Wednesday, December 17, 2014

THE CHILDREN OF MEN by P.D. James

Author P.D. James passed away recently, and, since I’d never read one of her novels, I picked up THE CHILDREN OF MEN. I saw the movie years ago, and, although I don’t remember it very well, I think that the movie and the book share a basic premise, and that’s about all.  That premise is that humans are no longer able to procreate, and the last generation is now in their 20s.  I think the whole scenario is intriguing, and James’s imagining of its hopelessness and the unfortunate consequences is on target.  If anything, with the end of the human race on the horizon, I might expect people to behave even more badly than they do in this novel.  Theo Faron lost his only child in an accident in which Theo was at fault, and he has basically cut himself off from everyone emotionally.  Society is deteriorating, and Theo’s cousin Xan is in charge. Then one of Theo’s former students, a young woman named Julian, introduces him to a handful of people who want Theo to intercede with Xan to effect some reforms.  Xan is uncooperative, but Theo still believes than Xan is trying to do the best he can.  Months later the band of revolutionaries seek Theo out again, proclaiming that they are harboring a pregnant woman.  Her safety is their number one priority, and they don’t feel that they can trust Xan.  The movie was released during the Christmas season, and I remember thinking that the Christian overtones were obvious—a baby born in less than ideal surroundings who can potentially save the world.  These parallels are not so apparent here, although one member of the group dies so that the others can live, and James makes the Jesus reference crystal clear in this case.  A savior dies and a savior is born, maybe?  I don’t know if religious symbolism is a hallmark of her other books or not, but there are several conversations in this one, questioning the existence of God.  Bottom line:  the book was rather slow moving, and perhaps I should have chosen one of James’s mysteries as my first foray into her body of work.  On the plus side, there are reams of wise and thought-provoking passages in this book.  “The world is changed not by the self-regarding, but by men and women prepared to make fools of themselves.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

POMPEII by Robert Harris

Attilius is the new engineer in charge of the aqueduct for the towns at the base of Vesuvius in 79 A.D.  When the water suddenly stops flowing, he sets out to make the repairs, north of Pompeii.  There’s a simple but handy map at the beginning of the book, and I flipped back to it repeatedly to get the lay of the land.  Also, the author prefaces each chapter with an appropriate quote from an authoritative text about the behavior of an erupting volcano.  Anyway, an aqueduct engineer seems to be an unlikely hero for an adventure/disaster/love story, but he has intellect and integrity, and he’s right in the thick of things.  He makes some unsettling discoveries about his predecessor, who mysteriously vanished, and knowledge can be a dangerous thing.  The author paints such a vivid picture of Pompeii at the time, with all its decadence and barbarism, in what passed for civilization at the time.  If a natural disaster of this magnitude happened in this country today, I would expect there to be just as much panic and poor decision-making.  I don’t know if any political corruption would creep to the surface here, but this is fiction after all.  I’m sure scientists can draw some reasonably accurate conclusions about what happened in Pompeii as far as the physical destruction of the city, but I don’t think we can really know how the residents responded.  This book made up for what it lacked in character development by providing a captivating plot in a historical setting.  I can see why it was chosen for a recent study of fiction readers, proving once again how we can submerse ourselves in a story and come out with a greater understanding of ourselves and our fellow human beings.  Here’s a link to an article about that study: http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2013/12/a-novel-look-at-how-stories-may-change.html 

A movie entitled Pompeii came out last year, and I just watched that, but it is not based on this novel, unfortunately.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

SHANTARAM by Gregory David Roberts

A book has to be special to keep me interested for over 900 pages.  The Goldfinch was special, but this book is not.  In fact, it is to India what The Power of One is to South Africa—too long, too tedious, and too self-aggrandizing.  Lin is an Australian ex-heroin-addict in the 1980s who escaped from an Australian prison where he was serving time for armed robbery.  He amasses enough forged documents to transport himself to Bombay, where he encounters a colorful group of expats and makes a living connecting foreigners to drug dealers.  A mugging leaves him broke, and he moves into an illegal slum near his beloved Indian friend Prabaker.  Lin changes gears and starts dispensing first aid to his fellow slum dwellers but also strikes up a relationship with a local Afghani crime boss, who has his own agenda in his homeland.  An unknown betrayer sends Lin back to prison but this time in India, where conditions are beyond deplorable and wildly dangerous.  Lin survives all of this and lots, lots more.  I accept that there’s a lot of ground to cover here, but I don’t think the book would suffer if it were cut in half, although I still would not have loved it.  The characters are impossible to keep track of, partly because there are so many of them and partly because some of the names are so similar—Khaled and Khader, for example.  Judging from the author’s blurb, this novel is somewhat autobiographical, but I have to say that he paints himself as being almost superhuman in his ability to survive.  There are only 3 women characters of note, all three of whom may be prostitutes, and none of whom come across as real, three-dimensional women.  One plot device that I particularly did not like was that the author/narrator would frequently express his regret about how he reacted to a situation by warning us that his oversights would come back to haunt him later.  Lin, though, is quite three-dimensional himself, sharing with us his remorse, guilt, lust, pride, pain, vengefulness, and gratitude, through a series of perilous adventures.  I will say that the author has a very good ear for dialog, especially that of the English-speaking Indians, and I had to go to YouTube to see a demonstration of that Indian head waggle.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

