Monday, March 20, 2017

"The Woman in Cabin 10" by Ruth Ware

I read The Woman in Cabin 10 for a book club, and I went in to the novel wary. Whodunit thrillers aren't typically part of my reading repertoire, and I was unexcited to wade through a couple hundred pages of stupid fluff. Yet, while The Woman in Cabin 10 certainly isn't literary or ground-breaking, I did find it to be a fun and enjoyable distraction.

The novel is narrated by Lo Blacklock, an up-and-coming travel reporter booked to cover the maiden voyage of a small luxury cruise ship. A few days before the trip, Lo's apartment is broken into; shocked from the attack, she begins the cruise nervous and sleep deprived.

[an aside: Did I miss something, or was Lo's break-in never explained? We learn later that {spoiler} the original cabin 10 occupant's home was also broken into shortly before the trip in order to keep that occupant from attending the cruise--thus leaving cabin 10 empty. I had assumed we'd discover Lo had also been purposefully attacked for the same reason, only it didn't work out? But I don't believe that was the case? Is it really supposed to just be a coincidence it happened right before the trip?]

The first night of the trip, Lo is awakened by a sound and is convinced a woman has been thrown overboard. She's even more convinced when the woman in cabin 10--whom she had borrowed mascara from earlier that evening--never appears again and her existence is denied by everyone else on board.

At first (and, okay, perhaps throughout) I found Lo rather grating. She's utterly sleep-deprived the entire novel, yet she continues to nervously drink heavily. It drove me crazy. STOP DRINKING AND GO TO SLEEP. I know that sleepy/drunk haze is supposed to color Lo's (and the reader's) understanding of what is happening, making us both question her judgment, but still, wouldn't any sane person STOP DRINKING?!

Then there's Lo's "mental illness," i.e. (medicated and controlled) depression/anxiety, which is so common as to be utterly unremarkable yet somehow is used as justification for her unreliability. Ware can't seem to decide whether she wants to argue that depression and anxiety are totally normal or that they're a matter of deep concern. Given how many people healthily function on a regular basis with both, I found the inclusion of it problematic.

[aside #2 since I don't feel like this fits appropriately anywhere: one night, Lo is accosted at her room door by Ben Howard, a former boyfriend. They've both been drinking, but Lo is clear and insistent in rejecting his advances. He continues anyway, roughly groping her, until she has to physically attack him back to get him off her. Yet they both end up in her room, apologizing, and later team up to investigate the murder {okay, she also thinks he is the murderer for awhile, but still}. Like in so many books, we have clear sexual assault depicted as nothing more than annoying and forgivable drunken behavior.]

But despite the fact that Lo would NOT GO TO SLEEP, the mystery at the heart of Woman in Cabin 10 is still fun, even when laughably silly. I mean, the "killer" sneaks into Lo's spa room while she's (conveniently) asleep after a massage to write "Stop digging" in the steam on the bathroom mirror (so, [insert evil cackle] all evidence of the message is gone once the steam dissipates! Hahahahah!). The killer is suitably evil, and the ending is suitably adventurous, and though I was no more enlightened about the world when I finished, I had passed the time enjoyably enough.

Monday, February 27, 2017

"Slade House" by David Mitchell

By my quick count, this is my fifth David Mitchell book. It's a bit surprising I've read this many since I'm often not especially attached to particular authors. But Mitchell's always combined strong storytelling with unusual structure and character voice, which is right up my alley, so it's easy to return to his novels.

Slade House is perhaps one of his weaker offerings, though that doesn't mean the novel was not enjoyable. I didn't realize going in (and perhaps that was intentional) that the book is a sort-of companion book for Bone Clocks, which I read last year. At first I just though Mitchell was just making sly "aren't you an observant reader?" kind of references to his earlier work until a major character from Bone Clocks reappears for the last chapter.

Slade House is a somewhat typical haunted house story, with the only real twist being the reappearance of the Bone Clocks character. That it treads somewhat familiar ground isn't inherently a fault, however, as Mitchell still makes the evil villains and their entrapment menacing. Like with other books, Mitchell relies on changing narrators over a period of years, including a young autistic boy, an arrogant police detective, and a smitten college girl. Though the characters are distinct, the chapters don't feel especially different (unlike, say, in Cloud Atlas), mostly because the characters similarly fall for the villains' trap each time.

