyx wasn’t actually born in the swamp. Until the events of this story begin to unfold, nobody–not even Nyx or her adoptive family–knows where she came from. As her da’ (adoptive father) tells it, “it’s as if she just fell from the sky.”

See. This is fantasy 101. Rollins knows what he’s doing.

To whet your appetite just a bit, allow me to set the stage. I don’t want to spoil anything for you, thus the “just a bit” phrasing.

You already know about Nyx. Again, she’s interesting, but it’s the “absolutely great” type of interesting. She’s a very likable character. Paired with Nyx is her friend and Cloistery assigned “tutor”, Jace. Now, “Cloistery” is the name of the school mentioned above. Naturally, Nyx attends this school and Jace used to (before he was non-lethally culled from it). Jace is Nyx’s tutor in that he helps her read and get around, due to her visual impairment–he is not a formal tutor, as Nyx is more than capable of managing her own academic pursuits. Eventually, the pair escape the confines of the Cloistery, not because they don’t like it, but because of a series of events that leads to (a) Nyx regaining her eyesight, which in turn leads to (b) her discovery of a secret connection with a monstrous race of giant, winged, bat-like creatures, thus leading to (c) her receiving a vision (from the bats–or, Myr bats as they’re referred to) that foretells the damnation and destruction of Urth.

Now, here’s the cool bit. Every aspect of the story I’ve mentioned thus far is all about Nyx and her backstory. Yet, as her story continues to develop, so does the character count. Specifically, the primary character count. In addition to Nyx, Rollins sprinkles in three other main characters, each having a supporting character or two (i.e., each having a “Jace” or two). This allows for Rollins to employ a multi-perspective narrative, as each section of the book is told via the perspective of a different main character than the last section was. Not all readers enjoy this style. So be forewarned if that’s you.

Alongside Nyx and Jace, readers discover a variety of character profiles. Not far into the story, Rollins introduces Rhaif, a thief who breaks out of a prison-mine after finding (and stealing) an ancient artifact that might just be my favorite character of the entire book (yes, I just called an artifact a character–that’s the only spoiler you’re getting here).  Next, Rollins introduces Kanthe, a dejected, displaced prince of the realm, due to him being born mere minutes after his older twin brother, and the fact that his father–King Toranth of Azantiia–is flat out jerkish. Kanthe and his tutor, a powerful alchemist named Frell, are thrown into Nyx’s story by either mere happenstance or fate–the latter of which seems improbable to Kanthe, as his sense of self-worth is, at best, lacking. The final character that makes up Rollins’ alliance of vagabonds is a disgraced warrior, who after years of banishment due to a crime of passion, finds himself re-entering a land he swore to never come back to, whilst re-entering a story he thought concluded–Nyx’s (okay, that’s for real the last spoiler).

So, to recap. This story is about a child of destiny protected by a group of outcasts–a prince trying to discover who he is, a thief with more scruples than he’d care to admit, and a legendary warrior wrestling with the demons of his past–in order to avoid (or set into motion) the end of the world. Again, fantasy 101. Throw in some magic, other-worldly creatures, and a villain we all want to punch in the face (even those of us who don’t actually know how to punch people in the face), and this story quickly becomes a satisfying entry to an already full genre.

This book reads like a Robin Hobbs, Terry Brooks, or Mark Lawrence piece–concise, clear vision, and excellent word choice. So, if you like these writers, this might be the book for you. While Rollins’ world building is solid, it’s not quite on par with Robert Jordan or Brandon Sanderson–which might be a good thing, since as of now this is planned as the first of four books (i.e., it takes a few more books than that to build the types of worlds Jordan and Sanderson have created).  Rollins’ prose and pacing remind me of George R. R. Martin and R. F. Kuang, as this book builds steadily, while giving a lot of attention and detail to action sequences and dialogue more so than other facets of character development.

By and large, this is a great re-entry for Rollins. One can tell that he’s familiar with the genre, and that he’s more than capable of producing quality content that will keep his readers coming back for more. If you’re a fan of fantasy or even just a fan of Rollins’ other works, this might be right up your alley. If you’re looking to get into the fantasy genre, this is a great entry point. You can pick up a copy to borrow at the Joplin Public Library. It can be found in the new fiction section as you enter the lobby.

