Author: Emma Donoghue

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2010

I read it: June 2015


Be sure you’re ready before reading this book. My wife enjoyed it several years ago, but now we have a kid. I read it with our little guy in mind, and it was sickening in a can’t-stop-reading kind of way. I also started it the week I had a cold, so the first half of the book was a rough go. If you haven’t read it, Room is about a five-year-old boy raised only in a single room. Just be ready for that. For those who have read it, let’s discuss.

This book is like two stories in one, split right down the middle. Thank goodness for that, because I needed the rush of relief after the first half. Even though it was tough at times, I think what made it tolerable was the character of the mother (“Ma”). She was never abusive to her son, and you could argue that the boy, Jack, lived a pretty decent life (mostly because he didn’t realize what he was missing out on). The book would have been simply intolerable if Ma was any level of crazy, though that would have been justified under the circumstances. The way it’s written, the reader gets to align with the mother-son duo against the all-too-realistic villain of Old Nick. It’s highly claustrophobic, yet there’s hope.

In the first half, the chapter called “Unlying” is the most fascinating. Through Jack’s narration, we learn his trains of thought, such as “But when I want something I want it always, like chocolates, I never ate a chocolate too many times.” Plenty of his observations, like this one, could come from the brain of any young child. It’s when Ma has to revise her stories to teach him about the real, tangible world outside that he struggles: “So hospitals are real too, and motorbikes. My head’s going to burst from all the new things I have to believe.” In this sequence there’s also a great riff on a Bible line that’s perfectly constructed: “When I was a little kid I thought like a little kid, but now I’m five I know everything.”

Part two is a lot less propulsive, because it’s about their life after the escape. But it’s still interesting to read about how such a scenario might play out. Jack’s world expands into hugeness, and in some ways he handles it better than Ma. He’s tentative about the unknown, but grasps at wisdom when he admits, “I don’t want there to be bad stories and me not know them.” He sees the value, the intrinsic contribution to his survival, of accepting truth over lies.

It’s a moving book, but you’ve got to tread lightly. It’s probably one that’s best to read well before or long after you have a young child.

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Posted by on July 31, 2015 in Novels


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The Metamorphosis

Author: Franz Kafka

Translator: Stanley Appelbaum

Type: Fiction, short stories

Full title: The Metamorphosis and Other Stories

Published: 1996 (this version), 1913-1919 (original stories)

I read it: June 2015


This is the story that begins: “When Gregor Samsa awoke from troubled dreams one morning, he found that he had been transformed in his bed into an enormous bug.”

I must have never read it before, though I thought I had. I guess I just had vague impressions of the general plot. It was surprising to me that the story of Gregor Samsa’s fateful change took place in his home, amongst his parents and sister, instead of alone in a hotel room (he is a traveling salesman after all). The story is not really about the metamorphosis (or “transformation” as it’s repeatedly referred to) itself, so we are spared the gruesome details that would make the tale similar to the movie The Fly. It’s more about the aftermath of the change.

Family and work are the key issues here. The first sad realization on the reader’s part is how Gregor’s main worry upon witnessing his changed form is that he is late for work. Obviously the guy is stressed to the max about his station in life, and reasonably so because one of his supervisors shows up in person to come see why Gregor didn’t report that morning. To think that this would be a primary concern makes me squirm more than the bug thing. Gregor also has bitterness about supporting his family (“If I didn’t hold myself back because of my parents, I would have quit long ago”) and places some blame on them for the big picture. When bug-Gregor finally emerges from his room for the first time, he is chased away in disgust by his father. It’s a sorry sight.

At least his sister is nice to him…at first. Gradually, the family must provide for themselves while figuring out how to house and feed the bug in the room, and the strain is palpable. The sister loses patience, the mother retains some hope but slips into dreamlike despair, and the father hardens his hatred more and more. This seems the true interpretation of the title: the metamorphosis of a family who cannot connect with one of their own. It’s made more painful because Gregor can hear their human words perfectly, though he can’t communicate back, and they don’t know that he can understand them. He retains some semblance of his old self; for example, he is moved by music, and “was he an animal if music stirred him that way?” In the end, he gracefully realizes that he is indeed a burden on his family and resigns himself to death. The family’s attitude and fortunes lift after his departure, which is both refreshing and sorrowful.

