Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Generosity: An Enhancement, by Richard Powers

Generosity: An Enhancement is the fourth Powers novel I have read. Two--The Time of Our Singing and The Gold Bug Variations--are massive and insanely complex books that blend science, music, and a variety of questions about life and human nature. I loved The Time of Our Singing but found The Gold Bug Variations went a bit farther into the science than I wanted to go. Generosity: An Enhancement is more akin to The Echo-Maker--smaller scale but still focusing on science as a way into important questions, in this case: What accounts for happiness? If happiness is genetically determined, what are the implications if genes can be manipulated to make everyone happy?

Generosity has two narrative threads. One involves Russell Stone, a sad-sack failed writer who edits a crowd-sourced journal and is teaching a creative nonfiction course at a local college; Candace Weld, a counselor at the college who becomes involved with Russell; and Thassadit Amzwar, a young Algerian woman and student in Stone's class. Amzwar is preternaturally optimistic, even when recounting horrible experiences in her life. She is upbeat and exudes a spirit of generosity that draws people to her. Russell becomes obsessed with her exuberant happiness and decides she has a condition called hyperthymia. When Thassa is assaulted by another student, Russell mentions this condition to the police, and it ends up being reported in the media.

The second thread features science journalist Tonia Schiff and Thomas Kurton, a genetics researcher who believes the future of humanity will be changed by scientists' ability to manipulate genes; Kurton intends to be one of those who profit from this process. Kurton's interest in studying Thassa and escalating media  pressure begin to affect Thassa negatively--and Russell and Candace along with her.

With these two threads, Powers gives us a meta-narrative in which the novel's narrator (who is probably Stone but may not be) comments on the nature of fiction and nonfiction, character, plot development, and the functions of literature.

For me, all of this does not quite come together as a novel. While Russell is a three-dimensional (and pathetic) character, the others are not.  Thassa does not seem authentic--perhaps a genetically happy person is beyond description (or is simply rather boring). Kurton and Schiff are too obviously devices for explicating ideas in which Powers is interested. Despite my not really loving the book, it does present interesting ideas about happiness, science, and writing. Nothing about its flaws makes me any less convinced that Richard Powers is a genius--but a human one whose books are stimulating but not perfect.

Favorite passage
When you're sure of what you're looking at, look harder.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Facing the Wave: A Journey in the Wake of the Tsunami, Gretel Ehrlich

When the "three sorrows" of March 11, 2011, struck Japan, American author Gretel Ehrlich felt compelled to visit the affected area and tell the stories of the people who endured that terrible day and the difficult months that followed. From June through December 2011, she spent most of her time traveling through Miyagi and Iwate Prefectures, where the devastation was nearly incomprehensible.

Ehrlich tells the stories of people who lost everything in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami--homes, loved ones, livelihoods, literally everything except their lives. Many showed immense courage during these events and in the days afterwards. But it is the pain and sorrow that linger--the mother who rents a back hoe and, day after day, searches for her daughter's body in the wreckage of an elementary school; the older man who plants a garden post-tsunami only to have it wiped out by the torrential rains of a typhoon; the elderly people who see no better option than suicide. And always there is the the fear--many who survived the tsunami now understandably feel panic at even a small tremor. Ehrlich intersperses her own observations and responses with the blog postings of a Japanese fisherman, Hirayama, who, along with his boat, survived the tsunami. These excerpts provide a much-appreciated Japanese perspective.

Layered on all of this is the radiation from the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant--as people struggle to rebuild their lives, they are being exposed to elevated levels of a variety of radioactive materials while being lied to by their government. One can only imagine that the long-term health effects will be serious, widespread, and possibly denied by the Japanese government.

Ehrlich's book is an eye-opener for someone who has followed the events in the newspapers and through occasional Facebook posts from a friend in Tokyo. Oddly, I found myself slightly torn about the book. I appreciated Ehrlich's effort to make readers outside of Japan more fully aware of the magnitude of this disaster; she certainly put her own health at risk by choosing to travel in the area for an extended period. At the same time, I feel slightly disturbed at the notion of the American journalist prying into the personal pain of Japanese people (and, from time to time, ignoring people's warnings not to try to get to one place or another)--perhaps irrational, but it is there.

My hesitations notwithstanding, Facing the Wave will deepen virtually any American reader's understanding of the three sorrows (I much prefer this phrase to the alliterative "Triple Tragedies").

Side notes: If you are wondering why I have recently read two books about this topic, it is for a work project--but it is turning out to be rewarding. Also, my son, who has been in Tokyo for the past 14 months (and has lived in Japan for five of the past 12 years), reports that the awarding of the 2020 Olympics to Tokyo may cause further setbacks in the rebuilding efforts, as there are expected to be shortages of building materials, and Olympic building will take priority.