The Latinist by Mark Prins

Some books are easier to lean into than others. I know, context is key here. Yet, despite the subjective sentiments attached to that statement, most readers can relate to the idea of finding “that perfect fit,” in terms of one’s literary preferences. As situated individuals, ideological conviction and lived experience often form the basis by which we assess the value of literature. That said, contextually speaking, Mark Prins’ debut novel, The Latinist, is easy for me to like.

Set in the ivory towers of Oxford, this is the story of Tessa Templeton, a PhD candidate and graduate assistant to world renown classicist, Christopher Eccles. The basic premise is rather simple. Tessa is in her final semester at Oxford. She’s finishing up her dissertation while patiently waiting for a callback from any of the myriad of institutions she’s applied to teach at. In the midst of this waiting, Tessa’s long term boyfriend, Ben, concedes to the demands of dating a doctoral candidate and abruptly ends their relationship. Shortly after the breakup, Tessa receives an anonymous email that reads, “You might want to reconsider asking Christopher Eccles for a recommendation letter in the future.” Just beneath this ominous text, Tessa sees a thumbnail of a rendering of Chris’ recommendation letter. Phrases like, “Tessa has made strides from a rocky beginning to her doctorate,” and “[w]e met more regularly in her first year than is normal with the students I supervise,” and “sometimes she is hindered by the tendency to be argumentative” are scattered throughout the document. This incident sets the stage for what turns out to be a thrilling, page-turning tale of suspense, lust, and the power of a determined soul.

Well, that last bit was a little dramatic, right? Still, this book is quite the read, especially for a debut novel.

A major plot thread woven throughout this narrative involves Tessa and Chris’ relationship. At the heart of Chris’ less than flattering recommendation letter is his desire to keep Tessa close. In short, he doesn’t want to share Tessa, thus his willingness to resort to sabotage. Having just ended a long-term relationship himself, Chris has developed feelings for his most prized graduate assistant. All throughout the book one finds references to Tessa’s superiority over her classmates. Chris has groomed her to be the top of the class, and to make huge waves in their discipline. In the midst of all that grooming, romantic feelings have blossomed. The problem is, the romantic feelings are one sided, thus leading the reader to one of finer aspects of Prins’ storytelling: Chris and Tessa’s relationship dynamics serve as a meta-narrative of Tessa’s academic pursuits.

To be more exact, Chris and Tessa’s story is a reimagining of her dissertation topic, which centers on Ovid’s classic take on the Apollo/Daphne myth, as outlined in his work Metamorphoses. That is, Tessa is studying an ancient story about a god whose unrequited love forced a nymph to drastic measures (i.e., turn herself into a laurel tree). Does that sound familiar? It should. This is Chris’ and Tessa’s story, minus gods, nymphs, and laurel trees. The groundwork for this story is laid out in part one of the book. From that point on, Tessa’s drastic measures begin to unfold, and they do so in a rather epic manner.

This story is captivating, to say the least. Prins’ writing style suits my tastes–sharp, witty, and intellectually stimulating. His pacing and prose are interesting. He takes his time in developing the points he wishes to make, and he does so in a somewhat untraditional way. He moves back and forth between both perspectives (Chris’ and Tessa’s), and doesn’t stick to a chronological telling of most stories. Again, it takes a while to get to where he’s going. That said, when he gets there, it seems worth the cost of admission more times than not.

Going back to where we started, I resonate with this story. Anyone who has experienced the rigors of grad school–especially in more competitive disciplines (e.g., humanities) –may be able to resonate. Additionally, I’m a sucker for myth. Thus even without the stellar writing, this book would have great appeal. This is a solid story that takes a simple premise and adds layers of complexity by incorporating rich and meaningful expressions of storytelling and well developed, empathetic characters. So, if any of that sounds appealing to you, this might be your next great read. You can pick it up in the New Adult Fiction section of the library.

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Rabbits by Terry Miles

There is a lot going on in this world today. One need not be privy to all the inner workings of society to understand that truth. Like it or not, we live in a complicated era. As is often the case with such eras, members of society try to make sense of the complicated and the complex. From the more traditional media outlets of television, radio, and newsprint to the more recent advent of social media-centric platforms, a myriad of voices attempt to provide some semblance of an answer to the cultural madness we face. Those “half-answers” are varied and often conflicting. Thus, the plight of our era persists. In a world of dissonant voices amongst perplexing circumstances, societal members are left to their own devices to sort order from the chaos.

