Saturday, July 26, 2014

Forgive Me, by Amanda Eyre Ward

Nadine Morgan is a journalist.  She travels the world looking for dangerous assignments, living in exotic locales and covering wars, genocide, and crime rings.  When an assignment to report on the drug gangs in Mexico goes sideways, Nadine ends up back in her hometown on Cape Cod.  Desperate to escape, but still healing from wounds both physical and emotional, she passes up a chance for love with a local doctor to pursue a story in a part of the world she thought she would never see again, South Africa.  She goes back to report on a story about a young man from her own small town who was beaten to death while teaching in the black townships.  His killers were being brought before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose job it was to determine whether people convicted of political violence during the years leading up to Nelson
Mandela's release from prison should continue to serve their sentences.  She is forced to confront her own personal demons from her time in Cape Town, and the reasons that she will do anything, including putting herself in harm's way, to avoid making the kind of connections that would tie her to one person or place.

I really enjoyed the other book by Amanda Eyre Ward that I read, Sleep Toward Heaven.  Like that book, Forgive Me deals with forgiveness and redemption.  The book is told alternately from Nadine's perspective and the diary of a young boy who, like Nadine herself, is desperate to leave his small town life behind for fame and fortune in the wider world.  Nadine's story is told through a series of flashbacks to her first time in South Africa, and how it affected her in the present.  At times it was really hard to like Nadine.  She used her journalistic liberalness as a shield for her own selfishness.  After all, how angry can you be when you have offered a person your house on Nantucket Island as a refuge when they leave with no notice to pursue the story of bringing a young man's murderer to justice.  Being a journalist allowed Nadine a certain distance from being personally connected to the things that were happening to the people around her, including the people that she considered friends.

Some of the characters were pretty one dimensional, especially Nadine's stepmother, and both of her love interests.  To be honest, I'm not sure if this was lazy storytelling or purposeful.  After all, Nadine didn't really see other people except as they related to herself.  The boy whose journal we are privy to was much more real than any of the other characters in the book, but I spent most of the book wondering what connection his story had to the rest of the narrative, other than his intense desire to get out of his small Cape Cod town. Once I realized who he was, it made a little more sense, but I feel like Ward never really connected the dots between Nadine and the other mothers.

The strange thing is that despite all of the flaws I found in the writing, I still really enjoyed the book.  It was an easy read, and the story of what happened to the people during the struggle to end apartheid and the aftermath of Nelson Madela's election as president were engaging enough to keep me reading.  The story was billed as one about motherhood, which I didn't really get.  To me, it was more about gaining forgiveness, both from the people that you have wronged and yourself.  After years of running away, Nadine needed to stay somewhere long enough to see the ramifications of her own choices, and to fulfill commitments she made to people in order to help them find justice in an unjust world.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Metaxy Project

Layton Green is an author that I discovered when he reached out to me about reviewing a new series he was writing, the Dominic Grey series.  That series now has three titles (The SummonerThe Egyptian, and The Diabolist), and I found them to be a delicious combination of well-paced action and interesting information about cults, the occult, and the psychology surrounding them.

Green is back with a new stand alone novel, The Metaxy Project.  Like his previous books, Green explores the supernatural from the point of view of a skeptic.  In this case, the skeptic is a young man named Derek Miller, a poor kid from the wrong side of the tracks who had the good fortune to start a friendship with a rich kid from an influential family.  When his friend is killed in a car accident, his father (a wealthy, well-known professor and researcher) takes Derek under his wing and helps him get into and through law school.  Derek is just at the beginning of his career, and he has scored a plum job as an associate at a "biglaw" firm.  But when the professor is murdered, Derek is drawn into the search for the killer.  He discovers a super-secret government project related to the supernatural.  The government was experimenting with telekinesis, telepathy, and remote viewing in an effort to weaponize them.  Derek puts his life and sanity in danger to bring down the conspiracy and avenge his dead mentor.

