Monday, August 29, 2011

"In the Sanctuary of Outcasts" by Neil White

Here's the plot to a book.  Would you want to read it?
Neil White, a privileged, educated white Southerner, is found guilty of bank fraud and sentenced to one year in Carville, a cushy minimum security prison.  Throughout his ordeal he is well-supported by family, friends, and even inmates, and he is able to see his two loving children every weekend. In his memoir, he takes the reader through the course of his sentence and self-reflective journey as he realizes he can't change who he is--but maybe he'll try not to make so many mistakes in the future.
The answer: no. It's boring, self-pitying, and self-indulgent. Publishers, too, must have realized that there's nothing worthwhile in that story.  So, instead, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is sold on the one part of White's story that is compelling: Carville, White's prison, was also the U.S.'s last leprosarium, which was home to about one-hundred leprosy patients who had lived there for decades.

As a reader, I was drawn in to all the fascinating story possibilities this situation provided. Like most people, my idea of leprosy is the "unclean" beggar image from the Bible.  I had no idea it still existed or how the U.S. treated (and continues to treat) persons with the disease.  I had so many questions. What were the lives of the patients like? What were their histories? How had their lives at Carville changed over the decades? How had they created their own society within the institution? They had been forcibly removed and quarantined as young people but now, elderly, they chose to stay. And now their home was being invaded by convicts--how did that make them feel? What kind of tensions were created in such a situation?

White's memoir does address some of the latter questions about the relationships between the patients and inmates (spoiler: there wasn't much of one; they didn't like the inmates), but it mostly ignores the early questions. Although White claims he interviewed all the patients, we hear very little of their stories. And though White spends a lot of time lauding his relationship with Ella, an elderly black patient in a wheelchair, it's not quite clear why she had much of an effect on him--other than saying so would help sell books. The reader is given little idea of what Carville was like from the patients' point of view.

In fact, early on even White admits that he's more interested in his own story than the story of the leprosy patients, which, unfortunately for me, I did not care about one bit. White spends far too much time mourning his downfall and whining about his "good intentions."  We even see his "good intentions" fall flat in the book; he spends about a chapter "thinking about" the negative connotations surrounding leprosy and wondering if he can do something about getting it renamed (and by the way, it's already called Hansen's disease). Then he forgets about it and the topic is dropped. And he goes back to his journey of self-discovery.... blech.

In the Sanctuary of Outcasts is an easy and fast read, but I would not at all recommend it if you're interested in the lives of the patients who carried out their entire lives there.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

"The Borrower" by Rebecca Makkai

In many ways The Borrower operates on an idealistic dream of liberal bookworms: liberating a precocious and talented young boy from the grips of his religiously stifling parents through fiction and understanding.  It's this basic plot that will bring readers in (as it did me), though, in the end, Makkai's novel shows that freedom--for anyone--is more elusive and difficult than we'd like to think.

The novel begins with Lucy, a bored children's librarian in a small town. Her favorite patron is Ian, a ten-year-old with an insatiable appetite for books whose parents severely restrict his reading, allowing him only to read books they think have "the breath of God in them." Lucy helps Ian secretly read other books, but when she learns that Ian's parents have enrolled him in a Christian program run by a man named Pastor Bob designed to "cure" young gay people, she becomes even more concerned. When Lucy discovers one morning that Ian has "run away" and is hiding in the library, she allows Ian to convince her to leave with him (she wonders throughout whether she kidnapped him or he kidnapped her), and they begin a cross-country road trip.

There are two routes this book could have taken: a lighthearted and slightly absurd adventure, or a self-reflective look at who we are and whether that can be changed.  The Borrower, I think, is set up so that it would work best as the first, though it leans more in the second direction. Ian, in fact, is not the primary focus of the book; instead, much more attention is on Lucy's attempts to determine who she is, particularly as it relates to her father and her Russian heritage. Through her travels with Ian, she endlessly debates why she acts the way she does. It might be realistic for someone in her (highly unprobable) situation, but it also gets a little boring. Some levity is inserted with various literary allusions (Lucy occasionally adopts the style of well-known books), but it doesn't lighten the overall tone. Ian is the only bright spot in the book, and his unflagging enthusiasm had me giggling out loud, though it made Lucy dull by comparison.

