Tag Archives: ghosts

Archivist Wasp by Nicole Kornher-Stace

I made my book club read this book and none of them were mad at me for it. Therefore, it must be worthy of review.

I can’t really give a description of this book that won’t make it sound like another Hunger Games, or Divergent, or any other post-apocalyptic YA novel about a girl in a desperate future trying to survive, but you’ll have to trust me that it is so, so much more than that. Wasp’s future is so bleak it really isn’t worth living in at all, and there isn’t the romantic element that runs through those other YA books, and Wasp doesn’t need to spend several books changing the world, she does it in one. Seriously, Wasp could kick Katniss’ and Tris’ asses at the same time and still get something else done that day.

The premise: Wasp lives in a society where there is barely enough food to go around, people live hand-to-mouth, and all modern technology has been lost, but no one knows exactly what happened to make it this way. The future is full of ghosts, who outnumber and threaten the living. For years, “chosen” girls (known by the scars on their faces, purportedly left by the goddess Catchkeep’s claws) have been collected by the Catchkeep Priest, who raises them and supervises the work of one girl – the Archivist. The Archivist’s job is to hunt ghosts, use them to try to find out what happened in the past if she can, and then dispatch them so that they can no longer harm the living.  Every year, one of the girls (an “Upstart”) is chosen to fight the current Archivist. If the Upstart wins, she becomes the Archivist. If she loses, the Archivist keeps her job (and her life) for another year. Wasp has been the Archivist for 3 years. Her life is miserable. She lives apart from the other girls and the villagers fear her, so she has no contact with anyone other than the sadistic Catchkeep Priest, who controls her life completely.  She cannot escape – she’s tried, and the Priest and his dogs always find her and bring her back. The work is horrible – she traps ghosts, tries to extract information from them, and then kills them day after day, and never makes much progress deciphering why her world is the way it is – until the day she finds a ghost who has retained enough of his memories to talk to her. He needs her help to find another ghost. Can she trust him? Will helping the ghost free Wasp from her life as she knows it? She is desperate enough to give it a whirl. And the story goes from there.

What is this book like? It’s kind of like Divergent or Station Eleven, in the sense that the world has changed but lots of old stuff (abandoned cities, random objects) are still lying around, many of their purposes forgotten. It’s like the Hunger Games in that children are forced to fight to the death. It’s like The Handmaid’s Tale in the sense that girls are raised for a religious purpose that they know nothing about, by sadistic men who don’t tell them the whole story. (And maybe like Brave New World where children are predestined to do what society needs them to do, regardless of whether that’s what they want.)  Another story that kept popping into my mind as I read it was Sheri Tepper’s Raising the Stones. Even though the details aren’t the same, the general idea of young people carrying on a religion that they don’t know the origin of is similar.

A member of my book club suggested that I should post the questions we used for our discussion, since we all sometimes have trouble finding discussion questions and have to Google around to see if anyone else has done it for us. So, as a gesture of goodwill to other book clubbers out there, here they are:

  1. The ghost doesn’t even remember why he must find Kit any more, but he is still compelled to try. Have you ever had a goal that you pursued even after almost forgetting why?
  2. Did you expect the ghosts of the defeated Upstarts to help Wasp? Would you have?
  3. Did you expect a romantic relationship between Wasp and the ghost as soon as you realized that he was male?
  4. One review I read said the journey through the underworld was “repetitive and boring”. do you agree or disagree?
  5. page 69 test. Go.
  6. Imagine for a moment what it would have been like for Wasp and Kit to meet and get to know each other. Would they be friends?
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A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

taletimebeing

I have wanted to write this blog entry since I finished chapter 1, but I made myself wait until I was finished to be sure the book didn’t go off the rails somewhere before the end. It didn’t, so I can now recommend it without reservations.

The book is told by several characters in turn. We start with Nao Yasutani, a teenage girl in Tokyo who is writing in her diary. She was raised in California, but when the dot-com bubble burst her family returned to their native Japan. Nao is miserable there. She is a transfer student at a less-than-stellar public school because her Japanese skills are poor and her family has no money for tutors, and she is mercilessly bullied by her classmates. Her father is depressed because of his failure in America, and he has tried (and failed) to commit suicide. Nao fears he will eventually succeed. Nao herself wants to commit suicide, but she decides that it is important to first tell the story of her great grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, before she ends it all.

Enter Ruth, a novelist, walking on the shore of her remote island in western Canada. She finds Nao’s diary and some other artifacts in a barnacle-covered freezer bag, and begins to read. Despite the fact that she SHOULD be working on her memoir, Ruth becomes obsessed with figuring out whether Nao is still alive, and what happened to her and her family. The package she found is full of clues – letters in Japanese from Nao’s uncle to her great-grandmother, her uncle’s secret diary and his Sky Soldier watch from World War II. Throughout the story, Ruth tries to find any reference to determine whether the Yasutanis survived their suicidal plans or the tsunami that may have washed away the package containing the diary in the first place – but every time she finds a clue online, it is later blocked, unavailable or can no longer be found. Ruth begins to fear for her sanity and her memory (her mother died of Alzheimer’s disease, and she dreads getting it too) as she loses track of time and can’t find clues that she knows were there the last time she looked.

Other parts of the story are told through Nao’s uncle’s letters and diary, and Ruth’s correspondence with a psychology professor who was friends with Nao’s father in California.

This book is worth reading for the magical, fleeting moments that join all of the characters and intertwine their lives, even though they never meet physically. The fantastical elements of the story – a displaced Japanese crow that links Ruth with Nao’s father, the dreams where Ruth visits Nao’s family members and delivers messages and artifacts, the visits Nao receives from her dead uncle’s ghost – all of these things are woven so subtly into the story that they seem completely plausible once you are immersed and grow to love the characters. The idea that Ruth’s husband Oliver proposes near the end – that the ending of Nao’s story depends on Ruth reading it – is tied in with his and Ruth’s musings on the thought experiment of Schrodinger’s cat, and when Oliver suggests that Nao is both alive and dead, depending on whether or not and when she is observed, I thought this sounded perfectly sensible.

This is the kind of book I love – one that leads you down a fanciful path that your rational mind knows isn’t real, but seems completely logical while you are on it. In that sense, this book reminds me a lot of Toni Morrison’s books, where characters suddenly fly or transform or return from the dead and you KNOW it isn’t possible, but it fits the story, so who can challenge it? Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate also comes to mind as a possible read-alike, in spirit if not in style.

Another thing I especially liked was all of the philosophies and scientific theories that were presented in this book in a very accessible way. They were usually presented by Oliver explaining them to Ruth, or Jiko (the great grandmother) explaining them to Nao. Because Ruth is a novelist and Nao is a teenager, and neither has studied much philosophy or physics, Oliver and Jiko have to present them in a way that is easy to understand, and this made them easy for me as well.