Thursday, June 23, 2011

Book 51: The Paris Wife

The Paris Wife by Paula Mclain

While the topic interested me, the deciding factor was that I read a few different positive reviews of this novel from a variety of sources. Unfortunately, I didn't quite agree with them. The novel is told from the perspective of Hadley Richardson, Hemingway's first wife or "the Paris wife." They met in Chicago after the Great War, and married after a swift courtship. Hadley, about eight or nine years older than her groom, lived a rather sheltered life and was a bit innocent and old-fashioned compared to her husband in some ways. The couple eventually decide to move to Paris for Ernest's writing career.

While there, the newlyweds make the acquaintance of several Americans and artists that are already big names (at least within the arts community if not the general public just yet), including Gertrude Stein and later the Fitzgeralds. Ernest writes and works while Hadley plays the supportive wife for these first few years. They also drink a lot, and Hadley realizes just how much her life revolves around her husband when he leaves for journalism assignments to supplement their income.

I realize that since this is historical fiction, there is a limit on what the characters can do, but it is still fiction, meaning the author can take certain liberties to add drama to the story (otherwise, I would just read nonfiction) - there is a certain amount of leniency that historical fiction novelists are given as long as they don't go too crazy or become too inaccurate. While it was definitely interesting to read about these years in Hemingway's life as well as his relationship with women given how very macho his writing is, the novel was a bit slow or dull for me. It wasn't badly-written, and the novel certainly explored some of Hemingway's flaws, such as taking some things to seriously, his need to proof his manliness, and his falling out with friends due to stubbornness and pride, I wasn't hooked. It took me a few days to get through this, because I just wasn't in a hurry to read the rest. Hadley always reassures Hemingway about his writing, and they go off on various vacations, and then he finally gets some short stories published. In ways, their struggle didn't quite hit home because I knew that soon enough Hemingway would be the world famous author Hemingway, and since they were constantly going on trips, they couldn't have been struggling that much anyway, right? And yet, it took longer for Hemingway to become successful than I expected or realized.

I enjoyed the last third of the novel the most, which follows Hemingway's trip to Pamplona, and basically recreates the scene that inspired The Sun Also Rises (which I want to revisit now), and then also documents a disintegrating marriage. Had there been warning signs before? As a reader and someone who knows that Hadley wasn't Hemingway's last wife, it is easy to judge some of the marriage scenes in the early years and see signs even if they aren't there. From a modern sensibility, Hadley is too wrapped up around Hemingway, but even she points out that in '20s Paris, her lifestyle was considered old-fashioned. The main issue with the portrayal of Hadley as the happy supportive housewife is that it doesn't make for a very exciting protagonist. She seemed too bland or too much like a blank slate for much of the novel rather than a distinct character - in fact, she could have been pulled out of any generic historical fiction piece.

The novel does an alright job of telling the story and setting the scene, but maybe this marriage wasn't that exciting, or something more was needed in the first half of the book to make it more engaging. The author says she was inspired to write this after reading Hemingway's portrayal of his first marriage in A Moveable Feast, so readers may get more satisfaction from that particular book - I think I read the first chapter of it many years ago, and put it down because Hemingway ordered a lot of drinks, and that was all that happened, so I was easily distracted by other novels. The novel has made me curious about Hemingway again, and the reality of this, so it does succeed in at least making the reader want more. It would have been nice if some of that more had come from the novel itself, though.

Book 50: Bad Blood

Bad Blood: The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment by James Jones

I had heard of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment at some point in school, but only knew very broadly what had happened: white doctors experimented on black men and let them die of syphilis in the '30s. What I didn't know is that the experiment continued into the '70s, or how it even came to be.