However, it was a quick and fun enough read for David Mitchell fans.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

"H is for Hawk" by Helen Macdonald

Somehow I’ve ended up reading several memoirs recently, which is a little unusual for me, mostly because I tend to find memoirs sappy or over-indulgent. Or maybe I just don’t read good memoirs. Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed Lab Girl, probably because it gave me insight into a field in which I have little knowledge, and the same goes for H is for Hawk. Because, I mean, who knows anything about falconry?

The subject matter--and Macdonald’s take on the practice--is of course what gives Hawk its allure. Though Macdonald is a modern-day practitioner, the practice obviously evokes bygone eras of British countrysides and gentility, and so the vision of a modern woman flying a hawk feels utterly anachronistic.

Hawk is many things at once: an introduction to falconry; a memoir of a woman coping with the loss of her father; a reflection on author T.H. White’s disastrous attempt to train a goshawk. Somehow all three disparate genres come together into a book that feels cohesive, though perhaps slightly muddled when her grief over her father starts to drown her.

I was recently discussing the book with a friend, and she remarked that it made her want to be able to train a hawk. I felt the complete opposite: it made me feel like hawking was an utterly wrong endeavor. And I don’t mean that as criticism of its practitioners, as it seems like modern hawking is (or can be) done humanely, but as a recognition that the hawk is a wild and feral creature, and taming it for our personal enjoyment seems somehow unjust to its power and independence. On the other hand, Macdonald argues that by training hawks she has an appreciation and understanding of them that I, as a casual observer, can never have. Point taken.

I think H is for Hawk is likely to be appreciated by a broad swath of people: falconry novices and experts; nature lovers; and literature devotees. It’s a bit of a weird book, down a path rarely taken.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

"Orphan Master's Son" by Adam Johnson (review #2)

I decided to do a reread of Orphan Master’s Son, which I read a few years back. It’s pretty rare that I reread a book, but I recommended the book to a student, and I realized that though I raved about how good the book was, I couldn’t really remember why I’d liked it that much. When my local library serendipitously had the book in stock, I checked it out--and nearly finished the entire thing in one weekend. Even though I already know much of the story (though it’s also shocking how much I’d forgotten), Orphan Master’s Son remains an entirely engrossing reread. On the other hand, I don’t know if it’s as good a book as I originally felt.

There’s no need to retread old ground in a follow-up review, so I thought instead I’d cover some stray thoughts, inelegantly organized.

First, though the book is about North Korea, I’m reminded how much of an American story it is. Because, above all else, the story is about the triumph of the individual, the power of individual choice and sacrifice. In that way it’s implicitly also anti-Communist and directly challenges bleak tales like 1984. The book suggests that one’s identity--given and assumed--matters, and that we have power even in a world determined to strip away that strength. Though these qualities and messages are not uniquely American, they are the hallmark values of our national mythos. For this reason, though the book takes place almost entirely in North Korea, with Korean characters, names, and even words, it doesn’t feel nearly as foreign as one might imagine.

There’s also some interesting questions about sacrifice. Jun Do sacrifices everything, including his own life, to rescue his love (Sun Moon) and her two children. But in doing so, he also sacrifices the lives of others, such as Commander Buc and his family. His action is undoubtedly noble, and presented that way, but there’s also something wrong about seeing the most privileged members of North Korean society escape while others suffer. I do suppose learning about Sun Moon’s tragic upbringing makes her less elite and more “worthy” of saving, though, of course, the idea of who’s “worthy” to live is repulsive in itself.

And I also wonder if the novel doesn’t over-glorify pain (or the endurance of horrific levels of pain). Jun Do has had “pain training” that allows him to withstand even the most hideous forms of torture, and there seems something perverse in that “strength” being used as a measure of his worthiness. In this way, perhaps 1984 is a better way to go, in a similar way as I prefer Slaughterhouse-Five’s take on war to traditional war stories. By praising enduring pain, aren’t we, in some way, praising the infliction of pain itself? As if torture is a test of fortitude to determine the fittest, rather than simply a reflection of humanity’s capacity for cruelty and inhumanity.