Favorite passages:
I'm looking at fiction; I'm looking at truth; my eyes are wet from the downpour.

To say that the tsunami survivors' attitude toward their tremendous loss is stoicism would be to underestimate the complexity of their response. Courage and self-discipline are evident everywhere in this deeply traditional culture, as well as an ability to accept "what is"without sentimentality, even as the government persists with its numbing denials. But the pain of loss is staggering; there's confusion, nightmarish fear, and there are suicides.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Obituary Writer, by Ann Hood

The Obituary Writer intercuts the stories of two women. Vivien Lowe is a young single woman in San Francisco in the early 1900s. She meets a suave older man, David, and falls in love. Soon, she is defying convention by living with David. Then, on the day of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, David disappears. While it is obvious to everyone else that David is dead, Vivien cannot accept that fact. She becomes obsessed with the idea that he has amnesia and is somewhere in the world, lost and unable to find his way back to her. After moving to Napa to escape the memories in the city and to be near her friend Lottie, she by accident becomes a writer of nontraditional obituaries that uncannily capture the character of the deceased and provide genuine comfort to the bereaved. Still, Vivien herself cannot move past her grief for David, more than a decade after his disappearance.

The second character is Claire, a pregnant wife and mother in 1961. While working on the Kennedy campaign, Claire started an affair with another volunteer; eventually, her husband Peter found Claire and her lover together. Now she has broken off the affair but believes that the child she is carrying is her lover's rather than her husband's. The family sets out in the midst of a blizzard to drive from Virginia to Rhode Island for Peter's mother's 80th birthday. The trip is a disaster from the start, and Claire spends most of it wondering how she can possibly stay married to Peter, who treats her like a child who's been bad.

Although Claire is in a situation that anyone who remembers gender relations in the 1960s can feel sympathy for, she is not a sympathetic character and it's hard to care very much about her story, which casts both men and women in the early 60s in a rather unfavorable light (the men are condescending and overbearing; the women are consumed with trivial concerns). Vivien and her story are much more interesting and better able to carry the weight of the themes that Hood wants the reader to consider--grief and loss, hope, love in its many varieties. The mystery of how the two stories relate isn't revealed until near the end of the book, but it was fairly easy to guess before too many chapters had gone by.

The Obituary Writer isn't a bad book, but had Hood created a Claire who could balance Vivian, it could have been a very good book.

Favorite passages
The parents of dead children wail. They pull at their clothes and their hair, as if they need to leave their bodies, shed their skin, disappear.

This was how to help a family who had just lost their child. Wash the clothes. Make soup. Don't ask them what they need. Bring them what they need. Keep them warm.  Listen to them rant and cry and tell their story over and over.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

I Can't Complain: (All Too) Personal Essays, by Elinor Lipman

I have always enjoyed Elinor Lipman's humorous novels, with their many insights into human nature. This collection of essays, most previously published in newspapers or magazines, reinforces many of my preconceptions about her based on her fiction--she is funny, caring, and a keen observer of the sweet and sour of human interactions.

Three of the essays brought me to tears (which was somewhat embarrassing when I was listening to the book while grocery shopping). One of these was the story Lipman's friend Bobby who became pregnant at age 30, didn't marry the baby's father, but managed to build a complicated and loving family that included not only baby Julia, her father, Bobby's eventual husband, their son Max, and the extended families of all three adults. The depiction of how these families--Jewish and Catholic--came together at Julia's bat mitzvah is really a look at humanity at its best. Similarly, "A Tip of the Hat to the Old Block" is a lovely description of the Irish neighborhood in which Lipman spent her early years; it was her recounting of the people from the old block who came to her parents' funerals, decades after her family moved out of the neighborhood, that caused my grocery store tears. Finally, her tribute to her late husband, "This One's for You," is lovely and sad.

Lipman's topics range widely--from having one of her books made into a movie, to sex education for her son, writing blurbs for other authors' books, her mother's aversion to condiments, and her favorite book (The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis). It's reassuring to me, since I tend to think of authors as somewhat elevated personages, to know that Lipman has watched soap operas and golf, tried Internet dating with not-so-great results, and held grudges. I also enjoyed her essays about writing, particularly the one about naming her characters.

I listened to the audio version of I Can't Complain, read by the author, whose voice was surprisingly youthful; I enjoyed her reading very much.

Favorite passage:
My sister and I do solemnly believe, no, we insist, that each of us was unquestionably her father's favorite child, the shiniest apple of his eye. The argument goes like this. "I was Daddy's favorite child." "No, I'm sorry, I was." . . Finally, we agree to disagree, recognizing what a sweet and lucky argument ours is.

Ashes are sadder than I ever could have imagined.