Jones does a very good job of telling the story behind the experiment, and what led to it. He doesn't even necessarily judge the doctors himself, letting their actions speak for themselves and also demonstrates how they rationalized the experiment to themselves. Jones begins with the history of racism in medicine, and goes back to the times of slavery. At that point, many believed that diseases affected blacks and whites differently but despite this the doctors used the same treatments for slaves as for their masters. After the Civil War, many whites thought that blacks would die out due to their death rates which could be directly traced to their living conditions. Some used this to show that blacks were inferiors to whites, while others realized that anyone in these conditions would face similar challenges. As a result, public health officials focused on education within poor and black communities. In the early 1930s, public health officials were in Macon County, Alabama to test for syphilis and were surprised by the rather significant rates of syphilis among the population. It was around this time that their funding for treatment (which still involved mercury and a year long succession of shots) was cut due to the Depression. One of the doctors determined that since the population couldn't be treated and wouldn't look for treatment on their own anyway, it was the perfect setting to examine the affects of syphilis, intending to observe a group of men for a period of six months or so. It is easy to see the justification here: the money wasn't there, the patients wouldn't have been able to afford treatment on their own, and it would only be short term. However, the doctors didn't straight up tell the patients what was being done to them/what they were being used for. Many believed they were receiving treatment. The doctors may argue that they had told the patients they were being examined because they had bad blood, believing it to be local slang for syphilis, but that wasn't quite accurate. Bad blood could be used to refer to a number of conditions, basically boiling down to ill health.

Additionally, after the six months were up, other doctors wanted to continue the experiment, believing it to be a one time opportunity to view the affects of syphilis on blacks (they still believed it affected blacks and whites differently). In order to do this, they involved medical professionals throughout the community, and made them promise not to treat the men in the group. In fact in later years, others would come down to treat syphilis in the area (during WWII, for example), but these men were not given treatment. Even when penicillin, a more effective treatment was developed, the scientist continued to deny the men help or tell them what was really wrong with them. Additionally, the whole experiment was flawed to begin with: one of the organizations that agreed to sponsor the original six month experiment said that all the men must be treated. The doctors gave all the men at least a few shots of the mercury, not enough to actually cure the disease, but enough to make the argument that this was a study of completely untreated syphilis invalid.

When the story finally broke, it invited comparisons to the Nazis, and with a few other cases that were making news, really made people wonder about patient rights and consent. I had actually heard of this book in particular from the bibliography of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and both of these books refer to a scientific experiment that involved people being injected with cancer cells (without their knowledge) to see what would happen. This is a later edition of the book, so it also includes a chapter about AIDS and the publics' reaction to HIV and AIDS. The book was educational, and very well researched. My one complaint is that the series of doctors really aren't that distinguished from each other, so there were basically a lot of names thrown out but I really couldn't say which one was involved in the experiment in which way at this point. Then again, that helps to show just how much bureaucracy there was in this whole process, and how a series of men who didn't see conflict between this experiment and their oaths as doctors.

Book 49: King Rat

King Rat by China Mieville

I actually became interested in this author because I thought his novel Kraken sounded interesting. Or maybe I just liked the title. Either way, since it was out in hardcover at the time, I didn't get it because I didn't want to spend that much money on a new author. However, I eventually found this novel by Mieville and decided it sounded intriguing and like a good place to start. I admit my interest in this novel may have been for the wrong reasons: the thing that most caught my attention on the backcover was the idea of another London, a secret London hidden behind the ordinary world. I like London, I loved Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere which also had a secret London (and is totally the reason I have a shot glass that says "Mind the Gap"), and it probably really isn't a good idea to pick up one author's novel because of another author's work.

After Saul spends the weekend out, he returns home and goes straight to bed, only to be awakened by the police a bit later and questioned about his father's death or murder. While in lock up, King Rat visits Saul and helps him escape and it is at this point that Saul learns there is more to his heritage than he ever knew: he is part rat. While King Rat is less than open with information, his father's death had something to do with Saul and who he is, and the novel soon introduces the rats' old enemy: the Pied Piper. Saul may be the only one able to defeat him due to his unique heritage, but the Piper soon has Saul's friends under his spell.

