A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

9780770436407_p0_v4_s260x420Although the Olympic Games in Russia presented an image of physical prowess among pristine hills and beautiful venues, Anthony Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is a stark reminder of the turmoil and oppression in that part of the world. Marra’s novel is set in war torn Chechnya, but present day Kiev is not that far away. And Putin’s name first appears on page 141.

After eight year old year old Havaa sees her father killed by Russian soldiers and her house burned down, her neighbor, Akhmed, rescues her and hides her in an abandoned hospital with the help of a weary but determined Sonja Rabina, the only doctor remaining in the rundown building. Taking advantage of Akhmed’s desperation and that he has completed medical school, Sonja promises to keep the child hidden as long as Akhmed (“the worst Doctor in Chechnya”) returns everyday from ministering to his bed ridden wife, to work at the hospital. Havaa’s life is still in danger, and the resident traitor, Ramzan, who lives and thrives in the neighborhood, threatens to find her and turn her into the Russian authorities.

Although the story runs through five days, Marra inserts flashbacks in the characters’ lives – before the first war, between the two wars – and conveniently identifies the year at the beginning of chapters. By creating a timeline measuring from 1994 to 2004, Marra emphasizes the horror of how recent this history is. The characters – their dreams and personal sacrifice – are all affected by the realities of war and deprivation, making the action personal. Lives mysteriously intersect, and the ending is both devastating and promising.

At times, the descriptions of white slavery and brutal torture are graphic and hard to bear, but Marra tempers the horror with moments of humor and compassion, using art as the conduit for understanding and memory. I read through this engaging book quickly, hoping for some redemption for Havaa – it came, but at a price.

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After recently watching the Queen of England parachute into the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games with the king of spies, the fantasy of queens and adventure seems closer to reality.  In Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue, young Queen Bitterblue goes undercover at night to explore the underbelly of her kingdom, looking for connections to her people, and the reasons for their unrest.  Of course, she meets a handsome leader of the resistance who reveals uncomfortable truths.

Although I have not read the first two books in the trilogy, Cashore’s interview in the New York Times –By the Book – prompted me to find her most recent contribution to young adult fantasy – Bitterblue, the third book in the Graceling trilogy.  Queen Bitterblue rules over the realm of Monsea in the Seven Kingdoms, where some are born with a “Grace,” a superhuman skill that can take any form, from super strength convenient for a bodyguard, to extraordinary memory, good for the librarian/archivist, or telling mind-altering lies that people believe, like the former King.  The “grace” may be also be as simple as baking good bread.

Cashore weaves the story with adventure and fills in the backstory for those who have not read the first two books.  The plot has a young queen trying to overcome the horror her father left behind in the abused kingdom, while trying to decide whom she can trust.  Her romance with the rebel leader provides some angst when he discovers who she really is, but the ciphered messages in the embroidery and books offer her as much challenge as learning how to wield a sword.

A fun young adult fantasy… I never did solve what Bitterblue’s “grace” is – maybe it’s becoming the fair and noble queen.


Maybe it’s the racing or the underdog that attracts Lauren Hillenbrand to look for the story behind the phenom.  In Seabiscuit, she wrote about a famous racehorse with unlikely prospects that goes on to win. In Unbroken, an Olympic runner from Italian immigrant parents, and the ultimate survivor of World War II is her focus.

Learning about Louis Zamperini’s saga reminded me of having coffee with an elderly man who had been through the war and wanted to tell his story – with every detail painfully remembered.  Hildenbrand never had the cup of coffee –  her disability prevented her from meeting Zamperini in person – but she conducted over 75 interviews over the phone.  Her ambitious research used documents, diaries, letters, and any available data on the life of a man who came to represent one of the last surviving war heroes.

As Zamperini tames his youthful tendency to juvenile delinquency by honing his athletic talent – all the way to the Olympics, Hildenbrand fills in the family and friends influence before getting to the meat of her book –  the horrors and misery of Zamperini surviving on a raft in the ocean after being shot down, only to become a tortured prisoner of war, and then returning to civilian life unable to cope.  Zamperini’s Japanese torturer, Watanabe, is the villain who seems to get away with murder.  The search for Watanabe, after the war is over, becomes a suspenseful thread.

In telling Zamperini’s story, Hillenbrand personalizes a piece of history.  Her story seems pedantic at times, but her accomplishment in writing and researching her subject over seven years, despite her disability, is a testament to her own capabilities as an underdog who is determined to stay the race.