Okay, now that our stage is set—and done so rather ominously, I may add– let me introduce our main character. Enter, the Conspiracy Theory.

Terry Miles’ debut novel, Rabbits, is about many things. Oversimplifying the plot by reducing it to one mere component or thread merely insults the author. That is not what I’m trying to do. Instead, I’m attempting to highlight a rather significant theme laden within the rationales of this story. Situated within a world as complex and complicated as ours, Miles introduces his readers to a wainscoting-esque society of gamers associated with an underground game known as, you guessed it, “Rabbits.”

Technically, this game doesn’t have a name, and if it does, nobody knows it. In place of a legitimized title, this ancient contest is often referenced in one of three ways. Some choose to call it “the Game”. Others associate it with a Roman numeral ranging from I to IX (a reference to each iteration of the modern version being played). In recent years an overwhelming populace have labeled it with the aforementioned “Rabbits.” We’ll go with that one. Reliable facts concerning this game are few and far between. The one constant that persists (in various wordings and phrasings) is “you don’t talk about the game, like ever”. Yeah, I’m pretty sure Chuck Palahniuk wants his royalties for that bit.

Serious consequences exist for those uncommitted to preserving the Games’ secrecy. By “serious consequences,” I really just mean one consequence. Death. Other tactics are used to keep the game “pure,” but death, that seems to be a biggie, and that which one should be most concerned about. Due to the extremity of disobedience’s ramifications, if one wishes to learn about the game, secret meetings in low key, private settings are often conducted. These meetings are oftentimes under the ruse of an unrelated reason for gathering, and require the dismissal of all electronic devices (because we all know that Big Brother is always watching). It is at one such meeting in a rundown half-pizza joint, half-arcade that our story begins.

Here, we are introduced to K. “That’s it. Just K. One letter.” A self-proclaimed expert on the Game, K has been researching and developing theories on the Game for decades. K’s history with the game is troubled and somewhat sordid. While unknowingly playing the Game as a teenager, an automobile accident takes the life of K’s childhood friend, Annie, and seriously injures both K and Annie’s sister, Emily. At the age of 17, K’s parents die in a tragic accident (unrelated to the Game). To avoid being placed in foster care K successfully seeks emancipation by court order. Subsequently, the intellectually gifted loner quickly develops an obsession–gaming. Naturally, this obsession leads K back into the world of Rabbits. I wrote this in a rather predictable way, but let me assure you, K’s journey is anything but predictable. Still, I can’t give all the good bits away, can I?

Thanks to God’s greatest gifts to mankind (i.e., Reddit and subreddits), our self-appointed Rabbits aficionado gathers somewhat of a following and begins hosting the types of secret meetings described above, whereby K essentially rattles off the same propagandic-ridden script throughout each meeting, while fielding questions about the game–many of which are proffered by Baron (an associate of K’s), though the audience is not aware of that fact. Now, back to the start of our story. As this particular meeting (the one at the pizza joint) is ending, K is introduced to a character claiming to be Alan Scarpio, a multi-billionaire and the rumored winner of the sixth iteration of Rabbits. We quickly discover that this claim holds up to scrutiny, and Scarpio is actively recruiting K to help him “fix the Game” before its next iteration begins, as it is apparently broken.

From this point forward, K’s life takes a turn for the wild. I mean, legit, things get trippy. Scorpio goes missing shortly after his encounter with K. Soon to follow, Baron is found dead in his apartment. With little convincing needed, K recruits Chloe (a long-time friend/former lover of K’s), and the two set out to do what Scarpio seemingly couldn’t. The path they have chosen forces K to reassess epistemological assumptions regarding life, the universe, and time itself. K confronts controversial phenomenologies such as the Mandela effect, gaming theories surrounding ARGs (alternate reality games), and the efficacy of the dark net (an overused Sci-Fi trope for sure, but one that Miles utilizes with finesse). As K’s story wears on, readers are introduced to twists and turns, authentic and well done character development, and a firm, steady pacing that will hopefully define this upcoming author’s future literary endeavors.

