Sunday, January 27, 2013

Subterranean, James Rollins

While is enjoy great literature, I am not averse to a romping action story.  And when I listen to audiobooks, which I only do when I drive or exercise, I need something that will keep me from being bored without taking attention away from what I am doing-especially when operating a 2000 pound piece of machinery at high speeds.  It is in this spirit that I downloaded my first James Rollins novel a couple of years ago.  Rollins is best known for his Sigma Force novels, where the dashing Commander Gray Pierce and his crack team of geniuses with black belts race around the globe averting catastrophes and solving historical mysteries.  They are basically The Da Vinci Code on steroids.  I've listened to a couple, and while I can't exactly speak to the accuracy of Rollins' historical or scientific research, the stories are plausible enough not to trigger my "yeah, right" meter.

I decided for my latest audiobook to download one of Rollins' stand-alone novels, called Subterranean.  The plot is like a mash-up of Jurrasic Park and Journey to the Center of the Earth, in that it had both human arrogance and greed,  and big, scary monsters from the past.  A team is sent below the surface of Antarctica to explore the remains of what appears to be a human settlement in caverns that have been recently discovered.  Also discovered-a solid diamond statue that has aroused the interest of scholars and businessmen alike.  The team includes an anthropologist, a geologist, an expert caver, a biologist, and a few Marines along for security.  What the team doesn't know is that the previous team that had been sent in to explore the series of tunnels and caverns had disappeared without a trace.  As they delve more deeply into the earth under the "uninhabited" continent, they discover fierce marsupial predators, unknown species of sharks, predatory snails as big as a basketball, a luminescent fungus that emits a powerful knock-out drug, and a tribe of intelligent marsupial "people" living in a village and growing a wheat-like plant...

Which is exactly where he lost me.  For about half the book, the plot, while incredible, did at least seem to have some basis in solid science...the semi-reptilian, marsupial predators did tweak my suspension of disbelief, but I went with it because humans running away from something trying to eat them is basically the basis of every monster-movie, ever.  But an entire race of beings, not human, developing human qualities and human-like behaviors and societal structures, despite having no contact with humans-sorry, nope, not gonna happen.  Had this novel been billed as fantasy, or had the setting been another planet, I could have gone there.  But not in a supposedly scientific thriller.  I did what I almost never do-I abandoned the story, choosing instead the download Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell, which at least has the decency to call itself a fantasy novel.

So, if you're not bothered by scientific inconsistency and completely implausible storylines, then give this book a try.  But for myself, I'll stick with Rollins' historical mysteries, which for all I know may only sound well-researched, but which allow me to listen without rolling my eyes.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Eye Contact, Cammie McGovern

America seems to have an obsession with autism at the moment.  Every time you turn around there is another  special news segment, heart-warming story, video of someone with savant abilities, or slightly goofy sit-com character that either explicitly or implicitly is identified as having autism.  And really, while the effects of autism can be devastating for those living with it and their caregivers, it is a pretty fascinating condition.  Autism brings up all of the things that we don't understand about the brain, and the ways in which a brain affected by autism works can be as intriguing as it is impenetrable.

In Eye Contact, Cammie McGovern uses autism as the framework for a murder mystery.  A young girl is killed when she wandered from the school playground.  The only witness to the crime is another student, a boy with autism named Adam.  He doesn't speak for says after the murder, but his mother Cara is sure that he knows what happened.  She begins to work with him on expressing what he saw, and in the process discovers that the murder may have connections to her own life that she never expected.

The story goes back and forth between the present-day mystery and Cara's past.  We discover her tumultuous relationship with her best friend, and the relationship that led to Adam's conception.  The mystery did keep me guessing, but what really kept me engaged was the relationship between Cara and Adam, and the very authentic descriptions of living with autism.  McGovern has a son with autism herself, and her intimate knowledge of caring for a child with special needs made the story feel very real.  I was not 100% satisfied with the resolution of the mystery itself, but not so dissatisfied that I was disappointed in the book.  Overall this was a good popcorn book for my Christmas vacation!

Monday, January 07, 2013

I'm Perfect, You're Doomed: Growing Up JW

As a school teacher, I am intimately familiar with one aspect of Jehovah's Witness theology-the prohibition against celebrating holidays.  Every year there was at least one child in my class who would have to sit out during our Halloween, Christmas, and Valentine's parties.  Occasionally they would also have to leave the room while birthday treats were passed out, and of course, alternate assignments had to be given for any holiday themed project.  Other than their apparent aversion to party food and paper hearts, I knew very little about their actual beliefs.  To be honest, I wasn't even sure if Jehovah's Witness fell under the umbrella of Christianity.  I gleaned a bit more over the years, and as a Unitarian Universalist I felt strongly that I should respect the right of everyone to follow whatever religious path they wanted, as long as it wasn't hurtful to anyone else.

Well, I can't speak to how most Jehovah's Witnesses practice their faith, and whether they find it oppressive or painful, but I know of at least one who did.  In I'm Perfect, You're Doomed, Kyria Abrahams shares stories from her childhood in a religious JW family (an abbreviation that I use because she did).  They are alternately hilarious and horrifying-like the meetings her mother would have with her teachers at the beginning of the year to discuss the many benefits having a Witness in class will bring, or the fact that according to the elders the Smurfs were actually little blue demons that could steal your soul for Satan.

The book opens when Kyria is in elementary school, and she tells the quirky, sometimes crazy stories about her family and their Kingdom Hall with self-deprecating wit and an ability to laugh at herself.  As she gets older in the memoir, however, her stories take on a dark tone that made me realize just how difficult it was for her to live up to the pressure of living up to the almost impossible standards of the only "true" Christians.  As her life spirals out of control, the true dangers of any fundamentalist upbringing becomes clear-Kyria has no idea how to deal with anything that contradicts her very rigid belief system , and no idea how to function in the real world.  By the end of the book, I'd gone from laughing out loud to gasping in horror.  And I can honestly say that the more I learned about Jehovah's Witness the more I became convinced that no matter how much my Unitarian Universalist heart wants to respect other people's faith traditions,  the inherent problems with the judgmental, rigid theology of the Jehovah's Witness seems more problematic than redemptive.