This is going to be a strange connection, but Derek reminded me very much of the main character from the USA series Suits.  Both are young, down-and-out kids who are given a break by powerful men; both are whip smart and underestimated by those around them; both are prone to pretty women in distress.That's pretty much where the similarities end, but it did make me like Derek's character pretty much from the beginning, since I like that show so well.

As a skeptic myself, one of the things that I like about Green's writing is that he tries to make some connection between seemingly inexplicable phenomenon and actual science.  While the story in The Metaxy Project is very definitely in the realm of fantasy, it is not such a stretch, even for a confirmed atheist and realist like myself, to go along with the events of the plot.  Green's work is reminiscent of James Rollin's books, only smarter.  Whereas I sometimes read Rollin's stories with a good deal of eye-rolling at some of the more fantastical plot points, Green's stories sweep me up completely as a combination of reality and possibility.  While I certainly don't believe that things like mediums and ESP are evidence of some larger force at work, who's to say that science won't someday have an explanation for the seemingly supernatural experiences people have reported experiencing over the decades.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

The House Girl, by Tara Conklin

The subject of reparations for slavery is a controversial one.  There is no question that this country was built on the labor of African slaves and the bonded laborers from Europe and Asia that came here in the thousands in the 18th and 19th centuries, and there is even some agreement about how to quantify the stolen wages and physical and emotional suffering.  But to whom would the money go?  How does one prove their ancestors were slaves, with so many records incomplete or lost?  And where does the money come from?  So many generations removed from the plantations, how would we even begin to trace where the present wealth came from, and is there any amount of money that can even begin to make up for the tragedy that was the trans-Atlantic slave trade?  Conklin uses this issue as the framework for her novel, The House Girl.

Set alternately in the late 1800s and the present day, the book tells the story of Josephine Bell, a house slave on a declining Virginia plantation.  Her mistress, Lu Ann Bell, is an aspiring artist.  She is also a high-strung woman, with an anxious temperament and poor health.  In a move that is unusual, and indeed illegal, for the time, Lu Ann taught her young house girl to read, and allowed her to draw and paint in her studio when she was feeling generous.  Lu Ann Bell is a capable artist, but Josephine's portraits and landscapes are luminous, capturing the inherent humanity of her fellow slaves while showcasing the lush beauty of the rural south.  Josephine is desperate to run away, has in fact tried to run away before, but she is conflicted about leaving her dying mistress, and her paintings.

The present day story follows lawyer Lina Sparrow.  Lina is tasked with working on a suit, to be brought against the federal government and many major US corporations, demanding reparations for slavery.  In researching a primary plaintiff for the suit, she is introduced to Lu Ann Bell and her art through a controversy brewing in the art world-was the work really done by Lu Ann Bell, or by her house slave, Josephine.  Bell's family is desperate to prove that she painted the works attributed to her, but others in the art world aren't so sure.  Lina discovers a possible descendant of Josephine's who would make a great plaintiff, but while preparing the case she is forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about her own past.

A story like this one could become little more than political speech as narrative, but Conklin manages to write an engaging story that highlights the many injustices of slavery, as well as present day controversy surrounding reparations, in a way that does not feel preachy.  I've read plenty of other books about slavery, but the art angle makes this one unique. And it is not just a slavery narrative, not that those aren't important and engaging, as well.  This story is about family connections, loss, motherhood, and identity in a more general sense.  Josephine and Lina both come alive on the pages with an emotional impact that draws the reader in.  The book will appeal to anyone interested in the legacy of slavery, or art, or the modern day reparations movement.

Thursday, July 03, 2014

Uncle Stevie Learns a New Trick

There are few writers as prolific as Stephen King.  While is is primarily known as a writer of horror stories,
he has also written science fiction (Under the Dome), a series of books with women's themes (Rose Madder), realistic fiction (Misery), and magical realism (The Green Mile).  And, of course, his epic fantasy series The Dark Tower.  Readers of this blog know that he is one of my very favorite authors.  I think that he is sometimes overlooked by critics of "serious" literature, because of his reputation as a horror writer, but as far as I'm concerned The Stand is one of the best novels of the 20th century.

