Sunday, March 26, 2017

THE CEMENT GARDEN by Ian McEwan

Four young siblings—two boys and two girls—left to their own devices are definitely a recipe for disaster.  One of the fondest memories of Jack, the narrator, is of an afternoon when their parents left them unsupervised to go to a funeral.  The kids had a blast!  Then their father dies, and their mother becomes ill.  The children play doctor and engage in other questionable activities (Jack stops bathing), which become even more frequent and more warped after their mother passes away.  The kids make the decision not to tell the authorities, for fear that the family will be broken up.  They are no longer reveling in their freedom, but neither are they showing any level of newfound maturity.  Julie is the de facto leader of the bunch, since she is the oldest, but she certainly does not rise to the occasion.  Reviews have compared this book to Lord of the Flies, but this novel about children running amok is shocking in a completely different way.  A High Wind in Jamaica also comes to mind, but this book is disturbing without being violent or even scary.  Published in 1978, it’s very edgy even by today’s standards, and I dashed through it, desperate to know the fate of these rudderless youngsters.  McEwan never shies away from a topic just because it is uncomfortable, and this book will definitely make you squirm.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

HARMONY by Carolyn Parkhurst

Alexandra Hammond is a frazzled mother, more frazzled than most because her elder daughter, Tilly, is on the autism spectrum.  The younger daughter, Iris, is the main narrator, recounting the family’s life at Camp Harmony, a camp for families with difficult children.  The Hammonds take a leap of faith, joining two other families who are also at their wits’ end, as camp residents, performing chores and helping the director, Scott Bean, run the camp.  Scott is a self-proclaimed expert on managing children like Lilly, and he’s not half-bad at it, until things at the camp start to unravel.  The irony of it all is that the kids he’s trying to help are the biggest obstacles to the camp’s success.  They make decisions that are ill-advised at best, but, under the circumstances, their choices, mostly pranks, have devastating consequences.  In some ways, Scott may seem to be selling snake oil, convincing sane people to abandon everything for a life in the woods.  However, we all know what it feels like to be desperate for someone or something to solve a seemingly insurmountable problem.  Tilly has been expelled from every school she’s ever attended, including those for special-needs kids.  Alexandra finally resorts to home-schooling, but Tilly is more than just a handful; she’s a danger to herself.   And that brings me to my only real beef with this story:  why do these difficult children spend so much time unsupervised at camp?  Tilly in particular is devious but probably doesn’t understand what that means, and Iris is only 11.  Tilly is obviously not capable of looking out for Iris, and Iris is too young to be much of a rational influence on Tilly.  In fact, Iris goes along with some of Tilly’s bad ideas, even aiding and abetting at times.  To me, both girls were mean and selfish.  Fortunately for them, their parents are very loving and forgiving.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

HIDDEN FIGURES by Margot Lee Shetterly

Virginia is a Southern state that fought integration to the point of closing schools after Brown v. Board of Education.  And yet, many talented African-Americans found work as scientists and engineers at Langley Research Center, which later became part of NASA, as early as the 1940s.  The federal government recruited black female mathematicians to work as human computers while there was a shortage of available men during WWII.  By now everyone knows about the movie that this book inspired, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.  The book addresses civil rights and segregated bathrooms and even a little civil disobedience regarding a cafeteria sign instructing black employees where to sit.  The author does a very thorough job here, recounting numerous events in the lives of several women, both inside and outside the workplace, but I had some difficulty keeping up with who was working in what department.  I found many of the personal stories fascinating, especially the achievement of Mary Jackson’s son as a soapbox derby participant, John Glenn’s faith in Katherine Johnson’s work, and Dorothy Vaughan’s willingness to work away from her husband and children for a year.  Also, I have a technical background, so that I know what double integrals and differential equations are, and I admire these women tremendously for their scientific accomplishments, as well as their courage and success as pioneers in breaking down gender and race barriers.  However, I found this book to be quite dry.  I am not a big non-fiction reader, although I have enjoyed works by Michael Lewis, Jon Krakauer, Erik Larson, Laura Hillenbrand, and Malcolm Gladwell.   The writing is very clear and informative, but this book does not read like a novel.  In fact, as one friend noted, it reads like a dissertation that has been reworked for publication.  Nonetheless, it is a story that needs to be told, and kudos to Ms. Shetterly for bringing these women’s lives to our attention. 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD by Colson Whitehead

Prepare to be horrified while reading this book, but then slavery WAS horrifying.  Cora is a young slave on a Georgia plantation and is still angry at her mother for running off when Cora was 10.  When another slave urges Cora to join him in an escape attempt, she finally agrees.  She suffers mightily while on the run and even catches herself wishing she were back on the plantation from time to time.  Although the Underground Railroad was not literally a system of trains running in dark tunnels underneath the earth, that’s exactly what it is in this book.  The trains don’t have set schedules, and the passengers don’t necessarily know where they’re headed.  Cora finds that she can never become complacent, because peace and safety are always short-lived, since she is, and always will be, a runaway.  This era reminds me so much of the Holocaust, where the runaway and the persons trying to hide the runaway are all punished, often by a grisly death, when a hideout is discovered.  I particularly liked how the author supplied the backstory for other characters, even after we knew they had met some terrible fate.  Cora’s mother’s story is particularly surprising.  If you’re looking for a book about redemption or even one with happy endings for everybody, this is not the book for you.  The evil characters in the book are not going to suddenly become abolitionists.  Instead they keep popping up, relentlessly bent on destroying the black population or collecting a reward, more and more venomous each time we encounter them.  There are some good people in the book, including a few whites who are sympathetic to the slaves’ cause.  For Cora to survive, she will require a lot of luck, particularly with regard to timing and to the people she meets, and a lot of courage.  She certainly has the latter, but her luck waxes and wanes as she tries to negotiate the minefield that the South was during this period.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