“The Metamorphosis” is a unique nightmare, and realistic in its exploration of an unrealistic premise. What about the other Kafka in this collection? The first, and weakest, is “The Judgment.” It’s about a young man (named Georg, hmm) with, you guessed it, family issues. Specifically, he has a strained relationship with his aging father, and is apparently keeping secrets from him. The father finds out, reveals his knowledge dramatically, then supposedly sentences his son to a watery death. The son is so distraught by this revelation that he hurls himself from a bridge. Either I wasn’t paying attention, or this story truly doesn’t make sense.
“In the Penal Colony” is the only other story of significant length besides “The Metamorphosis,” and it’s intriguing enough. It’s steeped in concepts of justice and cultural evolution, featuring a torturer-executioner whose motto is “Guilt is always beyond doubt.” A foreign explorer is exposed to the workings of the torture machine in an anthropological Raphael Nonsenso kind of way. He struggles to make up his mind about the scenario, musing that “It’s always a ticklish thing to interfere in someone else’s affairs in some decisive way.” This story actually has an ending less dark than I was expecting, which I applauded after my initial nervousness.

The final two entries are short and sweet. “A Country Doctor” is a single unbroken paragraph about the titular doctor who must constantly ask himself, “what do the people expect of me?” At its most basic, it’s a comment on man’s inability to control outside forces, and the despair found in that realization. It reminds me of that show A Young Doctor’s Notebook, which, come to think of it, is quite Kafkaesque. (Yes! I had a chance to use the phrase!)

The book wraps up with “A Report to an Academy,” which is kind of a reverse “Metamorphosis” with a similarly intriguing first line: “Gentlemen of the Academy: You have honored me with your invitation to submit a report to the Academy about my former life as an ape.” Yep, this beast was once a full-on ape, is captured by humans, and pragmatically starts acting more like them in order to eventually get free. His intellect improves though his body plan seemingly remains the same, and he acquires speech skills. It’s a pretty thinky piece that stays in speech format, and it’s another that’s not nearly as dark as the reader might expect.

So Kafka was good in these small doses. A friend mentioned that a lot of his intention might be lost in translation, which made me perk up at this note by Stanley Appelbaum in this particular version:

These new translations, in idiomatic modern American English, attempt to be more complete and correct than the old British versions, in which outright errors sometimes cloud the meaning to a serious degree, slight omissions occur, idioms are misunderstood, and Kafka’s humor is often negated by pallid paraphrases of wording that is very sprightly in the original German.

Ha. Translator battles.

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Posted by on July 24, 2015 in Short stories


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Isaac’s Storm

Author: Erik Larson

Type: Non-fiction, single subject

Full title: Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History

Published: 1999

I read it: June 2015


“If I was to write forever, I could not give you an idea of it—a total darkness all above; the sea on fire, running as it were in Alps, or Peaks of Teneriffe; (mountains are too common an idea;) the wind roaring louder than thunder (absolutely no flight of imagination,) the whole made more terrible, if possible, by a very uncommon kind of blue lightning.”

This was Lt. Benjamin Archer’s attempt to describe experiencing a hurricane near the Caribbean in 1780. Erik Larson spends an entire book trying to put the reader in this type of situation, and he does so to great success.

His principal subject is Isaac Cline, head weatherman in Galveston, Texas at the dawn of the 1900s. By Larson’s account, Cline was a capable, hardworking, and scientific man, though he was at the mercy of the twisty bureaucracy of the U.S. Weather Bureau. This organization’s shortsightedness, coupled with the general pride and optimism of this point in history, contributed to Cline underestimating a devastating hurricane that ruined Galveston on September 8, 1900.

True to its subtitle, this book does have a lot to say about the time period. Larson constantly reminds us of the overconfidence and wondrous attitude that people (especially those privileged enough to be entrepreneurs or hold positions of authority) had about the United States. The Weather Bureau in particular employed several bad apples, such as the chief at the time, Willis Moore, whose obsession with both his own career and American nationalism caused him to wage a campaign against cooperating with Cuba, a country with a long history of hurricane forecasting and tracking.