Everything about this book is intentional. Terry Miles has a story to tell, and he tells it well (for the most part). One particularity regarding intentionality that I am rather fond of is the ambiguous descriptions of K. No pronouns are used to describe the character. All descriptions of K can easily be applied to those who identify as female, male, or nonbinary. In short, K’s gender is never revealed because K’s gender doesn’t matter.

K is not female. K is not male.
For some these two claims might beckon the question, “What is K, then?”

K is a badass. And that’s all K needs to be.
K is a strong character amongst a myriad of other strong characters. Emphasizing the characters’ internal strengths is refreshing, especially in a day and age where our culture often defines us by our external merits.

Now, let’s get cyclical. This book has a strong lead character, and an equally strong supporting cast (I just said that, right?) Yet, as mentioned above, I don’t identify K as the lead. From the start of this book to the end, the focal point is something else entirely. Once again, the star, who I would argue leads at every turn, is none other than the tried and true Conspiracy Theory.

At its core, this book is a love letter to the classic conspiracy theory genre (even more so than that wild, 1997 Mel Gibson movie). In case one isn’t cognizant of this genre, let’s get cozy.

In short, something’s wrong with this world. The only way to “fix” what is wrong is to expose the truth surrounding the brokenness and the corruption within. The only way to do that is to secretly possess a genius level intellect (while knowing a thing or two about computers) as the powers that be undermine said intellect with labels such as “clinically insane,” “disturbed,” and “out of touch with reality.” Yet, there’s not enough subterfuge in this world to stop the truth from eventually surfacing and destroying the machine of tyranny once and for all. Or is there? For that bit, you’ll have to read this riveting book (hook, line, and sinker).

Be forewarned, however, this book isn’t for everyone. If you’re interested in Sci-Fi, conspiracy theories (probably not real ones, but just the ones that poke fun at the real ones), and philosophical idealism (I promise, that’s actually in the book), then this might be right up your alley. Maybe you just like a well written, well developed story. In that case, this might be your jam as well. If not, that’s fine too. Here at the Joplin Public Library we have a book for just about anyone. If you’re thinking this might be the book for you (or the next book for you) then you can find it in the New Adult Fiction section in the main lobby of the library. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

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The Book of Form and Emptiness by Ruth Ozeki

This book spoke to me. Like, I’m not kidding, it legit spoke to me. I know, I know, this type of statement typically implies the use of overtly figurative language. Not this time, however. Well, maybe a little. Since this book doesn’t have vocal cords, there’s a bit of anthropomorphic musing taking place here. Still, in terms of one entity addressing another, this book spoke to me. In case you haven’t picked up on my word play just yet, “The Book” is the narrator. Well, The Book is one of the narrators.

Utilizing a multi-narrative perspective, Ruth Ozeki creates a literary tapestry of sorts, threading the similar yet dissimilar voices of The Book and a young boy named Benny into an amalgamation of experiences both lived and perceived. To clarify, Benny does most of the living here, while The Book gladly assumes responsibilities aligned with perception. That’s not to say that Benny isn’t perceptive, just that The Book takes the cake–acting as a wise sage to Benny’s explorative youth. Speaking of “cake”, it talks too.

Shortly after the untimely death of his father, Benny begins to hear voices. At first, he merely hears the voice of Kenji, his uncompromisingly dead dad. Yet, by the first anniversary of Kenji’s death, the number of voices has grown exponentially. Be it the food in his fridge (cake) or his sneakers, Benny is inundated with the whispers of inanimate objects and the personalities they espouse. As his story progresses, so do the voices, more specifically, so do the voices’ motives and intentions. Soon after his fourteenth birthday, these voices entice Benny to perform less than reputable behaviors. That is to say, the objects around him are tempting Benny to behave rather poorly. These bizarre circumstances eventually lead to Benny’s admittance into a psychiatric facility.