Friday, November 8, 2013

All the King's Men, by Robert Penn Warren

All the King's Men is often described as being the story of a Huey Long type character (Willie Stark), who begins his political career as a populist who wants to help the people and ends it as a corrupt governor who will stop at nothing to consolidate his own power.  But I see it as the story of how an everyman--Jack Burden, the book's narrator--can be corrupted by proximity to power. Jack's early life was rather aimless. He was a law student, a history student, and a reporter before he became Willie Stark's right-hand man, taking on any job from shepherding a tax bill through the legislature, to coordinating a photo op at the governor's family farm, to digging up dirt on a family friend who has been nothing but good to Jack.

The story of Jack's work with Willie Stark--"the Boss"--is interspersed with memories of Jack's youth--his romance with Anne Stanton and his friendship with her brother, Dr. Adam Stanton; his troubled relationship with his mother, who lives with a much younger man; his youthful and short-lived marriage; his research as a Ph.D. student in history (readers are treated to a long description of the Civil War era family he was hoping to write his dissertation on). Years after their romance ended, Jack  learns that Anne Stanton is having an affair with "the Boss"; he is devastated--and it is the affair that sets off the events that result in the deaths of both "the Boss" and Dr. Stanton. In the wake of these events, Jack falls into a deep depression but eventually pulls himself out and sets his life on a more positive path--although I am unconvinced that he even then has taken full responsibility for his past actions.

All the King's Men won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 and has appeared on numerous "best novels" lists. It certainly explores timeless themes--the corrupting effects of power, the consequences of not taking responsibility for one's actions, identity, and even original sin. For some readers, the poetic language (Warren was, after all, a poet) and style are probably moving; I found them ill suited to the book and quite often repetitious, pretentious, and annoying. An example: "There is nothing more alone than being in a car at night in the rain. I was in the car. And I was glad of it. Between one point on the map and another point on the map, there was the being alone in the car in the rain." And he continues in this vein to the point of tedium.  For me, Jack was not redeemed by either his evolving life philosophy or his actions--indeed, he was a thoroughly repulsive character.  Though I tend to blame myself when I don't care for a classic, I have to say I much preferred Ethan Canin's  recent America, America, which shares structural and thematic similarities with All the King's Men but is set in the Vietnam era. 

Favorite passage
The best luck always happens to people who don't need it.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

I started Flight Behavior several months ago. Then I started it again . . . and again. I finally finished it last night, a day after we discussed it at book group. Somehow, I struggled to get past the first chapter, in which protagonist Dellarobia Turnbow was hiking up the mountain behind her Tennessee home to an assignation with a hot young telephone lineman. She turns back after seeing the mountainside pulsing with a glowing and rippling orange color. She doesn't know what she is seeing because she isn't wearing her glasses (her mother-in-law Hester's adages about girls who wear glasses ring in her head), but she sees it as an alarm waking her to the mistake she is about to make.

Dellarobia married Cub (whose dad's name is Bear) when she was 17 and pregnant. Although the baby came early and died, they stayed married, and 11 years later they have a son and daughter, Preston and Cordelia. They live on the corner of her in-law's property, where Dellarobia feels trapped and engages in serial crushes. The cash-strapped family is planning to log on the mountain, but when others wearing their glasses see the orange phenomenon--millions of Monarch butterflies roosting in Tennessee instead of Mexico--the plans are put on hold.

The discovery of the Monarchs has ripple effects. Scientists, led by the charismatic Ovid Byron (Dellarobia's next crush), come to the mountain to study the butterflies and providing Dellarobia with her first paid job in years. Members of local churches think the butterflies are a sign of special grace from God. Tourists flock to the mountain, giving Hester income opportunities beyond her sheep. As Dellarobia becomes involved in the scientists' investigations, she also becomes increasingly aware of the emptiness of her marriage. The problems in her personal ecosystem echo those in the butterflies'--whether either she or the butterflies will ultimately have a positive solution is not completely resolved.

Barbara Kingsolver is a biologist by training and weaves a lot of information about environmental issues into the narrative--something that many members of our book group really enjoyed. Some were also moved by Dellarobia's evolution while others found her less than fully engaging. I fell into the latter group--I just didn't care very much about Dellarobia and, because of that, felt the book's pace was much too slow. Like my book group friend Amber, I longed for the multiple narrators and less straightforward chronology of some of Kingsolver's earlier works. Her Prodigal Summer also deals with environmental issues but is a more rewarding read.

Favorite passages:
Dellarobia felt an entirely new form of panic as she watched her son love nature so expectantly, wondering if he might be racing toward a future like some complicated sand castle that was crumbling under the ride. She didn't know how scientists bore such knowledge. People had to manage terrible truths.

. . . the weeds were still here, it was plain to see, encircling the whole pasture, threaded through wire and post and skeletal trees. With their glassy stems encased in ice the weeds looked more substantial than the fence itself, the seasons of secret growth revealed in a sudden disclosure of terrible, cold beauty.