The third part of the subtitle, the deadliest hurricane in history (American history at least), is framed against a broader history of oceanic storms throughout recorded time. This sets the stage for the specific story of the Galveston storm that took 6,000 lives at the lower estimate. The first half of the book dips in and out of various timelines and subjects, while small chapters about the Galveston hurricane illustrate how and when the elements are brewing. The second half comes into clearer focus when it narrates various people living in the city the day the storm struck. At first, the residents are anxious yet amused and excited, having witnessed coastal storms before. Kids played in the streets as rain fell and people gathered on the beach to watch the sky change. Eventually, news traveled inland that the storm was tearing up structures along the beach, though many people who did not see it with their own eyes refused to believe the possibilities.

As one mother recalled:

“For a while even ladies were wading in the water, thinking it was fun. The children had a grand time, picking up driftwood and other things that floated down the street.”

A little while later she was updated on the status and something shifted.

“Then it wasn’t fun anymore.”

The shivers this line brings is a testament to Larson’s structure and pacing. The book is part history, part adventure, part biography, part horror story, and always interesting. After all, this was a storm in which “one man reported dodging a giant piano embedded in the crest of a wave.” It’s an unimaginable situation, and you can’t tear your eyes and thoughts away from the ghosts who haunt the pages. Isaac himself suffered personal tragedy in the event, and not knowing exactly what the tragedy is until Larson reveals it adds yet another layer of anticipation to the tale. (Larson crafts his book’s title around one convention whereby storms get named after popular victims.) This piece of writing is an absolute feat.

In his notes at the end of the book, the author claims: “It is one thing to write Great Man history, quite another to explore the lives of history’s little men.” I thought this was a great way to put it. The idea of reading a presidential biography bores me to tears, but I’ve easily fallen sway to accounts of the strange tales of Percy Fawcett in The Lost City of Z or the crew of the Essex from In the Heart of the Sea. I seem to rank the skills of these non-fiction authors quite high as compared to their peers in fiction, and Larson is easily among the best storytellers I’ve read in recent years.

Music corner: Songs I enjoy related to this content include Built to Spill’s “The Weather,” Brian Fallon’s “No Weather,” and Brandi Carlile’s recent “The Eye.” But of course the closest thing to a soundtrack would be Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane.” Its ups and downs, squirming guitar paths, and overall awesomeness can take you places where storms build and explode.



Posted by on July 17, 2015 in Non-fiction single subject


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Author: Colin Meloy

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: The Wildwood Chronicles (#1)

Published: 2011

I read it: June 2015


When you’re in a world of bandits, thieves, animals, woods, family drama, and rusticism, there’s a good chance you’re in a Colin Meloy tale. Usually it’s one shaped into a song by The Decemberists, but for his first prose outing Meloy has toned down the darker elements of some of his other stories to keep this one aimed at the pre-teen set. There is still plenty of drama and death, as main characters Prue and Curtis stumble from Portland into the Impassable Wilderness during the middle of a civil war.

It’s a recognizable Narnia attempt, and it succeeds on the whole. Prue is on the search for her baby brother who was lifted off the street by crows. She finds animal friends and enemies, whereas Curtis gets conscripted into a coyote army and comes under the sway of the Dowager Empress, making this part of his story arc a pretty straight resemblance of Edmund Pevensie. Even though the Empress is obviously the evil character, it’s not all just good versus evil. Wildwood is divided into a few different provinces, each with their own loyalties and political ideals. Most of Prue’s adventure centers around trying to unite some of the factions who may benefit from doing so.

While the book is longer than it needs to be, it’s greatly enhanced by the intermittent illustrations by Meloy’s wife Carson Ellis. Fans of The Decemberists will recognize her distinctive style from the album covers, and the pictures add just the right amount of suggestion and playfulness here. More books, and not just those for youth, should be so lucky to have an artist who so accurately captures the spirit of the tale.

Where the story most clearly distinguishes itself from the workings of Narnia is its handling of Wildwood’s relation to the world at large. The fantantiscal land is magically hidden from view and access by ordinary human citizens, but this is no wardrobe that exists on its own clock. When Prue returns home, her parents have been missing her and her brother due to the normal passage of time. Her parents are also part of the story, not oblivious in the way of fantasy adults, or simply ignored. This makes Wildwood a nicely tangible experience, and a worthy one for an early reader’s experience with stories about leaving home and fighting a way back again.