You could go even farther and criticize the enormous amounts of violence in the book as a (more sophisticated) genre of the pervasive “torture porn,” which uses violence to entertain. The question makes me a little uncomfortable with my enjoyment of the novel.

And is there even an element of “culture porn,” the voyeuristic enjoyment of seeing a “backwards” culture? It’s obviously a good thing to learn about other cultures, but in this case does our enjoyment come from snickering at how blind they are? Of course, North Korea is batshit crazy, so maybe that whole “cultural appreciation” isn’t so significant.

And finally, I have some conflicting thoughts about the evils of the real Commander Ga. He’s cruel and sadistic, and the most potent evidence of this (from the point of view of the book) is his gleeful rape of men. On the one hand, rape is an absolutely despicable act, but on the other hand, this is the only mention (other than another man in charge who molested boys) of same-sex sexual acts. Now, I would argue that Commander Ga (and the child molester) are not “gay” in the sense of being attracted to men. They’re rapists and sadists, out for domination and control either in the most challenging way possible (Ga) or the most convenient/vulnerable way possible. But, again, with this being the novel’s only reference to same-sex sexuality in any form, does the book, indirectly, suggest homosexuality is deviant and cruel? I guess perhaps I wanted more emphasis on their desire for control rather than the same-sex angle.

Anyway, as noted, some unorganized thoughts. Still a book I’d recommend, but maybe a little less enthusiastically.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

"Hidden Figures" by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is a book that I'm of two minds about. On the one hand, it exposes an important and overlooked element of American history. I think, even today, the image of a "black woman scientist" feels foreign, despite the undoubtedly many black women working today (and in the past) in scientific fields. Hidden Figures effectively brings to light the work of a variety of black women in one particular arena: NASA (and its predecessor, NACA). The women worked largely as "computers," a term that reads oddly to us today, but that originally referred simply to "people who do computations." Though today we imagine any math job as high-level, the position was entry-level at the time, below that of the male engineers and scientists. Nevertheless, many of the women rose to become engineers and join engineering teams, making significant contributions to our nation's history.

On the other hand, Shetterly's detailed attention to chronicling this overlooked aspect of history means the book itself often reads like a history book. She eliminates much of the personal narrative style you tend to see in especially engrossing nonfiction (an issue the movie seems to go the exact opposite direction in, for better or for worse). Undoubtedly this makes her book more accurate, but it also makes it more of a slog, the slew of names and dates and scientific terms creating confusion and glazed eyes.

But, to the history: what's surprising about the history of the black women scientists is just how little overt discrimination they faced. They faced discrimination, for sure--segregated work spaces, lunch tables, and bathrooms; unequal pay and job titles; a lack of upward mobility--and those injustices are incredibly important. However, they also were welcomed at NACA/NASA in a way they often weren't in other fields. First, the demand for employees with scientific backgrounds during WW2 and later the space race was so high that ability and experience often trumped racial prejudice. Within the organization, other employees were more concerned with output--are the numbers correct?--than who was doing the work. And despite Langley being located in heavily segregated Virginia, many of its employees were from elsewhere, including the North, where their prejudice was less strong (though obviously still present). For this reason, the book features few (or really any) of the dramatic showdowns you might imagine. Instead, the women work incredibly hard and are incredibly dedicated to their work; they earn their peers' respect and over time are siphoned off from the large computing pool to join individual engineering teams, where many go on to become engineers and computer programmers.

The dramatic showdowns tend to take place outside NACA/NASA. The black women are working alongside white co-workers, calculating the path to the moon, while outside Langley black high school students are physically barred from integrating schools. That juxtaposition had to be incredibly difficult--seeing simultaneously the possibility and the barriers.

