Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Winter's Tale

The release of a film based on a popular novel often spurs me to add the book to my reading list; rarely does it prompt me to see the movie. Such was the case with Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin, which had been on my "to read" list for at least a year, although I can't recall how it got there.

If I were a professor of literature, I might feel qualified to pass judgement on the quality of this novel. In my relative ignorance, however, I can't decide if it is brilliant or horrendous. In some places, it is barely readable, although I don't know whether I should attribute that to the author's fanciful, meandering prose or my poor understanding of it.

Apparently Mr. Helprin believes an incomplete sentence is one without a metaphor. While I certainly admire his ability to construct a vivid phrase, I often wished he would tone it down a little, much as I sometimes wish contestants on televised singing competitions were not so compelled to display their vocal acrobatics.

My primary criticism of the book is that it's simply too long. I'm not one to shrink from reading long novels, but this one had too much prose that did not advance the story in any way. The length could've been reduced by a third simply by removing the near constant descriptions of snow.

Also, the "mysteries" in the novel are never explained, which was annoying after finishing all 750 pages, hoping to find out what was so special about Peter Lake, or Hardesty's plate, or Jackson Mead, or the Lake of the Coheeries, and basically everything else in the story. I sense this is a type of religious allegory and I'm not tuned in enough to recognize the symbols. 

Otherwise, it is a diverting story full of interesting and likeable characters. Although it is described as "magical realism," I would classify it more as fantasy, which is not my favorite genre, so maybe that's why I wasn't enthralled.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Submission

Despite the glowing reviews, I probably wouldn't have chosen to read Amy Waldman's The Submission if it were not my book group's May selection. I feel as if I've read and watched enough stories exploring the trauma of the 9/11 attacks that all possible emotional and psychological territory has been covered.

Ms. Waldman hasn't found a new planet in the 9/11 universe, but her fictional story of the chaos following the selection of a memorial design to honor the victims is a thoughtful portrayal of the complex relations Muslim-Americans faced during the years following the attacks. 

The novel opens with a jury of 13 choosing between two final designs for a memorial to be built on the site of the destroyed towers. A rule of the competition is that the designers remain anonymous until the winner is announced. The jury chooses "The Garden," and the chairman opens the envelope to read the name of the winning designer: Mohammed Khan. So begins a saga that will upend the lives of the enigmatic Mr. Khan, some members of the jury, families of the victims and assorted other characters.

The story is told primarily from the perspectives of the ambitious architect Mo Khan and the wealthy Claire Burwell, a 9/11 widow who has championed his design on the jury. These two seem to have more in common with each other than with anyone else in their lives, and the reader has the feeling that if they could just sit down for dinner together, they would form an impregnable alliance. But a conversation doesn't happen until too late, after events have forced both into entrenched positions.

If the novel asks a central question, it is probably "how can we learn to trust each other?" That's a crucial debate for any society.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls

Ok, I cheated slightly on my one-book-a-week reading challenge. Because I didn't read as much as I had hoped during my spring break vacation, I took an opportunity to catch up by choosing a book I knew I could read in a weekend. Also, I was in the mood for something light.

David Sedaris is almost always laugh-out-loud, rolling in the floor funny, but I've enjoyed his other books more than Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls. His humor always strikes me as poignant, an exercise in laughing through the tears. This collection of essays had the usual reminisces of painful moments of childhood, young adulthood and romantic disappointments, but the humor fell short.

In a few essays which he claims to offer for high school students to read as part of a forensics debate club exercise, Sedaris writes in the voice of an alternate, fictional persona. Some of these were completely off; I couldn't tell if they were meant to be funny, satirical, sad or angry.

Even when Sedaris is not at his best, he's better than most humor writers, so if you're a fan, you may be slightly disappointed with this book, but you'll still relish the few hours you'll get to spend with this master of observational wit.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Sparrow Migrations

A disclaimer: I'm acquainted with the author of this week's book, and I like her, but I will do my best to be objective in my review.

My book club chose Sparrow Migrations, by Cari Noga, to discuss at our April meeting and invited the author, who lives in our town, to join us. So Friday night we were in the unusual position of being at wine, er, book group and talking about the book.

The novel intertwines the stories of three ordinary, fictional families whose lives were altered by the real crash landing on the Hudson River in 2009 by the flight piloted by Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger. Their stories are told in parallel for most of the book as the characters do not meet at the time of the crash and go their separate ways, and for one of the characters, the reader can't imagine how her life could intersect with the others again. But as Seinfeld made New York City seem almost as small as Mayberry, the two degrees of separation for these characters make a reunion inevitable.

The most compelling character to me was Robby, a 12-year-old autistic boy who is aboard a sight-seeing ferry when the plane landed on the river. On hearing that birds likely caused the accident, Robby becomes obsessed with learning more. In what could be a common fantasy for parents of an atypical child, Robby meets a kind and wise mentor who sees his autism not as a crushing disability, but as a gifted ability that, properly nurtured, could make him specially suited for work as a scientist.

I was so engaged with Robby's storyline that I read impatiently through the others, although sometimes lesbian mom Brett's story had enough drama to draw me in. I related the least to professional ├╝ber-couple Christopher and Deborah.

Cari's journalism background is evident in the clear, concise prose. This is a pleasant and diverting first novel and a relatively easy read, yet it isn't simplistic or amateurish. The characters are richly-drawn and the plots are interesting. It certainly provided lots of fodder for discussion at our book group meeting!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

What's the Economy for Anyway?

Due to a nearly two-week spring break trip, I'm slightly behind on my book-a-week reading challenge, but I anticipate being back on track soon.

My vacation book was the next selection in the Bob Russell Resilience Reading Project, What's the Economy for, Anyway? by John de Graaf and David K. Batker. While the book was a clearly-written and interesting way for this former C economics student to re-engage intentionally with the discipline, as well as economic policy issues, I suppose I wasn't quite as ignorant as I assumed because most of the information was familiar territory. I guess I can credit a decade of involvement with Bay Bucks, our local currency project, for keeping me up to speed with economic theories and alternative money structures.

The first premise presented in the book is that the Gross National Product (GNP) and its stepchild, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), are poor measures of the nation's economic health. For example, the spending required to clean up after disasters will raise both measures, but no rational economist would claim the country would be better off with more disasters.

The authors propose evaluations that focus on a goal of the greatest good for the greatest number over the longest run. Equality and sustainability should be considered when we judge the merit of economic policies. This was not a newsflash for me.

Perhaps because I'm poorly traveled, the primary eye-openers in the book for me were the economic comparisons of the United States to other nations. Being a big newspaper reader, I've seen plenty of charts showing the U.S. lagging in education, health care, wages, vacation time and numerous other measures, but this book brought so much of that together that I now feel like I'm living in a bad banana republic and wonder if immigration to Norway is possible for a middle-aged couple.

I'm content with my personal economic situation. I'm not rich, but I have enough and I don't yearn for more. I don't care to trade more time for money. I wish as a people we would stop measuring success with dollar signs. However, considering the inequity of current economic policies makes me want to grab the torches and pitchforks and storm the castle. We desperately need a fairer distribution of wealth.

For those who would like to learn more about this topic but don't want to read a book, I highly recommend the documentary Inequality for All featuring former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. It's available for streaming on Netflix and would be an excellent use of 88 minutes of your time.