I really liked the ideas in this novel. I thought the modernization of the Pied Piper was a great idea, and the story was a good one. Unfortunately, it all felt very impersonal. I didn't really care about Saul, I especially didn't care about his friends, and it was just hard for me to feel any real danger throughout the novel. If it had been written differently, this would have been a great novel, but unfortunately, I just found myself wanting it to be over already. With the characters that Mieville created, this may have been better as a short story. I may still try one of the author's other novels because he is obviously a creative and intelligent thinker, but this isn't the book to start with, especially if the reader is looking for something similar to Gaiman's style (and I wasn't intentionally looking for that except for the previously mentioned Neverwhere comparison).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Book 48: The Bone Garden

The Bone Garden by Tess Gerritsen

While Maura Isles makes a short appearance in this novel as the medical examiner on a case, this is actually not part of the Rizzoli/Isles series. Instead it is a stand-alone historical medical thriller. The novel has few scences set in the present day that alternate with chapters set in 1830. Julia Hamill has recently gone through a divorce, and as a project to keep herself busy, she has bought an old house to fix up. While working on her garden, she discovers an old body which the medical examiners declare to be a female murder victim from some time around the 1830s period due to jewelry found with the body.

Julia Hamill is naturally curious about the history of her house, even though it was built around 1880 and a relative of the deceased former owner (who calls himself the family historian) contacts her, and gets her to help him go through the family papers. In its flashbacks to 1830, the novel focuses on Rose Connolly, a poor Irish immigrant, whose sister dies on the maternity ward in the first few chapters, and Norris Marshall, a poor medical student/former farmer that is working his way through school by body snatching, and is soon suspected of a series of murders.

While the pacing was fine, and Gerritsen knows how to drive a plot forward, the whole novel was way too derivative for me: several people are murdered (at first only women) and they all seem to be linked by their knowledge of a mysterious baby and her father's identity. Sounds a bit too much like a certain theory concerning a well-known serial killer called Jack the Ripper - remember the theory that Mary Kelly knew her friend had a relationship with a member of the royal family, and all the other prostitutes had used the name Mary at one time or another, and hence the killer kept getting the wrong victim? Also, there is a character in this book called Jack Burke - he is the grave robber that Norris helps with the hard labor. It would probably be a spoiler to reveal that Burke eventually realizes it's easier to kill people, and take them to the med schools than dig them out of graves except that there is a historical figure William Burke who had a friend William Hare, and they did the exact same thing in Edinburgh, Scotland back in the day. I haven't yet decided whether using the same name was a cute little reference or lazy writing on Gerritsen's part. There's a character that's mentally challenged and lives on the street, and he meets exactly the fate one would expect him to just upon meeting the character.

I like historical fiction, Gerritsen's medical thrillers are entertaining, but the mix of the two is way too derivative. Maybe I've just already heard too much about the difficulty of finding bodies for autopsies when people were still sceptical of science, but I don't feel like this novel taught me anything - usually, it's always nice to learn a few historical trivia facts from historically set novels, but this one had nothing new to offer. That said, predictable as it is, it is still a quick, engaging read, so I wouldn't recommend against it if a person has read the rest of her books.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Book 47: Ape House

