A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
Publisher: Hogarth Books
ASIN: B00A5MS0Z0
402 pages, ebook
Published 1st January 2013
Sources: Blogging for Books & Edelweiss

 Somehow, this notably well-reviewed novel slipped under my radar even past its release. Only upon perusing the Blogging for Books offerings did I discover it, and I am glad I chose to give it a try. If you haven’t heard about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena yet, or if it has been sitting on your to-read or consideration list, I’d recommend getting a copy ASAP. Then clear some nights for engrossed reading.
For those not familiar with the plot of Anthony Marra’s award-winning novel, it is set in the war-ravaged region of Chechnya and traces the intersecting experiences of a small cast of characters as they struggle for life, a combination of survival and purpose.
When Russian soldiers come for her father, eight-year-old Havaa flees into the surrounding Chechen woods, where her father’s friend Akhmed rescues her and takes her to hide at the nearly deserted hospital. There, the sole doctor left in this war-torn wasteland is Sonja, a European-trained physician who has returned through a sense of responsibility both to home and to a sister that has gone missing. Reluctantly, Sonja agrees to help care for Havaa, and – in testament to dire conditions – accepts the inept medical help of Akhmed, who has failed out of medical school and yearns more for artistic expressions.
Thrown together in awful circumstances, these characters share a stubborn commitment to hope for individuals and a future that fights against the despair surrounding them. With recollections of the past years of the Chechen conflict, and the constant threat that present friends may turn on them for personal gain with the Russians, these characters discover their lives intertwined, past, present and future.
The novel’s title comes from a definition for life given by a medical text/dictionary in the novel. The term is remarkably difficult to biologically define in one sentence. Typically, biologists will talk of characteristics of life, rather than settling on a strict definition. But the one here given title is particularly resonant in capturing the essential sum of those characteristics of life. They form an interlocking constellation of phenomena, individual traits that put together form a picture unique and new with a story. Similarly like stars each of the characters in Marra’s novel interact together to form a constellation in this historical space of humanity.
Metaphorically one could speak of a certain balance between the stars in forming a constellation. Similarly, Marra’s novel succeeds so well because of the careful balance he is able to strike in its construction. The shifts in time from chapter to chapter (or even within chapters) is managed without any sense of rupture or confusion. Each of the characters is an interesting balance of strengths and weaknesses and even the villains are shown with traits of sympathy and compassion.
(The novel does appropriately stay focused on the Chechens. The Russians in the novels are an outside force of the plot and setting more so than characters, and the villains, heroes, or mixtures in the story are each Chechen here.)
The emotional weight of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena could quickly take it into a story that feels utterly bleak. Marra nicely finds balance here as well, with the character’s vital hopes and perseverance working to counter the negative, and the young Havaa in particular offers a bright ray of humor and compassion that symbolizes a certain hope for the lives of a future generation.
The events of the novel’s ‘present-day’ plot consist of a mere five days, but A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes these points to form a picture over decades of conflict, personal and spiritual. The novel will pass similarly fast while reading, but its power and humanity will echo with the reader far longer.
Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the Crown Publishing Group via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

The Director, by David Ignatius

The Director, by David Ignatius
Publisher: W.W. Norton & Co.
ISBN: 0393078140
386 pages, hardcover
Published: 2nd June 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

 With The Director, David Ignatius sets out to update the spy novel to the present day realities of cyber-warfare, hacking, and post-Snowdon agency secrecy practices. The resulting story, full of realism and detail, is more akin to a combination of a political and techno thriller than to a spy novel. A fictionalized version of the nonfiction that Ignatius is expert in, The Director ends up being a series of information-laden meetings between characters, heavy on conveying facts or analysis and light on action. Despite the appeal and attraction of the novel’s plot and themes, this execution makes it a relatively dry read to get through, a political/spy thriller equivalent of the hard SF genre.

As its title implies, The Director involves protagonist Graham Weber, the newly-minted director of the CIA who is committed to turning the agency around into something more modern and efficient. Mere days into his tenure, a hacker with unsettling information enters a US consulate in Hamburg and soon after turns up dead. As inter- and intra-agency wheels begin to slowly turn, Weber places a young techno-geek agent named Morris in Germany to investigate the hacker’s claims and murder. However, it becomes slowly clear to Weber that the goals of Morris and of other bureaucrats in Washington may not coincide with his own.

On one hand the novel is about idealistic and naive Director Weber and his fight to navigate the bureaucracy of Washington DC and the influence of other players, and to ultimately overcome them for the ultimate good of the nation.  It is in this way that the novel reads more like a political thriller than a spy or action novel. The term ‘thriller’ doesn’t even necessarily apply. With his appointment as Director, Weber serves as proxy to facilitate the reader’s education into theories on the origins of the CIA, its current workings, and the possible future threats it faces.

Ignatius’ experience as columnist for the Washington Post with expertise on the CIA and its workings make him ideal for writing a novel like this. However, his desire to saturate the novel with detailed verisimilitude in the place of action produces something that is hard to get through with enjoyment or captivation, particularly when having the expectation of reading fiction. The Director instead comes closer to delivering the kind of content and experience I’d rather expect from nonfiction.

Despite its title, the novel also spends a significant percentage of time on Morris and other agents of various nations or hacker organizations who meet with Weber or with Morris. Morris is such a key aspect to the novel that in some ways he seems like the actual protagonist who others, including Weber, are responding to. Only at the end, when things suddenly seem to unravel for Morris and Weber plays hidden cards does the novel turn fully back to Weber.

Ultimately, the premise and content of The Director is fascinating, and Ignatius can craft a very realistic and complex narrative around these elements. This kind of political thriller certainly has its fans, but for me the endless dry meetings between bureaucrats or other players simply made the reading experience feel boring and uneventful.

Two Stars out of Five