The theme of The Borrower seems to be that no one can run away from who they are, and that who one is is a conglomeration of many different aspects of identity. At first Lucy believes that, away from Ian's parents, she can tell him that it's okay to be gay and "save" him. But, she fails to see who Ian is at that moment; he thinks Pastor Bob's classes are boring, but he's not thinking about his sexual identity. And while Lucy only sees hypocrisy in Ian's religion, Ian doesn't drop his beliefs away from his parents--he still strongly believes in God and everything else he's been raised to believe. It's a valid message, though it means the book lacks some of the heroic heartwarming moments that might have made it more engaging.

A number of plot points in the book, including Lucy's boyfriend Glenn and friend Rocky are left completely unresolved. The ending, too, is largely unresolved, though hopeful, which seems appropriate.

The Borrowers is built on an interesting idea, but its execution fell flat for me. Though I didn't dislike the novel, it failed to live up to its best character, Ian.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

"The White Mountains" by John Christopher

I was recently reading a slightly older article from the New York Times entitled "Why We Read” (“A Good Mystery: Why We Read” by Motoko Rich, 11/25/07). The article wasn't so much about the reasons for reading, but it did talk a lot about books in childhood that inspire future reading.  I’m a big fan of science-fiction dystopias, and I think I can trace that attraction back to Christopher’s Tripod Trilogy, which begins with The White Mountains. I couldn’t say when I first read the novels (the book was published in 1967 though my edition was printed in the late ‘80s), but I do know that well before I was exposed to The Giver or Ender’s Game, there was The White Mountains.

Given the proliferation of young adult dystopias today, it’s almost surreal to read a story that, though published over forty years ago, could just as easily fit in with today’s narratives. Will, the novel’s protagonist, lives in our future in a society that operates more like the 1800s.  His people are without technology and machinery, yet they live a peaceful and contented existence.  What separates Will’s world from our colonial times is one major thing: the Tripods.  No one knows exactly where they came from, but what is known is that many years ago they overthrew the human race; now, when each human reaches the age of fourteen, he or she is “capped” by the Tripods and fitted with a metal head covering.

For the most part, the Tripods don’t interfere with the lives of the people in Will’s village.  They show up once a year to perform the capping, but otherwise the inhabitants of Wherton live unencumbered—but not free.  For what Will comes to realize (as happens in any good dystopia), is that the caps are the Tripods’ way of controlling people; they don’t control individuals’ every move, but they do ensure there will be no rebellion, uprising, or human advancement.

Even today, I think it’s a neat story, especially because Will isn’t reacting to brutal and overt tyranny from the Tripods.  Instead, he’s responding to the natural desire to be free and independent, even if that means forgoing the easier life.

The White Mountains follows the expected plot trajectory: Will’s movement from acceptance of the Tripods’ rule to his decision to run away prior to his capping; his long and arduous journey to elude the Tripods and find other “free men” living in the White Mountains.

Though I still love the story, there’s a lot to be desired in the novel as a whole.  First, there’s almost no character development.  Will’s recognition of the dystopia, which is usually the focus of modern books, takes only a few pages, and Will seems to have no uneasiness of leaving his village and family forever and going on the run. Secondly, the book is exposition heavy and fails to utilize moments of tension and excitement; Christopher instead keeps the book moving at a steady, constant pace.

If retooled to fit the expectations of characterization and pacing for modern novels, The White Mountains could be a great book.  As is, it’s probably more likely to appeal to nostalgic fans who read it as a kid than young people today.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Sex on the Moon" by Ben Mezrich

Sex on the Moon is the true story of Thad Roberts, a NASA co-op intern who orchestrates a Mission: Impossible-style heist to steal and sell lunar rocks from the organization at which he works. Even though I was born long after NASA's pinnacle with the moon landing, I'd say I still have a healthy sense of awe and admiration for what they do. There's something noble in an organization devoted to exploration and discovery.  It's that view of NASA which colors Mezrich's story in Sex on the Moon and makes it all the more fascinating.