When I looked through the meager book section of the Al Asad PX in hopes of finding a book that wasn't a mystery/thriller, this one caught my eye.  I had actually enjoyed Water for Elephants, and decided her follow up novel would be worth a shot despite the fact that I'm not really that into monkeys or apes, and the description on the back made it sound like a lurid affair would take place.  Fortunately, the description completely misrepresents that part of the book.  Yes, Isabel's life changes after meeting "very married" reporter John Thigpen but that's because shortly after the interview, someone bombs her workplace, not because her romantic attraction inspires her to change her life.  In fact, they don't even meet again till nearly the end of the novel, and he spends more time thinking about her (due to both her interview and the bombing that followed it) than she does about him.  In fact she doesn't think of him until she needs a reporter on her side.
The first hundred or so pages of this novel are very good - it sets up and introduces the bonobos that are part of the Great Ape Language Lab where Isabel works.  The six bonobos all have personalities, and there are quite a few cute anecdotes about them.  It also introduces its human characters: Isabel Duncan, the scientist who sees the apes as family, and who gets caught in the explosion, and John Thigpen, a journalist working in the dying world of print journalism.  Gruen makes allusions to Isabel's dramatic family background but it doesn't go anywhere besides showing why she is so attached to the apes.  John's wife appears to be suffering from depression due to the lack of success her writing career has had, and is now considering being a writer in Hollywood, which leads to a bunch of insecurities on her part.
After the bonobos' habitat is bombed, and they are sold, the novel takes too long to track down the animals (there is a trip to lab to see if they are there - while it is a failed rescue attempt, it allows Gruen to portray some of experiments that have been done to chimpanzees, the bonobos' closest relatives), and bring the main characters back together.  Isabel finds out some things about one of her colleagues and the plot twists are rather obvious, but I wasn't reading the novel for any conspiracies so that didn't bug me.  The main issue with this book is simply that the human characters aren't that well developed, especially Isabel.  She just seems so flat.  John is a bit more interesting as he and his wife both struggle with their careers and dreams, which are failing.  However, this also made the novel incredibly depressing and bleak for most of it - journalism and writing are not exactly easy to break into, and the novel seems to go from one failure for the Thigpens to another.  While they are trying to set up careers and jobs with a future and meaning, Isabel spends the novel moping around, missing her animal family.  As I said, it was much more depressing than Water for Elephants, which had moments of bleakness intermixed with hope and magical moments - it probably also helped that the miseries in Water for Elephants were set in the past.  The stories in here just a bit too topical.  In this novel, most of the charm is in the beginning.  The bonobos are the most developed of all the characters, and their stint on reality TV was rather amusing.
Some of the situations John got into towards the end at his motel were also a bit ludicrous though amusing enough while reading them.  It's not that this was a bad novel necessarily: the parts about the bonobos was interesting and how they compare to chimpanzees (they are less aggressive and more matriarchal), and while parts of the story were very predictable, I still enjoyed the overall story.  I just didn't think the human characters were as developed as they could have been which makes this a rather forgettable novel.  In fact, I finished the book today and almost couldn't remember the character's names (the human ones at least) - in fact, I can't remember John's wife's name.  Basically, Water for Elephants is better, but if someone liked that and wanted to read more by the author, I wouldn't dissuade them from reading it.  I could even see myself recommending this to a certain people, maybe someone looking for a semi-educational beach read, but definitely with a few caveats.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Book 46: The Sinner

The third Rizzoli/Isles novel begins with a prologue set in India with a man trying to document a crime scene for the Octagon corporation.  While there he stumbles upon a woman without a face before the prologue ends, and the novel shifts to a crime scene at a monastery in Boston where two women have been found bludgeoned.  One of them has barely survived, but is unconscious, while the young twenty year old nun (the only novice to join in fifteen years) is dead.  Due to the prologue, the reader has a bit more knowledge than Detective Jane Rizzoli and Medical Examiner Maura Isles, and is left to wonder from early on how exactly the India vignette is going to tie into the case.  It is a secluded cloister, which means that the nuns live a life of reflection and prayer with no contact to the outside.  Despite this, the medical exam reveals that the young nun had just recently given birth to a child.  Immediate suspects of course include the unknown father, and as the only man with access to the nuns, their priest, Daniel Brophy is an early suspect.
Maura finds herself attracted to the priest, who more than willingly gives up a DNA sample to the police.  However, her ex-husband also arrives in town, trying to rekindle old flames.  Rizzoli and Isles spend some commiserating about men since things have fizzled between FBI agent Gabriel Dean and Rizzoli, and Rizzoli is now pregnant.  However, Dean shows up to investigate a seemingly unrelated case of a murder victim whose limbs have been removed, though the woman is soon suspected to be from India.
This novel veers from the format set in the other two novels since this one isn't about a serial killer, and goes more of the conspiracy theory route.  There are no coincedences in this world, and everything ends up tying together.  Rizzoli's pregnancy softens her up a bit, and I think it was also helpful to have more of the novel be from Maura's perspective.  I didn't think the sex scenes were very well written, and it seems like Rizzoli and Isles are both focused on their status as single women.  I understand that everyone has those moments, but for two such accomplished women, I wish there wasn't quite as much self-doubt due to those types of things.  Overall, there were a few red herrings, and the novel was entertaining, though it wasn't quite as tense as the first two in the series.

