Years ago I read Helprin’s A Soldier in the Great War and found it to be an impressive description of the stupidity of war. In Sunlight and in Shadow he jumps back to WWII from a somber post WWII present. The portions of the book that cover the war are first rate. Unfortunately his descriptions of Harry’s romance with a young singer in NYC is too sophomoric and so overwhelmingly romanticized they are difficult to listen to. The words cloy. Perhaps this is due to the bated breath or the reader; as if this love affair between a thirty something vet and Katherine (no virgin) were something on the pedestal of adolescence. There is a bit of F. Scott Fitzgerald to the scenes in the Hamptons among the well-heeled set. This is juxtaposed to the gritty business of protection rackets in NYC. The book is also interminably long due to rambling descriptions and a fondness for employing an excess of adjectives. If you can get past the saccharine romance and the ponderous verbiage there is a good story with a bit of depressing and maybe inevitable ending.
Dave Eggers The Circle is an updated look at a not so distant future when an omniscient overlord is all intrusive. Is it for good or evil? Unlike 1984 where the omnipresent TV eye was the government these eyes and ears are corporate aided and abetted by all those in the Circle. The Circle is a ubiquitous Facebook infused with a religious fervor summed up with the phrase “privacy is criminal.” Mae is so enthusiastic about letting people into her life she “goes transparent” wearing a camera and microphone broadcasting to the world except for bathroom breaks. Her wrist sensor in addition to monitoring all bodily functions also tracks how many people are watching. Stamping out privacy becomes a crusade for her. Mae’s ex-boyfriend is completely disgusted with the hive like mentality of the Circle and tells her he is going to live in the woods, off the information grid, hidden. No such luck. With the ability to capture millions of people’s attention and their support in locating him, Mae finds him in a few minutes. He’s angry. Not unlike the savage in Brave New World, he rejects the "modernity" of completely open access of a linked life.
This an interesting book. Sure, it’s a rehash of quite a few ideas and books but it is original in using a linked and transparent world through an internet medium to demonstrate that Google’s “do no harm” vision can have the opposite impact. Think of all those Google vehicles cruising neighborhoods taking pictures of everything being replaced by personal $59 cameras placed everywhere with 2 year battery lives on all the time. The world is live, there is no privacy. Closing the Circle is the aim of the coterie of Circle founders. Unlike Arthur C. Clarke’s vision of a connected world leading to a super organism in Childhood’s End closing the Circle is a much darker vision more akin to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We.
Theo starts his dissipated life well before the explosion in the museum. He manages to keep his head above water and in the end just barely avoids the same exit his father took when in a jam albeit Theo was going to be considerate enough to say goodbye and leave a paper trail.
Boris, Theo’s fast friend he meets in the hinterlands of exurban Las Vegas during his Nevada exile plays a major role in his drug use and the fate of The Goldfinch painting. Boris is somewhere between amoral and immoral. Theo knows he’s screwed up but can’t seem to set things right. The whirlwind and violently decided conclusion spins Theo very close to the edge. It is only by a bit of ungainly plot twist that he is rescued enabling him to serendipitously rescue Toby’s reputation and business. Yes, art is a key to the tale. The creation of art provides a glimpse of immortality that can spill over into art appreciation. That spark can be extinguished or at least dampened in the desultory business of art, particularly the illegal side The Goldfinch exposes.
Some of the over the top philosophizing near the end of the book could have been left unsaid as could the perambulations of Theo setting aright his fraudulent conveyances. On the whole the book is a fast paced coming of age tale that sets up a denouement and redemption.
Recently in a class I teach a student summed up an article that concluded climate change could lead to a 2% decline in food production each decade of the 21st century. The article and the student proposed solutions that were all predicated on the premise that food production had to be increased to feed the increasing human population. Neither the article nor she proposed doing something about population. Countdown makes the case that humans may be about as intelligent as algae in a pond about to suffocate themselves with overpopulation. If people don’t do something about population nature will intervene. The combination of a (perhaps) climate change induced superstorm in the Philippines and the population of that island nation is a case in point. Weisman discusses the Philippines intransigence to population control and the involvement of the Catholic Church as a bulwark of opposition. The Philippine population was 7.9 million in 1900. By 2010 it has exploded to 94 million and projected to grow to 150 million. Seven children per woman is not unusual. The TV footage of the typhoon destruction and the narrative brings up examples of women who lost 5, 6, 7 children. Our DNA pushes us to reproduce ourselves creating a tragedy of the commons. Weisman illustrates that well when he compares the prolific ultra-orthodox Jews in Israel with the Palestinians urged by Arafat to overwhelm Israel with population growth. In recent times worldwide access to family planning has improved but is it too late? Male driven cultural imperatives to have large families also are slow to change. Enraged social conservatives in the US are intent on limiting and even abolishing abortion rights while curbing access to contraception. This all ties into climate change as a corollary to Paul Ehrlich’s formulation that implies an impossible technological leap would be required for projected global population to avoid food shortages and the very real prospect of warfare and civil unrest. Is there hope? Weisman points out reducing birth per woman to 1.5 children would bring global population down to 1.6 billion by 2100. Are we heading there? It seems unlikely. China has reversed its draconian one child policy though economic constraints will probably keep child bearing below replacement. Religion and tradition are impediments to controlling persistent population increase. And, of course, our capitalist system that demands growth. The source of that growth is largely a growing population. We need to rethink our economics and our cultural norms or we’ll be proving Malthus was correct but his timing was off by a bit.
