Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"The People in the Trees" by Hanya Yanagihara

I love an unreliable narrator. It's what made The Dinner, which I thoroughly enjoyed, so delicious (no pun intended). But, in my book club's discussion of The Dinner, I also found that unreliable narrators made some people uncomfortable. They felt "tricked" into liking or sympathizing with a despicable character. Now, I think any good reader needs to be aware--why assume your protagonist is good-hearted and honest?--but I can understand where they're coming from.

It's these contradictory feelings about unreliable narrators that seem to account for some of the divergent opinions about The People in the Trees (at least based on the Amazon reviews). But, from the beginning, it's clear the novel is layered in potential duplicity. The story is the personal account of Norton Perina, a Nobel-prize winning scientist famous for discovering a turtle among previously unknown indigenous people that granted those who ate it extremely long lives (though debilitating mental conditions later on). Over the years, Perina adopted 43 children from the island and has recently been jailed for molesting one of the children. Considering that Perina is writing--in his defense obviously--from jail should give the reader pause. Secondly, the book is compiled and edited by Perina's former colleague and uber-fan Ronald Kubodera, which adds an additional layer of potential obfuscation.

And, by the end, it's clear that Perina is a monster. But, he's a monster who's unaware of his monstrosity. We like to assume that bad people are like Disney villains--they do bad things out of a desire to "be evil." But most people who do bad things do so thinking they are behaving acceptably, or at least justifiably. If you ask them if murder is wrong they'll say of course, but what they did wasn't murder. And if you were to ask Perina is raping a child is acceptable, he'd of course say no: but what he didn't wasn't rape. Part of the book's success is that there are moments of understanding--and yes, even sympathizing with--Perina while also seeing his grossly distorted view of life, his "children," and himself.

Most of the book concerns the events prior to the trial and even the adoption of the children. A significant portion focuses on Perina's initial visit to the island of Ivu'ivu with the anthropologist Tallent and his experience with the "Dreamers," the elderly Ivu'ivuians living extended lifespans. Throughout, Yanagihara paints Perina as a lonely, narcissistic man unable to form real relationships. A man who adopts dozen of children not out of love or compassion (in fact, he purposefully spends a significant amount of time away from home) but out of a desire for some unachievable fulfillment.

I found the book and Perina fascinating and disturbing. Though the focus is on Perina, there's plenty of interesting commentary about the destruction of indigenous cultures and Western appropriation of local people. And a punch-in-the-gut ending.

Monday, January 20, 2014

"David and Goliath" by Malcolm Gladwell

I have mixed feelings about Gladwell, and I only picked up David and Goliath for my book club. I ended up being unable to attend the meeting that discussed the book, which I'm disappointed in. Gladwell may, at times, be problematic, but at least he can provoke interesting discussion.

On the other hand, though, maybe it's not such a shame I missed the meeting, since David and Goliath has far more prosaic things to say than some of Gladwell's earlier books. Whereas The Outliers at least contained some surprising or thought-provoking assertions, most of Gladwell's arguments in D&G are utterly familiar: "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger"; "you can have too much of a good thing."

In fact, the primary argument of David and Goliath is that what appear to be disadvantages aren't always so. Gladwell's version of the story which gives its name to the book is somewhat interesting. Gladwell argues that, at the time, sling-throwers were quite deadly and accurate, so it would not have been difficult for David to fell Goliath before Goliath got anywhere near in range to touch David. In that case, David and Goliath is not really the underdog story we make it out to be.

However, I found little of what followed the introductory story to be groundbreaking, and, in making his points, Gladwell treads some dangerous ground. For example, he begins his discussion about dyslexia by detailing all its problems but ending with the (shocking!) question: "You wouldn't wish dyslexia on your child. Or would you?" (102). He then goes on to highlight some stories in which individuals' dyslexia caused them to overcompensate and develop extraordinary skills in another area, helping them become very successful people today. But this is hardly a pro-dyslexia argument! Gladwell (to his credit) even notes that these stories are not true for most dyslexics--in fact there's a very high incidence of dyslexia in the prison population. So, among children with dyslexia, some number are excessively encumbered by their disability and end up far worse; some number survive and manage to do okay; and some very, very small number do even better. That makes Gladwell's question utterly disingenuous and helps to obscure the fact that such success stories are not the norm. He repeats the same argument with children who lose a parent.

Other arguments are utterly obvious. For example, reducing class sizes in schools only helps up until a point. Any teacher can tell you this (though maybe this chapter highlights the enormous disconnect between teachers and educational researchers/policy makers more than anything else--maybe once in awhile ask teachers what they think?). Yes, a class of 30 is too big. Students get lost. A class of 8 is too small. There's not enough students to share the participation and generate discussion. Around 20-ish, give or take, is ideal.

There was some interesting information to be gleaned from the section on choosing colleges, in which Gladwell argues that it's not always to a student's advantage to attend the most difficult/challenging college he or she is accepted into. The section could make good reading for highschool juniors and seniors and their parents.

As always, Gladwell remains very readable, even if his tone can sometimes come off as arrogant or patronizing. A few points seemed absurd, such as postulating, via other scholars, the the Biblical Goliath had hyperparathyroidism. Really? Do scholars not have any idea how the Bible was written? And they think a few verses from it confirms a medical diagnosis? The rest of the book is fine, but, as I've said before, hardly groundbreaking.

Monday, January 6, 2014

"Bone Season" by Samantha Shannon

Bone Season has appeared on many "most hyped lists," though, interestingly, I don't think I've ever seen anyone actually "hyping" it. So it may be all on the publisher, who perhaps did itself (and its author) a disservice by raising expectations for a book that can't possibly meet them. Bone Season isn't a terrible book, but it's also nothing special outside the generic dystopian/fantasy YA genre, and its lack of spark--when juxtaposed with high expectations--probably makes it seem worse than it really is.

The book's plot and its worldbuilding is excessively convoluted--a problem throughout--but I'll try to give the basics. Paige is a "dreamwalker" in a world in which clairvoyance is illegal and hunted. She works for an underground syndicate of clairvoyants but is arrested one evening after killing a guard with her powers. She is taken to Sheol I, a "jail" for certain clairvoyants run by a race of beings called the Rephaim. The Rephaim are from another world and are training clairvoyants to fight devastating creatures that are entering our world. Paige is taken for training by the Warden. She is determined to escape and return to her "gang" in London.

Okay, so that's a terrible synopsis, but that's the basic storyline. There is an enormous range of clairvoyant types in the world, which can get incredibly confusing. I found the Rephaim's role in the world similarly muddled. And then there are Paige's feelings. She's incredibly devoted to her "gang" family, but I couldn't quite understand why. I see that they gave her companionship that she had lacked, but the intense devotion still felt odd. Most weirdly, about three-quarters through the book we learn about a super important super secret memory she has about her feelings for one of the members, which had never been alluded to before. It felt sudden and forced.

In general Paige felt under-developed even though the entire book focuses on her inner monologue. And many of the side characters--particularly people like Seb, Julian, and Liss, whom Paige becomes very attached to--are even less rounded.

Perhaps part of the problem is that Bone Season very much reads YA fantasy, but its protagonist is several years older. For that reason Paige's actions often felt out of step, though maybe they wouldn't have if the book read as more sophisticated.

In the end, the book was okay, the action was okay, and the obligatory "Romeo and Juliet" romance was okay, but I wouldn't have finished the novel if I'd had something else to read, and I've no intentions of reading the next. Apparently it's supposed to be the first in a seven-book series--ugh.