Ultimately, Hidden Figures is a valuable contribution to scientific and American history, though not packaged in the most accessible manner.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

2016: Year in Review

2016 was a better reading year than 2015, even though it wasn't an especially improved year for blogging. I read 23 books, which averages to nearly two a month, so I'm pretty proud of that. Like before, I'm having trouble finding books that truly excite and engross me. There were a few I really enjoyed, but far more that I finished without enthusiasm.

Books read in 2016:
Bone Clocks by David Mitchell (Jan)
Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (Feb)
Why Not Me? by Mindy Kaling (Mar)
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel (Mar)
Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan  (April)
Euphoria by Lily King (May)
The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins (May)
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (May)
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (June)
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North (June)
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng (June)
Sex with Shakespeare by Jillian Keenan (July)
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire (July)
The Cuckoo's Calling by Robert Galbraith (Sept)
Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne (Oct)
Underground Airlines by Ben Winters (Oct)
The Sellout by Paul Beatty (Oct)
Company Town by Madeline Ashby (Nov)
All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders (Dec)
The Vegetarian by Han Kang (Dec)
St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell (Dec)
Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood (Dec)
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (Dec)

My favorite book was probably Underground Airlines, as it fit the incredibly-engrossing and thought-provoking category. I'd follow that up with Keenan's Sex with Shakespeare for its pure audacity. Her connections between Shakespeare and BDSM might have been stretched (she admits as much herself), but it was fascinating the whole way through.

Other books get a solid "decent" rating: Euphoria (for reinterpreting the life of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead); The Girl on the Train (for a decent but not that shocking mystery); The First Fifteen Lives...(for an interesting take on reincarnation); Everything I Never Told You (for a look at family through the lens of a dead sister); and Lab Girl (for making a science memoir pretty engrossing).

One of the downsides of not reviewing the books is that I'm quick to forget them afterwards. In fact, there's a couple books on the list that I can't remember a thing about. I'm not a resolution-maker, but I have started to rediscover the joy of writing, so I'll try to write more about my reading--or teaching or what have you--in 2017.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

"Company Town" by Madeline Ashby

Company Town is the kind of novel I should like--a sci-fi dystopian, an independent female protagonist.

The novel follows Hwa, who lives on rigs (of some sort--truthfully the setting itself was confusing for me) now owned by the Lynch corporation. She's a body guard for the legalized and unionized prostitutes who work there. When Lynch officially moves in, she's hired as bodyguard/trainer for Lynch's son and heir, Joel. But then many of her old prostitute friends are dying, and someone's after Joel, and also she's feeling all squishy for Daniel, her boss at Lynch.

As may already be apparent, somehow the novel never came together for me. First, there's Hwa herself, who had too many past traumas for any of them to feel real. She has a large (port-wine-type?) stain over her body, and thus is "ugly" in a society where most people are medically augmented. Her mother, a famous singer/prostitute, hates her and didn't want to have her. Her idolized older brother died in a rig accident several years back. Oh, and she also has a weird seizure disorder! But all of these traumas weave in and out without a clear trajectory or purpose, and I couldn't even really see what her mother, brother, and seizures had to do with the book.

Then there's the love interest, Daniel, whom I was supposed to swoon for but instead hated on the spot. Because he is: the most perfect man alive. The most caring, most thoughtful, most in-tune, most whatever idealized romantic figure you can imagine. Never angry, mean, or selfish. Totally in love with Hwa. But why? I couldn't understand how their relationship developed--he was just suddenly completely committed. Also, he has some weird backstory--he only has 10 years of memory because Lynch sort of "recreated" him after some accident (?). But apparently that doesn't really matter because we never learn about his past.

And let's not forget the serial murders of Hwa's prostitute friends, described in graphic, grisly detail. Apparently they couldn't just be killed--they had to be butchered in Saw 16 fashion. For no reason! I mean, at the end we're given a reason why they were killed, but no reason why it needed to be so grotesque.

Truthfully, I felt like I was in a fog most of the novel, always feeling like I was missing some key point/characterization. But even once everything was "revealed" in the end, and I had no further plot-comprehension questions, I still felt lost.

In the end, it's probably the characterization that most did Company Town in for me. An over-loaded hodgepodge protagonist and  Ken-doll love interest just aren't my thing.