As Benny’s narrative unfolds, The Book reveals another tale. Annabelle is a shy, yet driven young woman working her way through library school when she meets Kenji, a new-to-America, Japanese born jazz clarinetist. Taking The Book’s narrative at face value, Annabelle has a propensity toward dating musicians. In fact, when she first meets Kenji, she is dating the less than chivalrous jazz pianist, Joe. After a botched attempt at embarrassing her on stage, Annabelle’s piano-playing boyfriend becomes the foil of his own sinister plot. Knowing that Annabelle is reluctant to sing in front of an audience, Mr. Piano Man (but not of the Billy Joel persuasion) forces the first-time performer on stage for a vocal solo, thus allowing his narcissism to seemingly “put her in her place.” As a reader, I’m still uncertain as to why she needed to be put into any place (let alone her own “place”). Regardless, his motives seemed harm-ridden at best. Having assumed the mantle of “villain” in this unraveling plot, Joe relishes the ensuing events about to unfold

Ozeki masterfully mixes a cocktail of human emotions and their coinciding actions. Furthermore, her wordsmithing is hard to beat. In the scene mentioned above, she describes an intricate portrait of Kenji’s first impressions regarding Annabelle, as well as his attempts to help guide her beyond the initial trepidation she endures throughout her forced performance.

“[Her] faltering phrasing made Kenji ache with loneliness. Only two lines in and she was dying up there. No one could save her. He jiggled his foot and licked his reed again, waiting for his entrance and feeling like his heart was going to burst, and just then, as though she sensed him watching, she turned her head and looked straight at him. Her impossible lavender eyes were brimming with tears.

“No one could save her, but Kenji had to try. He closed his eyes, raised his clarinet, and blew a sinuous line of notes that rose like a rope, twinning through the trumpets and up around the bass, subduing the snare drum and looping past the sax, until finally it reached her. She caught hold of his riff and let it lift her.

He was playing it for her, carrying her through the second verse and then on, boldly into the chorus.

She was singing it now, and as her voice soared, the loud-talking hipsters fell silent. Beards turned toward the stage, boots began to tap and fingers to snap as the song built to its final, brassy crescendo, and then it was over.

She tossed her blond curls and turned to face the audience. The applause rose and fell as she clasped her hands together and made an awkward bow. Joe joined her in the spotlight and put his arm around her waist, but she gave a little wriggle, slipped out of his grasp, and teetered back to her table.”

Annabelle and Kenzi’s relationship flourishes from here. Employing a candid realism to marital bliss, Ozeki briefly explores the years leading to Benny’s birth and then Kenji’s sudden death, not forsaking the human components associated with love, family, and growth in general (i.e., it’s not all “sunshine and rainbows”). She rarely glosses over the flawed elements of human existence, but instead allows individual depravity to highlight one’s need for others–especially within the context of family. Let me say that again, “family.” This is the heart of Ozeki’s story. As Annabelle’s household dynamics take on a new shape in the wake of Kenji’s death, she begins to look for something to fill the void of her husband’s absence. She puts on weight. She ceases daily maintenance of household chores. Most interestingly, she begins to collect things. It starts out innocently, then quickly grows into an obsession of sorts–the obsession of hoarding.

It is within this reality of circumstance that Ozeki’s words truly captivate. As Benji struggles to make sense of the fact that inanimate objects are talking to him, Annabelle gathers more and more objects to add to her repertoire of possessions. This story is about the power of possessing. Yet, it is also about the power that possessions have over us as humans. This story is about loss. Yet, it is also about finding something new in the midst of absence derived from tragedy. This story is about mental illness. Yet, it is also about the beauty of creativity, imagination, and the profound mysteries of this world. This story is about a young boy who greatly misses his dad. It is about a young mother who desperately longs for her husband’s protective guidance once again. Yet, it is also about a family learning to love one another anew, even amid heartache and its ever-present companion, change.

If you’re looking for a book that “speaks to you,” both anthropomorphically and figuratively, then this might be what you’re looking for. Be warned, this isn’t a light reading. This book is heavy (again, both literally and figuratively—as it’s a whopping 548 pages). At times, it is humorous, especially when Kenji leans into the playfulness of a solid “dad-joke” (when speaking to his son of his namesake, Kenji says, “Benny Goodman was the King of Swing…[b]est jazz clarinetist in the world. I gave you his name so you will be a good man”). At other times, it is mysticism at its best (as made evident when Benny and The Book both explain the differences between the voice inflections of “made-things” and “unmade-things”–or things of nature). Still yet, there are times when this book is heart wrenching, provoking powerful emotions both in its characters and from its readers. I won’t underestimate the power of subjectivity. This book isn’t for everyone. Yet, if you’re in the mood for a well-crafted, emotion-driven story that does well to grow and develop its characters along the way, then you might want to give this book a chance. If you do, you can pick it up in the New-Fiction section of the Joplin Public Library.