ROOMS by Lauren Oliver

I’m not big on ghost stories, because they seem a little silly to me.  In this case, the ghosts are two women who inhabited the same house at different times.  The latest inhabitant, Richard Walker, has died, and his estranged family have come for the funeral and to clean out the house.  Ex-wife Caroline is the alcoholic mother of Trenton, a melancholy teenager, and his much older acerbic sister Minna, who has a toddler of her own.  Minna is basically a sex addict, but all three of these characters are so maladjusted that the ghosts, Alice and Sandra, seem relatively sane by comparison.  Sandra died in the house of a gunshot wound, and Alice’s memories are equally depressing, without such a violent finale.  As you can see, this is not exactly an upbeat story.  It has a few twists but nothing really jaw-dropping, and I kept having to back up to see which of the ghosts was narrating.  Their stories don’t directly relate to the lives of the living, and the author made such an effort to delay telling us Alice’s and Sandra’s histories that the shock value had lost most of its punch, and the histories were too segmented for me to become immersed in.  Only Richard really seemed to have had a zest for living, and now he’s gone.  Also, our view of him is skewed by the warped opinions of his family, so that we never have a real grasp of who he was.  Trenton is the one we root for, but with this bunch surrounding him, he doesn’t really stand a chance.  A third ghost joins the party late in the book.  Trenton is aware of her presence and finds her intriguing enough to give him a reason to keep on living, but, ironically, she beckons to Trenton to come join her on the other side.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

FLORENCE GORDON by Brian Morton

Florence Gordon has a lot in common with Olive Kitteridge.  In both books the title character is a feisty, sharp-tongued, snobbish, older woman who tells it like she sees it.  Florence is a feminist writer, known only to a few faithful followers until her latest book receives a glowing review in the NY Times.  She enlists her granddaughter Emily as her assistant, but Emily is the big winner in this uneasy relationship.  Florence never softens, but Emily begins to see Florence as a role model for standing up for herself and finds that she can dish it out just as well as Florence when the situation calls for the blunt truth.  Florence does, however, harbor a secret that would invite all sorts of fawning and sympathy if she were to disclose it, and sympathy is the last thing she wants.  There’s one scene where Florence unmercifully dresses down the volunteer who serves as her driver for a book-signing event.  When Dolly, the volunteer, tries to persuade Florence to read her manuscript, we know that she is in store for a tongue-lashing.  Dolly accepts her punishment, however, with grace and good humor, and Florence finds herself admiring this woman’s aplomb.  No one is exempt from Florence’s disapproval, including her son, Daniel, who is a well-educated cop, and his wife Janine, who is an overly enthusiastic fan of Florence’s work.  Florence’s ex-husband Saul tries to enlist Florence’s help in resurrecting his career, but you can imagine how that discussion goes.  There are several sparkling conversations in this book in which Florence always has the upper hand, until her final verbal battle with Emily, in which Emily proves that she has learned from the master how to hold her own.  Certainly the dialog is the star of this novel, eliciting cringes from the reader as we wonder how Florence has any bridges left to burn.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

COLORLESS TSUKURU TAZAKI AND HIS YEARS OF PILGRIMAGE by Haruki Murakami

This is my first Murakami novel, and I have to say this:  He needs a better translator.  The dialog was unnatural, and the smattering of unnecessary split infinitives was annoying.  I have to blame the author, though, for the zillion loose ends not tidied up by the end of the novel.  In high school Tsukuru finds himself joining 2 other men and 2 women in a very tight-knit group of friends.  Tsukuru is the only one of the five who goes away to college, and soon one of the men in the group tells him that the group is severing ties with Tsukuru completely, with no further explanation.  Tsukuru is dumbfounded but makes no effort to find out why the group has so unceremoniously dumped him.  He goes into a tailspin and contemplates death until another young man befriends him and drags him out his funk.  In his 30s, Tsukuru meets Sara and becomes romantically attached to her.  She, however, feels that Tsukuru’s past is interfering with his ability to sustain a close relationship, and she insists that he visit the other 4 members of his old clique to find out why they ousted him.  What ensues is not so much a pilgrimage as an awakening as to how the truth will set you free.  Tsukuru’s self-esteem ironically has suffered for all these years over a schism partly brought about by his perceived emotional strength, relative to the other members of the group.  Auras and erotic dreams fuel Tsukuru’s self-loathing and, coupled with a particularly odd tale about death, lend this book a sort of otherworldly atmosphere that does feel culturally peculiar and foreign, despite the universal themes.  I recommend that you take this journey with Tsukuru, as long as you’re not expecting closure.  Colorless it is not.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK by Piper Kerman

Piper Kerman may not be one of the best writers in the world, but her work here is good enough.  And the subject matter is an eye opener.  I don’t even mind that she’s capitalizing on a serious mistake of her youth to produce this revealing portrait of a minimum security women’s prison. I have not seen a single episode of the TV series based on this memoir, but I now have a pretty clear idea of why it’s popular.  If you think a women’s prison is all cat fights among lesbians, you would be dead wrong.  Quite the contrary.  Most of the women Piper meets on the inside would be living productive lives on the outside if they were given half a chance.  Unfortunately, they have neither Kerman’s resources nor her extensive, caring, and extremely loyal support from friends and family.  Kerman makes sure that her reader understands that prison is not a happy place, especially for those women serving a decade or more with little hope for a better life after their release.  Kerman’s sentence of 15 months is not what brings her to the realization of the impact of her crime of transporting drug money. Rather, she sees how illegal drugs have kept so many women in prison, often distanced from their children, and that these women are often repeat offenders.  Kerman’s keen observations make a strong case for the cessation of the war on drugs, because the U.S. government is spending billions of dollars on room and board for women who pose no threat to society.  What’s even more striking is how these women form makeshift families in prison and do all they can to help their fellow inmates adjust and cope.  Theirs is a mostly congenial sisterhood where everyone has to bury their rage at the system so as not to jeopardize their ultimate goal--freedom.