But as far as I know, King has never written a traditional thriller-until now.  Mr. Mercedes, his latest book, is your basic serial killer story.  Bill Hodges, a retired detective in a Midwestern city, is haunted (though not literally, this time) by his last unsolved case.  Someone drove a Mercedes sedan into a crowd of people lined up to apply for a job in the early morning hours, including a mother and her infant.  Bored, overweight, and lacking purpose, he considers suicide.  Until he gets a message from the Mercedes killer, suggesting that he should eat his own gun.  The killer may have hoped to push Hodges over the edge, but the message the message does the opposite, creating purpose in an otherwise meaningless life.  Bill investigates the case with the help if his teenage neighbor, and a mentally ill woman who is tangentially connected to the case. A more unlikely team doesn't come along much in detective novels, but these three are mighty when chance throws them together.

Regardless of the genre, King's books have extremely well-written characters.  Even the supernatural villains are believable, which I imagine is what makes his scary books so terrifying.  King uses his books to explore the human psyche, the things that people are willing to do, or to sacrifice, for love, power, or greed. And his plots are always well constructed and well-paced.  He's written books that would work as well doorstops, but despite their length they never feel too long.  Mr. Mercedes is no exception.  As I was reading, I was thinking why it took so long for King to write a thriller.  Everything about it suits his strengths so well. Intricate plot, "real" characters, and the darker side of humanity.  If this were any other author, I might say this is the first in a new detective series.  The characters are certainly series-worthy.  But with Uncle Stevie, one never knows. This could be the first in a series, or it could be a one-off detective story from an author who's tried just about everything else.  Maybe there is a little bit of Hodges in King himself.  Maybe trying out a new genre is akin to the message from a serial killer that gives his life purpose.  Whatever the reasoning, and whatever the future of Bill Hodges and the other characters from Mr. Mercedes may be, fans of Stephen King and hard-boiled detective stories alike will enjoy Mr. Mercedes.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward

Salvage the Bones takes place during the twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina.  Esch lives in the small Louisiana town of Bois Sauvage with her alcoholic father and three brothers.  The oldest dreams of being a basketball star, the youngest is just six years old, and his birth brought about the death of their mother.  Esch is the only girl surrounded by men-her father, her brothers, and their friends.  She learned early that sex was something she could give away for some time and attention from the other boys in their group, and now she is 14 and pregnant.  As the storm grows in the Gulf, so too do the tensions in the family.

Esch is the main character and narrator, and Ward uses her to show the desperation in which she and her family live.  No one in the family has regular work, though they all have schemes for how they can improve their future.  Her oldest brother has his sights set on a basketball scholarship, with scouts coming to visit during the summer league.  Her closest brother, Skeet, breeds his fighting dog and plans to sell the puppies.  Esch herself has no real idea what her life can be, but she would just be happy if Manny, the father of her unborn child, would ditch his pretty girlfriend and choose her.  Their father is mostly absent, only paying attention to the children when he wants them to help him get ready for the storm that none of them actually think is coming.  Many of the choices that the family makes are questionable, but the reader can't help but root for them.  Underneath all of the poverty and desperation, there is a lot of love between Esch and her brothers.  They have taken care of each other for so long, and in such dire circumstances, that they function as parts of one machine.

Ultimately, nothing works out the way that anyone hopes.  Esch is a big fan of Greek mythology, and the story of her family follows the basic rules of a Greek tragedy.  It does seem as though the fates are against them, regardless of what they do or think will happen.  When the storm finally breaks, the family faces the loss of everything they have, except each other.  In the end, it is their love for each other, and their perseverance that proves that the human spirit can be amazingly resilient.

Thursday, May 08, 2014

The Reason I Jump, Naoki Higashida

For the first 20 years of my teaching career, I taught self-contained special education.  I chose special education as a career for two reasons.  The first was the book A Circle of Children, by Mary McCracken.  It is a memoir of McCracken's time teaching in a school for children with severe social/emotional disabilities. The second reason was my experiences volunteering at a day camp for children with special needs in the south suburbs of Chicago as a teen.  Not only was I fascinated by the puzzle that these children presented to educators, I was deeply moved watching them grow from year to year, and I knew that I wanted to be a part of that process.