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Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle

Not long ago, a friend of mine recommended a great little read, based upon some of my scholastic interests and previous work experience. I don’t read every book that is recommended to me, but I must admit, I’m glad I read this one. The end result was a captivating read that beckoned me to embark on a journey that truly is a literary rarity, one full of deep introspection and serious contemplation. Father Gregory Boyle’s Tattoos on the Heart is, in a sense, the measure of a man’s life work. Throughout the pages, readers discover the retelling of nearly thirty years’ worth of life and ministry. Boyle’s writings bring to life a certain reality that many in our culture are either unaware of, desensitized to, or just not interested in.

After his ordination in 1984, Boyle began ministering to underprivileged villages of South America – Bolivia, to be exact. Here, Boyle discovered what he would eventually label his life’s purpose. Gregory Boyle fell in love with poor people. That phrase looks odd at first glance; thus, I’ll showcase his intended meaning through a bit of his own words. In speaking about the transition from being placed in a fairly cushy first assignment after ordination to where he would eventually land – the gang-infested populations of the Pico Gardens and Aliso Village public-housing projects of Los Angeles, California – Boyle states, “Originally, I was scheduled to go to Santa Clara University to run their student service program, but Bolivia changed all that. I can’t explain how the poor in Bolivia evangelized me during that year of 1984-85, but they turned me inside out, and from that moment forward, I only wanted to walk with them.

So, that is exactly what Boyle did. As mentioned above, he was assigned to a small congregation, by which he had previously served in an associate’s capacity, nestled in the heart of Los Angeles, California’s “gang capital” Delores Mission. After a somewhat organic growth, the mission soon became a haven for gang members. At first, Boyle made it his mission to create an atmosphere of peace among rival gangs by fostering treaties and formal resignations of violence toward one another. Looking back upon these labors, suggests that his naivety allowed him to miss the mark here. Over time, he began to see that these efforts fueled the flames of gang activity, rather than extinguish them. So, Boyle changed tactics by becoming the founder and director of Homeboy Industries, a place committed to providing jobs for former gang members, thus giving them an entry point into not only a normative state of society, but also a healthy way of life. Father Boyle established Delores Mission and Homeboy Industries as a safe place for young men and women to find shelter amidst a lifelong struggle of violence and neglect, thus giving reprieve coupled with tools and resources that would lead to betterment.

Tattoos on the Heart is one Jesuit’s story of partnering with marginalized members of society. In the pages of this book, one will discover a man’s journey that not only brought hope and restoration to the lost he was working on behalf of, but that also brought healing and betterment to his own life. His work was reciprocal. The stories in this book are dynamic and variable. Some may induce fits of laughter. Some may produce strong emotions, the types that are often accompanied with tears. Throughout the reading of this book, individuals might find themselves engaging in philosophical, theological, and/or ideological thought which sounds like a pretty good result, coming from a book written by a Jesuit. It should be noted that in this book, the vocabulary gets course and gritty. This is written by a man who has spent his entire adult life working with and for gang members, after all. Yet, regardless of the vocabulary found in these pages, and regardless of the emotions and ideas induced, this book offers up a real value that is often times missed in memoirs of a similar ilk.

In this book, Boyle gives voice to the silent. Throughout the process of outlining this review, I struggled with the question of which, if any, stories might I mention here. In the end, I find myself dismissive to the idea of promoting one or the other. Instead, I do my best to encourage you to read them all. Read the sad ones. Read the funny ones. Read the ones about young boys who never got a shot at life, simply because of the street corner they were born closest to. Read the ones about the former gang-bangers turned community leaders. Again, read them all.

A great thing about this book is that you don’t have to see the world the same as Father Boyle does in order to find an inherent value. You don’t have to consider yourself a religious person. You don’t have to consider yourself a “good Samaritan” or an “others centered” type of being. No, really that’s not needed. Yet, if you’re interested in being challenged by a segment of society that you’re either ignorant toward, or just haven’t thought about in a long while, then this book may do you well. In the midst of a culture ensnared in division and disunity, it may do us all well to seek out compassion and to work toward togetherness. So, if you’re looking to be challenged, or you’re looking for a real thought provoker, you can pick this book up in our non-fiction collection at the Joplin Public Library

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