Book Review: The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker (2012)

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Julia and her family wake up on a seemingly normal Saturday afternoon to find out that the world they took for granted has changed. The rotation of the Earth has begun to slow, causing night and day to extend by a few minutes each day. As the process stretches out, gravity is affected, birds begin dying off, and people are split between those who stick with the twenty-four hour clock and those who still follow the rhythms of the Sun.

“There was no footage to show on television, no burning buildings or broken bridges, no twisted metal or scorched earth, no houses sliding off slabs. No one was wounded. No one was dead. It was, at the beginning, a quite invisible catastrophe”

Take a moment and think about how dependent we are on the rotation of the Earth. For billions of years the sun has risen and set on a twenty-four hour cycle. The movements of the sun tells us when to begin and end our day. It tells us which meals to eat and when. When it is safe to go out on the street versus when should we lock our doors. Now what would happen if all of the habits ingrained in our circadian rhythm were suddenly disrupted? What if school began in the middle of the night? Or if you were expected to go to sleep in the bright afternoon light? The Age of Miracles explores the idea of how society would adjust to cope with the loss of the intrinsic dichotomy of night and day.

“We were, on that day, no different from the ancients, terrified of our own big sky.”

This book is difficult to categorize. It’s a little bit YA, a little bit science fiction. It’s a coming of age story, a natural disaster story, and a story about time and our natural relationship with night and day. It’s also a beautifully written novel about a girl who is trying to come to terms with her life when everything she took for granted in her life is suddenly upended.

My favorite part of this book is that it is written from the perspective of an eleven year old girl. Too much of the natural disaster genre focuses on “scientist who is totally brilliant but overlooked until its too late”. Instead, we watch the Earth stop spinning through the eyes of someone who is more focused on whether or not the cute boy on the bus is going to pay attention to her. Children don’t expect the same things from life that adults do. For Julia, the biggest problem she is currently facing is not that the sun hasn’t risen in twenty hours, it’s that her best friend is no longer speaking to her. The main plot of the story almost plays like a backdrop to the everyday pitfalls and triumphs of an ordinary teenager. In this aspect, The Age of Miracles is utterly unique, which means that it is also utterly unpredictable.

Something else that kept cropping up in this novel was the idea that even when presented with an extinction-level crisis, humanity will somehow always find time to create an “us” versus a “them”. In this case, it’s the people who choose to carry on with a twenty-four hour clock versus the people who decide change their sleeping patterns to fit with the changing sun. It is sadly unsurprising that the two groups cannot seem to peacefully coexist. Even when faced with our own destruction, society will feel the need to know that they went down swinging in the “correct” way.

Overall, this was a quick read that kept me thoroughly engaged from start to finish. Walker’s prose borders on poetry at times, but she manages not to stray into the realm of overly sappy or purple language. I would definitely recommend this book.

My rating: 4/5

You can find this book here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!


Book Review: Do Not Say We Have Nothing by Madeleine Thien (2016)

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The official oneyearonehundredbooks won’t begin until January 1st, but I just finished reading an amazing novel and it would be a crime not to share it all with you. So I’ve decided to jump the gun a little bit and begin my year of book reviews by telling you about Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing.

This is the inter-generational story of the Communist Revolution of China. Much of the story focuses on Sparrow, a young composer living in Shanghai. We watch him struggle through Mao’s Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. We also follow Sparrow’s extended family as they struggle through the student protests of 1989 and the horrific culmination at the Tiananmen Square massacre.

“This is a skill we perfect from an early age,” The Professor said lightly, “How to grind ideas into a fine cloud of dust”

What happens to a society when all of the art, music, and beauty have been scraped away? What lasting repercussions ripple through the generations when children are made to denounce their fathers or face being denounced themselves? How do you hold on to your hopes, your dreams, your individuality when things like hopes and dreams and individuality have been labeled as seditious?

These questions and more are at the center of Do Not Say We Have Nothing. Thien does not shy away from shining a glaring light into the dark places of the Communist Revolution. We veer wildly from the naive optimism of the early days of Mao Zhedong, into the mob mentalilty and paranoia of the Cultural Revolution. The fierce hope of the student protests at Tiananmen are filled with a kind of desperate longing, made all the more painful because we already know how the situation is to end.

Classical composers such as Bach, Prokofiev, and Shostakavich are used to highlight the healing and inspiring power of music. As the Cultural Revolution rages on and such music is labeled “counter-revolutionary” it is replaced by nationalistic operas and government mandated slogans. How the characters deal with this loss of music in their lives is one of the highlights of the novel.

“Beauty leaves its imprint on the mind. Throughout history, there have been many moments that can never be recovered, but you and I know that they existed”

About five years ago, the kindergarten I worked for in China hosted a picnic for Children’s Day. About a hundred children attended together with their parents and grandparents. There was music, dancing, face painting, and huge table filled with food. At one point, I was supervising the lunch table and I noticed an elderly Chinese woman, obviously someone’s grandmother. As she navigated the buffet table, she took about fifteen sausages and put them in a plastic bag, and put the bag in her purse. She proceeded to do the same with the fried potatoes, the stuffed buns, and the shrimp. Many of the children and parents had not yet had a chance to eat. To my well-fed American eyes, this struck me as incredibly rude. It was only later that evening that I stopped to truly consider all that that woman had experienced during her long life in China. The beginnings of Communism and the rice famine. The Cultural Revolution and the One-Child Policy. The growing environmental problems coinciding with China’s rise as an economic power. The lasting repercussions of that constant hunger, upheaval, and uncertainty. Reading this book, I felt a new-found respect for everything that Chinese grandmother had endured and overcome.

Good historical fiction has the ability to transport the reader back into another time and place, to enthrall us with detail of a period we can only try to understand. Truly great historical fiction demands more of the reader. It requires that we put ourselves in pain; that we experience the past with all the urgency of the present. It insists that we draw parallels and comparisons with the society we live in today. And it encourages us to learn more, to dive between the pages and conduct our own outside research. For this reader, Do Not Say We Have Nothing is truly great historical fiction.

My rating: 4.5/5

Find it here on Amazon or here on Book Depository.

Happy reading everyone!