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Posted by on July 10, 2015 in Novels


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The Martian

Author: Andy Weir

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2012

I read it: June 2015


This review was originally published on Levi & Laura.

Space is a big deal in pop culture these days, so it’s no surprise that Andy Weir’s hit novel The Martian got good word-of-mouth and a quick movie treatment. It’s the story of an astronaut who accidentally gets left behind on the red planet when his mission goes bust, and the DIY science needed to keep him alive. If you’ve read it as well, chime in on the discussion!

Levi: After hearing a couple recommendations from friends, I think another reason I put my name on the hold list for this book at the library was knowing I’d like to have an opinion on the book before the movie came out. I got partway into it, and then you needed a new book to read too and I just kind of handed it to you one night. What was it like jumping right in? Did you expect any particular sort of story?

Laura: Just like when I saw the movie 127 Hours, I went into this book completely unaware of the plot. I even refused to read the back cover. Good choice! It’s one of those stories that instantly draws the reader in from the first chapter. The fact that the plot seems like an incredibly realistic scenario that could happen in this century made it easy to connect with Mark, and Weir certainly spared no details when it came to the science behind Mark’s plans for survival. Were you surprised when the narrative suddenly switched to the NASA employees back on Earth?

Levi: I think that was a welcome and crucial switch. The beginning of the book is fast and new and enjoyable. Then a little ways in my eyes started to glaze over because regardless of the situation, I knew that Mark Watney would figure out a way to scientifically overcome whatever obstacle it was. I mean, he’s not going to die on page 50, right? So I wondered what else there could be. The main narration is through typed journal logs, and he obviously can’t have another character beside him (unless he goes insane, but this is not a weird paranoia tale like the movie Moon). So when it jumped back to Earth, that was a breath of fresh air and renewed my interest, especially the hardworking and hopeful Venkat Kapoor.

Laura: The characters back on Earth were pretty fun too. Speaking of back on Earth—it was an interesting choice to not mention much about Mark’s personal life back home. There were a couple of brief mentions of his mom and dad, but no love interests or friends that he talks about. I suppose it’s possible that he had devoted his entire life to becoming an astronaut. Still, his ability to remain calm and focused on the tasks at hand for several months without any contact with another human being is the most unrealistic part of this book. I would have liked to see him go slightly insane and put a wig on his computer or make a potato head family to talk to.  What do you think kept him levelheaded in all that time alone on Mars?

Levi: Where was his Wilson?! I thought that over and over. It became particularly troublesome when he finally makes contact with NASA, and he says something along the lines of up until that point he was the loneliest man on the planet. Now there’s a joke in there, because Mark’s a funny guy and of course he’s the only one on the planet, but still, we got precious little of his emotional struggles. The only way I could rationalize it was that he was using his log/journal to talk his way through the myriad survival problems he faced, which is a good use of his time. But then again, he is knowingly funny and rebellious in both his personal entries and his conversations with NASA, so why stop there? Why not lay your heart out? Journal space seems to be the one thing he had in abundance, so I was confused about the lack of true loneliness from this guy. Also: everything he describes made me claustrophobic.

Laura: Good point. It’s not as though his journal entries were solely scientific or personal, more like a blend that he knew or hoped would someday be found and read by his crew mates. I can see how his journal was his only true companion, but I have a hard time believing that would be enough. Throughout the entire book I found myself flipping back and forth between thinking he’ll survive and thinking that he would turn a turn for the worse and the journal entries would get more emotional. His enduring spirit reminded me of Christopher McCandless’s solo journey through the Alaskan wilderness. I think that’s why I had decided Mark would find a terrible fate before a rescue operation could take place.

Levi: That’s a cool comparison. I agree that some sort of emotional plunge would have made the middle of the book better, and I kept holding out for it. Instead it stayed in pure science mode. This is the hardest of “hard” sci-fi you can get, and it’s an impressive feat to be sure. I suppose if you were to ask, what’s the most realistic way to tell about someone who is stranded on Mars, then this might be it. But sometimes it feels more like an elaborate thought experiment with the goal of just explaining the creative scientific solutions. But if you were to ask, what’s the best story someone could possibly tell about a person on Mars, then is this it? I hesitate to say yes. Anyway, I did enjoy how the ending made me fret for his life in an urgent way, and you have to get to the very last pages to see what happens.