Sex on the Moon is told from Thad's point of view, and he initially comes off as a sympathetic character.  After being disowned by his Mormon parents for having pre-marital sex, he decides he wants to be an astronaut, and he puts in enormous time and energy taking the courses and extracurriculars necessary to be an appealing candidate to NASA. He lands a prestigious co-op at the organization, where he flourishes, making contacts with noted scientists and being invited to participate in important experiments.  He's a man who is going places; he's well-liked by his peers and colleagues, and he seems to stand a good chance of being hired by NASA after graduating.

Then, everything changes.  He begins to become obsessed with stealing lunar rocks, first thinking about it--he claims--only as a "thought experiment" and then becoming more dedicated to the idea.  This is where I lost him as a character.  Why would he risk everything he had for the heist?  Thad quickly dissolves into an unstable man.  He begins having an affair with a 20-year-old fellow intern (his wife is back in Utah) and decides he's completely in love after knowing her for a few weeks; he's convinced selling the rocks will allow them to do anything, even though he's intending to sell for a rather measly $100,000.

It's hard to see whether Thad's behavior is a result of psychosis or youthful obliviousness.  He's obviously an intelligent man, but he's also incredibly stupid.  A man who's triple majored and impressed NASA scientists, who invents a crazy heist and manages to steal lunar rocks, also tries to sell the rocks by randomly emailing members of European mineral societies! (it's illegal to own lunar rocks in the U.S.)  It's this act that becomes his undoing, when one member of the Antwerp society contacts the F.B.I.

If I had a hard time understanding Thad's actions, I had an even harder time understanding why his girlfriend and confidante also decide to take part.  It doesn't appear that they were interviewed for the book, so their rationales are completely missing.

Mezrich seems to sympathize with Thad more than Thad deserves, though that choice does have an interesting effect on the reader.  I began the book liking and cheering for Thad, but at one moment I had to stop and realize he had completely lost my sympathy--he was greedy, selfish, and deluded, and he betrayed the trust of people who sincerely wanted to help him succeed.

The story is fascinating and keeps a relatively quick pace, though the heist itself takes a much smaller portion of the book than I imagined it would.  It's a completely engaging story, both for its inside look into NASA and for the crazy character study it offers.

The audiobook version of Sex on the Moon is narrated by Casey Affleck, which was fun, though he sometimes added a reflective tone that wasn't necessary.  Nonetheless, this is a great car trip book that kept my interest.

(Lastly, because it relates to nothing else: One complaint I do have is Mezrich's frequent use of the term "coed" to refer to female college students. Absolutely no one uses that term in real life, and it certainly wouldn't have been in use when the story takes place in the late '90s and early 2000s.  Its sexist connotations made me cringe whenever I heard it--let's all agree it can definitively be retired.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

"Game of Thrones" by George R. R. Martin

Having heard lots of positive things about HBO's television series based on Games of Thrones, I was intrigued about Martin's book, even though I knew its focus is political rivalries, a topic that often drags down epic fantasies for me. However, I was pleased to find out that although the novel is true to its title and the backhanded sport of seeking power is at its center, there's plenty of interesting characters, relationships, and mysteries to keep anyone's interest.

Eddard "Ned" Stark is the patriarch at the center of the book.  Although many years ago he overthrew the former king with his friend Robert, who now reigns as king, Ned has little interest in seeking more power.  He's content to rule Winterfell with his wife and children.  However, when King Robert comes to ask Ned to take the position of the king's "right hand man," Ned is thrust into the turmoil that's been plaguing Robert's rule.  The turmoil is led by the deliciously sinister Lannisters: Cersei, Robert's wife, and her brother Jaime.  Meanwhile, Daenerys, the daughter of the deposed king, is living in exile while her brother plots to regain the throne.

