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"'Sartor Resartus' is simply unreadable, and for me that always sort of spoils a book."
— Harry S. Truman
Thursday, March 19, 2015
More questions than answers
Title: Vivian Apple at the end of the world
By: Katie Coyle
The Church of America has been warning of the rapture for a long time, all the while taking over the country. Vivian Apple doesn’t believe in the church, even though her parents are believers. On the morning after the rapture was supposed to take place, Vivian comes home to find her parents gone and two holes in the roof. Vivian is confused: she doesn’t believe that the rapture is real, but then why are her parents gone? Not long afterward, Vivian’s grandparents arrive suddenly and take her with them to New York. But in New York, Vivian finds more questions than answers. She soon decides that she must go back home. After returning and uncovering clues as to where her parents might be, she and her best friend Harp, who was also left behind, decide that they need help. They find Peter, a boy who is willing to help but who may not be telling them all he knows about the church. The three of them set off on a road trip to find the truth. Along the way, Vivian and her friends get support from unexpected places—and possibly learn more of the truth than they ever bargained for.
Vivian Apple at the End of the World tells the story of a girl who begins to question everything she believed in and learns why people make decisions that can change their lives forever.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
Scintillating, ironic, multi-hued
Title: Euphoria : a novel
By: Lily King
Irascible Fen, hyper-intelligent Nell, and shy Bankson are fictionalized versions of anthropologists Reo Fortune, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson. The story derives from a documented and dramatic period in their real life along the Sepik River in New Guinea in the early 1930s, with a fictional interpretation and ending. I marvel at how Lily King brought me right into the middle of the story, with no heavy-handed exposition. Just as an anthropologist enters a village with no idea of the likes and dislikes, power struggles and romances among the inhabitants, the reader is enticed into being observant and learning as the book goes along.
At the beginning of the book, Nell travels back to Port Moresby by boat, in flight from a troubling 5 months with the (fictional) Mumbanyo people. "She tried not to think about the villages they were passing, the raised houses and the fire pits and the children hunting for snakes in the thatch with spears. All the people she was missing, the tribes she would never know and words she would never hear, the worry that they might right now be passing the one people she was meant to study, a people whose genius she would unlock, and who would unlock hers, a people who had a way of life that made sense to her."
Threading third person narrative with first person reminiscences from Bankson and excerpts from Nell’s journals, King writes imaginatively, allowing us detailed insight into their characters. Fen is the least known of the three, and the least likeable, which makes me curious to learn more about Reo Fortune. On my second reading, I was just as fascinated by this scintillating, ironic, and multi-hued novel—a sign of true accomplishment by the author. It is not for nothing that this book was chosen by the New York Times Book Review as one of the 10 best books of 2014.
Monday, February 2, 2015
Title: Gretel and the Dark
By: Eliza Granville
The title promises darkness, and if there's one lesson Eliza Granville has learned from Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, it's to always keep a promise. "If you won't forsake me, I won't forsake you."
Krysta's childhood nurse, Greet, had a story for every occasion. While gutting fish one day, she tells Krysta, "Once upon a time, on a farm near Sachsenhausen, lived a man who let his children watch as he slaughtered a pig. Later that day, when the children went off to play, the eldest child took a shiny knife and slit his little brother's throat."
Krysta's father, a physician, interrupts:"Such tales spring from sick imaginations." Josef Breuer, Sigmund Freud's mentor, might well agree. Breuer is a major character in the novel's other storyline, which is set some four decades earlier than Krysta's childhood. Unfortunately for the two doctors, even sicker imaginations have shaped everyday reality, and "such tales" may be one of the few weapons left with which to resist. The symptoms of the diseased human imagination are already quite obvious in Breuer's Vienna of 1899, and even doctors possess no immunity.
"One day a stranger dressed in red and white and black came to Hamelin." As the children of Central Europe "disappear through a magic door in the side of a mountain," a boy and a girl are left behind. Like Hansel and Gretel, the two children desperately seek a way to shove the witch into the oven before they end up there themselves.
As Greet once said, "Stories are fast travelers, always moving on. Oh, yes, stories change with the wind and the tide and the moon. Half the time they're only plaited mist anyway, so they disappear altogether when daylight shines on them." And the other half of the time, there is no daylight, and the stories are all too real.
Monday, February 2, 2015
A penchant for apocalyptic fiction
Title: The Book of the Unnamed Midwife
By: Meg Elison
My penchant for apocalyptic fiction came to a head while reading this book. Frankly, I don't know if I'll ever find anything like it again. A strain of deadly influenza that primarily affects women and children strikes the United States, and a nurse in the birthing unit of a San Francisco hospital finds herself a victim of this awful flu. When she awakes from a coma, the world has plummeted into chaos. As she explores this strange new world, she finds that the ratio of women to men has turned drastically, from 50/50 to 10/90. Women are now a commodity. The unnamed midwife sets out to find safety in a sea of danger. She knows that as a female, she's at risk for rape and enslavement, so she shaves her head, binds her breasts, and starts life as a man. Along the way, she meets many people, both good and bad, and attempts to save other survivors.
I don't believe I've ever read disaster fiction from the perspective of a woman. Meg Elison has the facts straight: women aren't free in disaster scenarios; they're currency. Elison's touching, painful, and thought-provoking debut novel has been short-listed for the Phillip K. Dick award. It has changed forever the way I consume fiction.
Thursday, January 22, 2015
Sustenance of the soul
Title: Being Mortal
By: Atul Gawande
"The problem with medicine and the institutions it has spawned for the care of the sick and the old is not that they have had an incorrect view of what makes life significant. The problem is that they have had almost no view at all . . . Medical professionals concentrate on repair of health, not sustenance of the soul."
Atul Gawande’s description of how American society handles the last phases of life is informative and well-written, sensitive and compassionate. I feel it can start many dialogues, not least a national dialogue about how we experience end-of-life transitions in this country.
Gawande, a surgeon, draws on his professional and personal experiences to give us examples of the conversations we might have when it’s our turn to make choices. The topics that stood out for me were where to live as we need more assistance, and ways to discuss when to stop aggressive treatment and start palliative care. Anyone with a friend or family member facing such decisions may find this book helpful as a moral support and guide.
There is a very interesting chapter about the birth and (sadly) devolution of assisted living, and an amusing and hopeful chapter about bringing animals to live in nursing homes. A few dedicated people are making changes in how nursing homes and assisted living facilities are structured, to provide more flexibility and autonomy within the safety net.
"Bill Thomas wanted to remake the nursing home. Keren Wilson wanted to do away with it entirely and provide assisted living facilities instead. But they were both pursuing the same idea: to help people in a state of dependence sustain the value of existence. Thomas’s first step was to give people a living being to care for; Wilson’s was to give them a door they could lock and a kitchen of their own."
The elderly can continue to enjoy some independence and a meaningful life even in these settings. We also learn that hospice care can bring so much relief some people actually live longer than expected and with more enjoyment than they had while fighting their condition.
The author’s motivation is to help us have a better life, both during the declining years before death and in the last weeks. If his excellent book reaches a wide audience, I am certain his goal will be met.
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