SAG HARBOR by Colson Whitehead

Benji, or “Ben” as he would like his friends to call him now, spends all of his childhood summers at Sag Harbor.  What’s interesting about this coming-of-age novel is that Benji and all of his cronies are black, although I found that fact easy to forget.  His insecurities, embarrassments, and self-criticisms are universal as he navigates the road to adulthood during the 1980s while reminiscing about the past.  His nostalgia trip has its ups and downs, including a BB gun incident reminiscent of the movie A Christmas Story.  His is not an idyllic life, however, despite his family’s education and affluence.  His parents’ bickering sometimes escalates to fighting, exacerbated by alcohol.  Benji is close to his younger brother Reggie, but his older sister has bolted at the first opportunity, and their parents seem to be about as warm as icebergs.  In fact, the parents frequently allow the kids to fend more themselves at the beach house, neglecting to pay the electric bill or water bill.  Benji gets a job at an ice cream parlor in order to buy food, and Reggie goes to work at Burger King, mostly to have a refuge from his father, when their parents actually show up.  Obviously, Benji’s hardships are not that serious, and the book recounts several incidents that are quite funny.  My favorite is when Benji discovers his fifth grade school photos and rants about how bad his haircut is.  He laments that the doorman, the bus driver, the school security guard, or his homeroom teacher should have intervened.  “The pane of photos was uncut, of course.  Who’d want a picture of that in their wallet, poisoning their money?”  Actually, I think the real reason the photos were uncut is that his parents were too self-absorbed to consider carrying photos of their children in their wallets, much less notice their son’s hair.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

THE CIRCLE by Dave Eggers

The Circle is a California tech company that is taking the world by storm, and Mae wants to work there.  She lands a job in the Customer Experience department, thanks to a plug from her college roommate Annie, who is an up-and-comer there.  Mae is unbelievably efficient, achieving all of the company’s goals for social media interaction and customer satisfaction.  A mistake that Mae fears will cost her her job actually segues into an opportunity for heightened visibility at the company.  One of the Circle’s goals is for everyone on the planet, starting with politicians, to become totally transparent, i.e., wearing a camera so that everything they do is viewable by everyone else.  Privacy and classified information are no longer valued, except by a few, such as Mae’s parents and ex-boyfriend, whose email addresses Mae shares with the world, much to their chagrin.  Mae drinks the Kool-Aid to the point that she lives at the company and basically has only her on-again, off-again boyfriend Francis and Annie for friends.  But who needs friends when you have millions of people watching your every move?  Eggers has stretched the influence of social media here to its maximum, giving us a totalitarian world of information overload.  It is not appealing, but the reader can understand how Mae gets so caught up in a world that seems, on the surface, like a utopia—no more crime, no more disease epidemics, full voter participation.  She doesn’t miss what she’s lost because she can’t identify it.  This Orwellian story is also reminiscent of the TV show Max Headroom, in which the television was the all-powerful tracker of everyone’s activities.  Let’s hope we don’t ever “complete the circle.”

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

THE DARK TOWER I: THE GUNSLINGER by Stephen King

I don’t know what possessed me to read two fantasies in a row.  I know that The Dark Tower movie is slated to come out this summer, but I’m stopping with Book I in this series.  The gunslinger, whose name is Roland, is on a quest to find the Dark Tower (purpose:  unknown) with an intermediate encounter with the “man in black.” I thought at first that the “man in black” was Death or the devil, who has the power of resurrection, but Roland is no saint himself.  Other than Roland’s wiping out a town, nothing much happens.  A boy named Jake becomes Roland’s sidekick for part of the journey, and he seems to provide some sort of conscience, but that’s about it.  After I read the book, I went back and read the introduction and found that Stephen King wrote this book in 1970.  The author himself proclaims this book to be pretentious and demonstrating the influence of an abundance of writers’ workshops.  Is this book supposed to be about a post-apocalyptic future or perhaps an alternate universe?  Again, King gives us a few hints but not a lot else to go on, and I’m thinking the desert in question is the Mohave, and the big chasm is the Grand Canyon.  Anyway, why does Jake seem to be more informed about the past than Roland, when Jake is so much younger?  I suppose these unanswered questions have inspired other readers to continue with the series.  I know this series was inspired by the Child Rowland fairy tale, alluded to in Shakespeare’s King Lear and then immortalized in Robert Browning’s poem, but this book does not stand on its own merits, without its possibly more meaty sequels.  I can also see Tolkien’s influence, but then I struggled to get through The Lord of the Rings trilogy as well.  The movies were marvelous, though, and I hope the same will be true of the film version of The Dark Tower.