Martin's book begins with something I hate in epic fantasy: a giant name dump.  Within twenty-five pages the reader has been introduced to dozens of characters with different loyalties and family connections.  The sheer number of names is staggering and confusing at first, though fortunately it becomes easier to keep track of everyone fairly quickly.  Nevertheless, to Martin's credit, there are a lot of interesting characters.  Ned is one of the only honest adults, though he's noble to a fault.  His wife Catelyn is strong and proud.  Their children are also fascinating characters and are one of the reasons that the political overtones of the book don't weigh it down too much.  While adult characters like Ned and Catelyn narrate some chapters, many chapters are also narrated by children, including most of the Starks' young ones: Robb, Bran, Sansa, Arya, and the "bastard" Jon Snow.  It's nice to see the contrast in point of view between, say, Arya (a young girl who wants to do more), Jon (a young adult seeking to find his place), and Ned.

Without a doubt my favorite character is Tyrion, the "Imp" (a dwarf) and sibling to Cersei and Jaime.  Though he'd call himself a rascal, Tyrion is also one of the rare adults who is honest and generally good.  Unlike the other Lannisters, he doesn't seek power nor does he hate the Starks.  He's also one of the few with a sense of humor, and his dialogue adds some comedy to a book that is mostly serious.

Although I'd classify Game of Thrones as epic fantasy, there's very little fantasy in it.  Instead, there's a typical medieval setting and power structure with ordinary scheming people.  Martin, like most before him, also chose to include the stereotypical subjugation of women (if you're making up a medieval-esque setting, why can't you invent a world where women have some institutional power?).  This is not to say there are not many strong and compelling women (and the female characters are just as varied and engaging as the male), but I wish that could have been done with a little less societal misogyny.  I also thought it was somewhat inappropriate to have a 13-year-old turned on while consummating her arranged marriage.  However, in the end, though I was somewhat disappointed the novel wasn't more unique in its arrangement, again, it's a testament to Martin's storytelling ability that despite the lack of novelty in the book's set-up, the story still feels fresh and exciting.

Game of Thrones does not end with a giant cliffhanger nor does it end with resolution.  Instead, it ups the ante and stakes in the books to come.  I'm not sure whether I'd try to read the whole series--after all, how long can a bunch of selfish (and a couple noble) people's desire to rule be interesting?--but I might be willing to give the next book a go.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"A Visit From the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

There are moments in each of our lives when we stop, look, and wonder, "How did I get here?".  Says one character in Egan's novel, "Time is a goon," and A Visit From the Goon Squad explores those melancholy reflections that occur when the passing of time becomes explicit.  Though the book easily could have felt heavy or dull, Egan's expert use of structure and voice has created an engaging and sincere novel.

One of the things I especially liked in the book was its unusual structure, as in some ways it is set up more as a collection of short stories.  A Visit From the Good Squad opens with narration by Sasha; the next chapter occurs earlier chronologically, and the narrator switches to a minor character from Sasha's story.  This set-up continues for a number of chapters, until the timeline reverses and starts to go forward in time.  Each chapter is told by a completely different narrator, though all the narrators are interrelated (and Egan does include quick "aha" moments where the reader is able to piece together a connection).  What really makes this structure work is that it allows the reader to understand each character from multiple points of views: through his or her own voice, the voices of others, and through different points in time.

This complicated structure would not have worked without the ability to make each new narrator distinct.  Egan also does this skillfully, though because I listened to the novel through audiobook, I also had the assistance of Roxana Ortega, the audio narrator, who did an excellent job of creating a different sound, tone, and pacing for each character.  Bennie Salazar, the record executive around which most of the characters center, has an enthusiastic outside which hides his feelings of inadequacy.  Sasha's sarcastic inner tone isn't revealed in her polite conversations with others.

There were a few chapters that didn't ring true to me.  One, which concerns a disgraced publicist who takes on a dictator ("The General") as a client, is too absurd to be believable or fit in with the other chapters.  Another, from a magazine writer accused of sexually assaulting a famous starlet, has uncharacteristic anger and structurally feels out of place.  Both of these chapters occur near the middle, and I found those before and after much stronger.

Music and New York City are the backdrop for Egan's characters, but they aren't central to the story as a whole.  Instead, A Visit from the Goon Squad follows characters and their relationships (the attempts, the failures, the disappointments), ambitions (achieved and unachieved), and attempts to make sense of who we are and how we got here.