Book 45: An Artist of the Floating World

While I have enjoyed all of Ishiguro's novels that I've read thus far, none have come close recreating the same magic for me as Never Let Me Go.  Of course, I haven't read some of his more acclaimed works, such as The Remains of the Day, and have only read a few of his earlier novels since first reading Never Let Me Go
Set three years after the end of World War II, the novel is narrated by the retired artist Masuji Ono and broken down into four parts covering different periods of time, beginning with October 1948, April and November 1949, and June 1950.  The novel is not very linear at all, and the narrator goes on many tangents.  He will at one point be discussing a conversation he had during a visit with his daughter which will then remind him of his times as an art student for his master.  In this way, the novel slowly reveals Ono's life story, though there are no real surprises: the reader already knows the outcomes of his actions at the beginning of the novel.
As the novel begins, Ono's youngest daughter is in the middle of marriage negotiations, and things are tense since she is fast approaching old maid status and negotiations the previous year had turned unexpectedly bad.  His other dauther is already married (she married before the war), and has a young son, Ichiro, who doesn't see much of his grandfather.  Ono is not a very likable narrator, especially in the beginning: the way he portrays things, it seems like he is being stubbornly obtuse about things.  He and his daughters don't appear to truly talk about what concerns them, and talk around things instead (his wife and son died in the war).  He also keeps trying to bond with his grandson but obviously has no clue how to interact with children.  They only time they seem to have anything to say to each other is when Ono makes promises that aren't in his power to make, or when they are making fun of the women of the family.  He doesn't understand or approve of the changes in Japanese culture or the new American influence.
As Ono portrays it, it seems obvious that his daughters believe that his past with the Japanese empire are one of the reasons that the marriage negotiations went wrong, though Ono says that it was because his family had a higher status than the suitor's and appears to be in denial.  He throws in many anecdotes of Japanese men committing suicide as an apology for what the older generation led the country into, as well as memories of conversations about the war with his son-in-law who has become very bitter and critical.  Most of the novel, it appears as if Ono doesn't quite agree that it is fair to blame the war and its repercussions on his generation.  He often justifies himself and his peers by talking about how they wanted what was best for the country and their intentions were pure.  However, eventually he attempts to visit old colleagues to ask them to speak in his favor in case the family whose son may marry his daughter hire a detective or make inquiries.
Ono chose to become an artist despite his father's wishes that he be a businessman.  He reminisces back to his times as an apprentice in a firm and then with a master who focuses on the fleeting beauty of the floating world, the world of geishas and pleasure.  He also talks about his own students and how admired he was, coming across as pompous.  He had decided to leave behind the art of beauty to focus on political art and propaganda in support of the empire.  At first it seems like he is shirking any responsibility or blame, especially based on his portrayal of his daughters but later in the novel, I wondered.  When his daughters contradict him later, is it because he misremembers, or do they not want to remember bad things because things are going well at the time?  How important was Ono really?  How culpable was he?  The way he writes I'm not sure if he was making himself seem more or less responsible for whatever happened during the war.  At first I definitely would have said he was trying to avoid blame, but at the end I wasn't sure anymore, and thought maybe he felt more guilt than he wanted to admit, or wanted to feel more important than he was.
While I really didn't like Ono in the beginning, I felt bad for him by the end despite some of the bad things he did.  He has outlived his world, he can't relate to his family, and he doesn't even seem quite sure of his importance in his former world anymore.  While the war only intensifies these issues, I'm sure many old people can relate to this.  Ishiguro is very good at creating characters with regrets, lonely souls who spend their time living in the past.  At the end, Ono says he has been painting again, so maybe he has finally taken his old master's words about fleeting beauty to heart.  Still, I don't see much hope for Ono's happy ending: his time has passed and I don't think he will ever quite find his place in this new world.