Laura: I have a feeling Ridley Scott will do a better job of appealing to our emotional sides than Andy Weir, who is a self-proclaimed nerd. Speaking of the movie—have you seen the trailer yet? I bet you’re itching to press play now that we’ve gotten our thoughts down on paper the blog!

Levi: I’ve managed to delay my viewing, but give me a few minutes and I’ll get to it…

Laura: First thought: the casting is pretty good. Jeff Daniels at NASA and Jessica Chastain as Commander Lewis? Couldn’t be a better fit. Damon’s cool too. Didn’t we just see him alone on a planet in Interstellar?

Levi: Looks like they gave him a wife and kid! I admit I got the shivers. Wow, that cast is stacked. Okay, so my Damon thoughts are generally, do we really need a good-looking A-lister in the central role? Can’t we take a risk on a nerdy, weird-looking dude who has to earn the audience’s empathy? Matt Damon comes with built-in charm and loveableness. It’s too easy. More specifically: you’re right about the Interstellar thing. He was the big “secret” cast member who was revealed to be an astronaut… alone… struggling to find a way off a planet. Why does Damon get to have all the space fun? Eh, whatever. I’m more concerned about the tone of the movie. The instantly catchy “science the shit out of this” line is delivered against a huge booming score instead of a fun jaunty ditty that it deserves. The movie might just sap the humor out of everything.

ANYWAY. I’ll still go see the film, and it was a fun, unique book to read. Final question: would you ever try space travel (potential violent death aside)?

Laura: Hells to the no. Kudos to those who are willing to shoot off to space in a rocket going a bajillion miles per hour then spend weeks or months floating around eating freeze-dried “food” for nutrition and getting all atrophied up in their muscles. Or whatever they do. There would be some things that would be pretty cool to try in zero gravity, and the view can’t be beat, but I would just miss you and I-man too much. Thanks, but no thanks!

Levi: There you have it, folks. Sometimes exploration is best left to the experts…like novelists and filmmakers. You can go to Mars and still sleep in your own bed.

Music corner: There are quite a few cool songs about space, and some were even mentioned in the book (David Bowie’s “Life on Mars?” of course). But there were a couple very recent tunes I had in mind while reading this: “On the Way” by Built to Spill and “Red Planet” by Alvvays. Groove ’em.


Posted by on July 3, 2015 in Novels


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Saga, Volume Four

Author: Brian K. Vaughan

Artist: Fiona Staples

Type: Fiction, comic

Collects issues: 19-24

Published: 2014

I read it: May 2015


While retaining its grandiosity, this volume brings the story closer to what it has worked to be from the beginning: a domestic tale. It’s still set against a backdrop of political upheaval, but the core arc features Marko as a stay-at-home dad (with a couple family nannies) and Alana working a crap job as an entertainer to put food on the table.

“From the moment it’s formed, a family is almost always under attack.” This is one of baby Hazel’s observations, alluding to the dangers of a woman at the park who befriends Marko, and equally applicable to Alana’s budding drug problem. Hazel’s narrations edge a bit closer to the fourth wall with each volume, offering wide ideas like:

Characters are supposed to have ‘arcs,’ where they grow and evolve over the course of the story.

In the real world, people never change that much.

Grownups, anyway.

This is accurate for the current story, in which Alana remains gratingly reactionary (she’s the type of person I’d never want to hang out with in real life, but it makes her believable if nothing else) and Marko is mopey and selfish. The volume benefits from limiting the number of new characters (including one new baby whose page one entrance you can’t miss), and with all the important characters established the table is pretty well set for the everyone to interact in interesting ways. The Saga continues.

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Posted by on June 26, 2015 in Comics


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Oryx and Crake

Author: Margaret Atwood

Type: Fiction, novel

Part of series: MaddAddam (#1)

Published: 2003

I read it: May 2015


Snowman opens his eyes, shuts them, opens them, keeps them open. He’s had a terrible night. He doesn’t know which is worse, a past he can’t regain or a present that will destroy him if he looks at it too clearly. Then there’s the future. Sheer vertigo.