This was an interesting story but more so a profile of a scientist who seems to have lost track of his moral compass. Exploration and discovery trump other considerations when intruding on a newly discovered culture. When the possibility of some ostracized members of this culture having attained a physical but not mental immortality or at least a long life arises Norton, the scientist narrator, pulls out all the stops in an attempt to figure out how they’ve attained such a state. Once word gets out and the pharmaceutical companies descend on the island paradise it is reduced to combed over rubble. Norton wins the Nobel while adopting a great many of the island's waifs. How he fares as a father and why he is imprisoned for going astray conclude the book. While clearly able to apply analysis in the scientific world, Norton lacks such perspicacity when examining his own actions.
This book seemed a bit contrived at points. The reading was fine, the story was a satire (I suppose) of life in these fast paced, hectic times. Harold as an adjunct professor forever writing the definitive book on Nixon makes for some interesting juxtapositions but these are also occasionally a bit much. Harrold’s sudden sex life crosses the borders of male fantasy and passes the village of absurdity when he is handcuffed by a couple of unhappy children.
The story keeps moving, along with Nixon flashbacks but I’m not sure I would have finished what would be a very long book had I taken it out of the library.
John Irving is very ambitious in In One Person: A Novel taking on gender roles and taking them on mainly though not exclusively through his gender bending protagonist, BIlly. The story is LOL at times until AIDS appears later in the book when reality is considerable more somber than playful youth. Billy is in love with the town librarian who appears to be a woman but appearances in this book are often not what they seem. Cutting across the sixty something lifetime of the prep school narrator Irving provides a tour of 20th century gender identification morality and the multiplicity of changes it goes through courtesy of his characters. Cross dressing is a given in Billy’s family with his grandfather eager to take on female roles in the town’s theater group. His birth father’s whereabouts and his legendary and eventually questionable qualities as a lady’s man are part of the finale that wraps up multiple gender shifting roles played by many characters in the book. Dad emerges near the end with a link to a story Billy remembered from a feverish visit of his youth involving a shipmate reading a novel perched atop a storm tossed commode. There is a bit more coming-of-age antics than I would like but Irving’s ability to tie these youthful discoveries to the child being the father of the man give it depth. Altogether a good read and well written as are all of Irving’s books.
The Frontiersman follows the life of Simon Kenton from coming of age as a restless do-nothing to trapper and Indian fighter in the mid-18th to early 19th century. Ohio and Kentucky were the wilderness, the frontier where land claims could be had simply by marking trees with an ax. As Kenton found out, with the arrival of civilization establishing title was a more complex procedure. The Indians were not willing partners in the settling of the land by colonists and immigrants. Tecumseh is the adversarial opposite of Kenton; he attempts to knit together an Indian confederation to take on the white man, to turn back the tide of immigrants. There are a great many historical characters including Daniel Boone who make appearances. Eckert uses his imagination depicting what happened on a micro-historical level and undoubtedly takes literary license frequently. It is a good device to keep the larger tale of history compelling. Both the Indian and pioneers commit heinous acts; justice is served at gunpoint more often than not. There are many insights and anecdotes to a story with a well-known outcome that keep it interesting.
Dennett starts off with some simple and obvious propositions. Then things get complicated. This is probably an interesting and book to read but to listen to? Fuggedaboutit. Books like this I want to go back and reread a section, ponder a thought, etc. If you are momentarily sidetracked while gardening, driving, etc., you’ll probably lose the thread. I did. Audible should consider a warning label books of this ilk: Caution – deep thinking required, cannot be listened to while doing anything else.
I suppose Ruth Ozeki wanted to expose the evils of GMO foods and then worked up some characters around which to build a story. The protagonist runs away from home at fourteen and returns twenty-five years later with three kids in tow. Unfortunately her fourteen year old personality seems to still be in control. That personality gets annoying in spots and in others downright stupid to the point where I could no longer suspend my disbelief. Mix in her Alzheimer afflicted mother who has occasional deep philosophical insights even though she is so far gone that her husband has labeled common household objects (lamp, toaster, etc.). This goes against my experience with people with Alzheimer’s but maybe I missed something. There are other characters that don’t quite make the mark that left the book adrift in periodic anti-GMO proselytizing that had mixed facts and conjectures. Is there a happy ending? If you decide to find out; good luck to you and be sure to be ready to accept some folks on the edge and over of believability.
If time is a river Ursula can swim to the bank and reenter at different points. The result is a different, though not necessarily better outcome in Atkinson’s book. When things aren’t going well, usually resulting in death, she can go back to the beginning or even some crucial crossroads and have another go at it. There is a subconscious learning experience that seems to gradually produce a vestigial memory along with more satisfactory results. There is a bit of Groundhog Day (the movie) in this but the writing is first rate which makes the different iterations easy and interesting to follow. As the do overs mount up Ursula has a déjà vu inkling that she’s been there (here) and done that before. The psychiatrist fond of Eastern religions that she sees in some of her lives mentions reincarnation. That’s not quite what she is experiencing but there is the aspect of getting it right before moving on to some other plane of existence or nonexistence. A good story of a large family in pre-WWI England through post WWII provides the backdrop for the timeless pursuit of better outcomes. The notion of reliving life is not so farfetched since most of us do it regularly in our daydreams. Atkinson supplies substance to such daydreams through Ursula and does a fine job of it.
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