During those years, I met and worked with many, many children.  Quite a few were diagnosed with autism, both the more stereotypical "hand-flapping, spinning-objects" kind, and the varied forms that we have come to recognize today as part of a spectrum of symptoms.  Some of the children were non-verbal, some of them talked non-stop, though usually only about whatever obsession they were currently stuck in.  I learned all about the difference between asphalt and concrete from Keeler, and more about Uh Gi Oh than I would ever need to know from Nick.  Kameron mostly just repeated what other people said to him (called echolalia), but when he did verbalize his own thoughts they almost always had to do with basketball.  I knew children with autism who didn't like to be touched at all, and some who wanted nothing more than deep pressure all the time.  I knew children with autism who never demonstrated self-stimulation, and some who would bounce on their toes or flap their hands non-stop without intervention.  And no matter which child I was currently working with, I always, always wondered what they were thinking about.  Were they content to be left alone?  What made them suddenly take off running?  Why did they insist on wearing the same clothes, day in and day out, regardless of the weather?  Why could they echo whatever was said to them, but not tell us their own thoughts and dreams.

We know so much more about autism than we ever have before.  We know that the issues people with autism have with touch and sound and light has to do with differences in their sensory integration.  We know that people with autism can exhibit different behaviors based on where they fall on the spectrum, and that some disorders that we called something else previously are in fact related to autism spectrum disorder.  But there are also still lots of mysteries.  No one knows the cause of autism (but we know it is NOT childhood vaccines, in case you've heard that in the media).  No one is entirely sure why the repetitive and obsessive behaviors exhibited by many people with autism are so comforting to them, nor do we know why not every person with autism has these behaviors.  But we may now have a better idea about what people with autism may be thinking about, thanks for a remarkable 13 year old Japanese boy.  Naoki Higashida shares his thoughts and experiences as a person with autism, and takes some guesses about how things may be with others who have autism, in his bookThe Reasons I Jump.  He gives us insight into the internal life of people with autism in a way that I have never seen before.

 There are many noteworthy things about this book.  It has an interesting format, in that Higashida starts each section with a question that neurotypical may ask about autism (and probably have asked), and then proceeds to answer the questions according to his own experience.  The book is also interspersed with short stories that demonstrate some aspect  of Higishida's inner life.  But the thing that makes this book truly amazing is the fact that Higishida is non-verbal. He can speak, but the process is so difficult for him that he uses a communication grid he devised himself, or a computer, to write what he wants to say.  Without those adaptions, he would most certainly be trapped inside his own head, unable to communicate at all.  No one would ever have had access to his insight into living with autism, and that would be a tragedy.

Essentially, his message is one that I think probably resonates with anyone who has a physical or mental illness.  Have compassion, have patience, and have understanding, because people with autism or other disabilities don't have control over that disability.  He acknowledges over and over that he knows it can be taxing and frustrating to take care of people with autism.  He knows that having to say the same things over and over again, only to have the person with autism forget what they were told is difficult.  He knows that it worries his parents when he suddenly runs away from them, or when he doesn't notice the world around him and its many possible dangers.  But he tries, and he wants to be recognized as a person with needs, a person who does not always live up to his own expectations for himself, but who is honestly, truly trying to understand how to live in a neurotypical world.    He also reveals a deep sense of self-awareness and insight that I think many people working with people on the autism spectrum would find unbelievable.  Some people living with autism are so distant emotionally and cognitively from the world us neurotypicals live in that it is hard to believe that are thinking about much of anything at all.  How many times have I heard the words, "He's in his own world" used to describe someone with autism?  I've thought it myself often enough over the years.  And for some people with autism it may be true that their experience of the world are so different than mine that it really is like another world, but I suspect more often people with autism are looking for the same things all of us are-safety, comfort, and meaningful human connection.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

The Most Terrifying Book I've Read All Year... about a corporation.  That's right-not zombies or vampire or werewolves or serial killers.  The most frightening book I've read all year-in fact, in the last several years-is about a technology company.  Now, plenty of people are scared of technology, in the "I don't know how to work this" sort of way, but this fear goes right to the heart of so much of what is happening in our world right now regarding internet safety, social media, and privacy.  This particular nightmare is brought to us by Dave Eggers in his 2013 book, The Circle.