The past and the present are a constant torture for Snowman, as in both Abominable (because of his mythological status to his not-quite-human neighbors) and a melting figure (as he wastes away trying to survive in a forest near a beach). When he’s not working to find food and avoid wolvogs and pigoons, he’s reminiscing about Oryx whispering in his ear. This was when he was Jimmy, though it wasn’t that long ago. Oryx was a person with a rocky past, a strange dream somehow turned into reality for Jimmy. And Crake was the closest thing to his best friend, an ambitious genius who simultaneously helped end society and start a new one.

There’s a lot going on in Oryx and Crake, not all of it comfortable to read about, but Atwood pulls it off by keeping things personal. The twin narratives of present-Snowman and past-Jimmy are equally peculiar in their connections to a world we know but yet is noticeably different. Jimmy’s time is a not-too-distant future from our own in which the lucky and educated live in isolated research communities. His home is within the compound of OrganInc, one of many companies that does genetic research. (Atwood’s creation of mashed-up words and catchphrases can be piercing or silly, but “OrganInc” is one of the great ones. It calls to mind the obvious “organic,” but also “organ” as in the growth or transplants of body parts.) Jimmy struggles to understand his distant and fighting parents, and his mom becomes a liability to his closely monitored existence. In high school, he meets the clever Crake, though they waste most of their time getting consumed by various internet distractions, interspersed with playing strategic two-player games that mimic broad cultural patterns, sort of like role-playing versions of Risk.

Snowman, on the other hand, is almost a separate being entirely. He’s the only human left after some huge catastrophe decimated most of Earth, or at least his portion of it. His task is to loosely oversee the Crakers, relatively simple humanoid beings who have a peaceful colony on the beach. Why are they named after Crake? Why do they worship both him and Oryx? These are the overarching questions that the dual timelines work toward, and they are fully answered by the end of the book. The big ideas are about the collapse and rebirth of a society, and the devastating yet creative hand humans have in genetic technologies. Someone once quipped that humans are just one generation away from returning to the stone age. That is, because most of our progress is taught and learned and recorded, but not possible to really internalize, if something were to blow it all up tomorrow we’d have to start from scratch (ijndustrially, scientifically, philosophically) and might not be able to get back to where we are now. Frightening stuff.

The book grips with its intellectual muscle, but it’s not a perfect story. Jimmy is sometimes too traditional a moody protagonist, which works in his high school chapters and on into some college, but the whole thing wears a bit by the end. I found it hard to care about his string of failed relationships and his adult ennui. It’s realistic, I suppose, but totally kills the momentum. Crake is intriguing, but struggles to break out of the loner genius trappings. The whole story of Oryx is dark and challenging, and I found myself wanting to both read on and turn away in disgust. I’m not sure yet what I really think of the decision to give her that sort of past.

Atwood is a highly linguistic writer, in that she can never turn away from the idea of words themselves and what they mean to us. This results in plenty of little treats, such as the aforementioned “OrganInc” or a facility called “Paradice” which uses a single letter to swing the meaning toward chance and risk. She can’t resist opportunities like this:

The prospect of his future life stretched before him like a sentence; not a prison sentence, but a long-winded sentence with a lot of unnecessary subordinate clauses, as he was soon in the habit of quipping during Happy Hour.

Atwood channels her own language play into a self-awareness that her too-smart characters use as defense mechanisms.

All told, I think I enjoyed this book because I knew that it was the first installment in a trilogy. I kept wondering if it would have worked as a novel on its own and I think…maybe? But the thematic vistas are too wide to be contained here, and there must be more characters who have a hand in this world. Will Snowman even be involved in the next book? Will we learn more about Oryx and Crake or do we already have enough to go on? As one of the passages in the last few pages goes: “Can a single ant be said to be alive, in any meaningful sense of the word, or does it only have relevance in terms of its anthill?” It remains to be seen if the anthill can be rebuilt, and whether it will even be constructed by “ants” at all.

I like not knowing what is to come.

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Posted by on June 19, 2015 in Novels


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