The titular Circle is the largest and most powerful corporation in the world.  Calling it a technology company
is a little like describing the Louvre as a building with some paintings on the walls.  The Circle has their fingers in everything.  Imagine if Mark Zuckerburg suddenly owned not just Facebook, but also Instagram, Ebay, Amazon, Twitter, and Google.  The Circle has access to every post, comment, like and dislike (which they call smiles and frowns), customer review, photograph, document, and piece of electronically collected health information in the world.  They also control most of the country's surveillance feeds, with an eye to attaining the information from every country in the world.  They built this empire one piece at a time, adding features and combining services with the aim of making things more safe, efficient and convenient-at least, that's their stated aim.  Their goal is something they call "completion"-that moment when every person on the planet is connected with every other person on the planet, and everyone on the planet knows what every other person in the planet is doing and thinking, all in real time.  (Scared yet?)

The main character is Mae Holland, a young woman in her 20s who at the start of the novel is working at the utility company of hometown.  Feeling discouraged, like her life essentially has no meaning, she is thrilled to be recruited by The Circle. After all, with their beautiful corporate campus, gobs of cash, and prestige, who wouldn't want to work for them.  She goes to work in their customer service department, and quickly begins working her way up through the ranks of the company.  Her friend Annie-a very important executive at The Circle-gives her a leg up whenever she can.  As she takes on more responsibilities, she is given more and more "screens".  She is expected to communicate with customers, answer/comment on people's posts and comments on The Circle's social media platforms (the Inner Circle and Outer Circle), answer endless survey questions designed to gauge consumer habits, and attend on-campus social events, all with the goal of increasing her participation rank, so that she can be given more responsibilities and more screens.  (How 'bout now?  Scared now?)

At one event, she meets a mysterious stranger named Kalder, who says he works for the company, but she can't find him in the staff directory, nor does she ever see him working on any projects.  She feels very drawn to him, but there is something about him that she senses just isn't right?  Is he a corporate spy?  Will she get in trouble for being seen with him?  Her life becomes less about her, and more about they ways in which she can help the company attain "completion".  When strange things start to happen to her friends, she is troubled, but is always able to push away her doubts-usually by what I would call hypnotizing herself by spending hours on social media, "smiling" and "frowning" and "zinging" (their equivalent to tweeting).

Essentially, what makes this book terrifying is the fact that it is not at all implausible.  This may technically be science fiction, in that the technologies that make The Circle's complete domination of every aspect of life have not all been developed yet, but they are all technologies that could exist.  It would not surprise me if there are companies around the world experimenting with some of the very same concepts that The Circle has perfected in this book.  And the arguments that The Circle used to infiltrate the private lives of every person, regardless of whether they use The Circle's social media or not, are ones that I can see swaying Americans now-in fact, they are arguments that do sway people now, arguments about curtailing civil liberties to "keep us safe" or to "expand human knowledge".

The most frightening part for me was the complete erosion of the separation of private and public spaces.  The masterminds behind The Circle were able to convince the world that everyone has the right to ALL knowledge-even things that people would traditionally keep private.  So not only can The Circle access the feeds from cameras placed all over the world, but so can everyone else.  In true Brave New World fashion, they come up with some slogans for what they believe, the most pertinent one for this conversation being Privacy Equals Theft.  People begin to feel that they have the right to know what everyone is thinking all of the time, because according to The Circle Secrets Equal Lies.  It creates a society where everyone is constantly reaching out to everyone else, but no real connections are made.  Personal communication and private relationships are replaced by smiles and frowns and comments on a newsfeed.  And what does The Circle get for all of this knowledge?  A way to monetize everything, a way to keep tabs on what people buy, who they spend time with, where they go...I sincerely hope that we NEVER end up living in the world of The Circle.