Saturday, December 31, 2011

Book 69: All Clear

All Clear by Connie Willis

This is the continuation of the story Willis started in Blackout.  It follows the same three characters, Polly, Eileen and Mike as they try to return to the future from London of 1940.  It picks up right where the previous part ended.  As with the first part, the characters occasionally act in ways that are unexpected for history grad students in that they seem to be much more clueless about World War II than one would expect.  They also begin questioning the theories behind time travel as they fear that they may have changed the course of events - every time there appears to be even a slight discrepancy between what they think they know, and they think they see happen, they begin to freak out.  Mike is especially bad about this as he constantly thinks that he has somehow altered events in a bad way and lost the war.  One other character flaw that they have, especially Mike and Polly, is their desire to protect the rest of the group by withholding information to prevent them from worrying.  Mike and Polly think that Eileen is too fragile and wouldn't be able to handle the truth, though I think Eileen ends up being the strongest of the characters.

Polly has an extra worry - part of time travel is that the traveler can't be in the same time twice - she has already been present in the later part of WWII so if she has not returned to the future by the date she comes back to the past, she will die.  While Mike and Eileen would like to return home, Polly is actually racing against a ticking clock.

This novel also focuses some on a few other characters: Collin is teenage boy from the future that has had a crush on Polly for awhile and promised her he would always find a way to save her if she was ever in trouble.  Polly spends much of the novel thinking about him, and hoping that he will keep his promise.  The history department head had already noticed some issues with time travel, and goes on a rescue mission himself to find his students.  Binnie and Alf, Eileen's charges, continue to play a role, and there are many moments of just missed chances that the historians experience during their search for a way home.  Like in Blackout, while I like Eileen, Alf, Binnie and the vicar, the characters tend to be rather superficial.  The setting and idea behind the novel were enough to make up for the weaker characters for me, and I think I'm getting soft in my old age, because I was definitely touched by Eileen's outcome in the novel.

Book 68: Blackout

Blackout by Connie Willis

Reviewing this novel might be a bit of an oddity since it is part one of a two part book.  Not a series, a book - Connie Willis's editors decided the novel was too long so they cut it in two.  As a result, the ending is a bit abrupt, but since both novels are currently available in paperback, I didn't have to wait long to pick up the conclusion.  Also, this novel isn't part of a series per se, but Willis has written other novels that take place within this universe - I was unaware of this, and it didn't prevent me from enjoying the novel, but from browsing through Amazon, people that are familiar with the other novels were disappointed with this one.  I don't have that particular issue since this novel is first I've read.

The novel begins in Oxford in 2066 as several historians are preparing for their research trips.  In this world, time travel has been discovered so historians are able to go back in time to do research and observe people as the events are happening.  The theory of time travel is that the system protects itself so historians can't affect actual events or outcomes.  Certain events are closed to time travelers, and it is simply impossible to get there, no matter how hard they might try.  Additionally, there are occasional slips in time and location, and this too is part of the system protecting itself.  However, as the novel begins, there is a lot of confusion because the director of the history department is changing the students' assignments and their orders.  The novel follows three students who are studying the beginning of World War II into the past.  First there is Polly Churchill who is studying the Blitz.  The other is Michael (or Mike) who is doing an assignment on everyday heroes, and wants to observe the boats that crossed the Channel to save soldiers at Dunkirk.  Finally, there is Merope, who goes by Eileen given her unusual name, who is studying the child refugees during the beginning of the war.  Their assignments all take place over different time spans in 1940, but all of them soon discover problems: Michael and Polly both have slippage and end up arriving a few days later than planned, in both cases after the events they are studying have already begun.  Eileen is the first one scheduled to return, and her drop won't open.  As a result, she decides to go to London to try to find Polly and tag along with her.  However, Polly and Michael also have problems returning to their drops or getting theirs to function.

While the three of them are all separated, they are all facing the same issues: they don't know as much as they should about World War II history since they focused on particular areas, and are afraid of sticking out due too much or too little knowledge.  They also are concerned about returning home to the future.  However, they all have to find a way to live in the situation they are in.  Eileen in particular was rather amusing dealing with the children in the country, two of whom are incredibly rambunctious and provided much in the way of comic relief.  The people that Polly spends the nights with during the raids decide to become a theater group because one of the men in their shelter is a Shakespearean actor - to his despair, the group chooses a play by J.M. Barry to perform.  It was also interesting seeing how the historians' knowledge of the past squares with the actual experience of the past since reading about things and actually experiencing them are two very different things.

Personally I quite enjoyed the novel since it combines science fiction/fantasy and historical fiction, two of my preferred genres.  While some of the writing may have been a bit shallow or made use of stereotypes and stock characters, it was a fun ride.  As I said, it is a two part novel, so it definitely helps to have the second part on hand.

Book 67: Katherine

Katherine by Anya Seton

I can't believe just how disappointing this novel was.  I love well-done historical fiction, and I've heard this novel referred to as a classic historical novel.  Even Alison Weir, one of my favorite non-fiction authors, had mentioned enjoying this novel when she was young, and had been inspired to write a non-fiction account of the main character's life.  Unfortunately, I believe I missed the references calling this novel a classic romance.  Also, it was written in the '50s, so I really did try to take that into account regarding the characterization, but it really just wasn't that good of a novel.

Katherine is beautiful.  She has red hair, fair skin, luscious lips.  Having been brought up in a convent, she is also rather innocent of the world.  At the beginning of the novel, she is called back to the court by her older sister, who is engaged to Chaucer and serves as one of the queen's women.  At this time, England is ruled by Edward III, son of Edward II and Isabella of France (Isabella led a rebellion against her husband), and he has several sons.  His fourth son, John of Gaunt, is married to Blanche, but he takes notice of Katherine while she is at the court because he finds her rather annoying.  This is supposedly the beginning of a great love story.

Now, everything in here has the potential for an interesting story: John of Gaunt was indeed the fourth son of Edward III, and Katherine would become his mistress.  Eventually their descendants would find themselves on the throne of England through Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII, the first Tudor king.  In fact, John eventually even marries Katherine though she is below his station, thus legitimizing their children, who would all hold have positions of great power in the future.  John's son, Henry of Bolingbroke, rebelled against his cousin, Richard II, and became Henry IV, leading to the events of the Wars of the Roses.  Obviously, for Katherine to maintain the interest of John for such a long time given the difference in positions, she would have had to be incredibly beautiful and interesting.  However, the only thing I really got from the book is that she was beautiful.

Now as far as the history goes, I think Seton does a good job of laying out the facts.  The problem is she doesn't necessarily put them in a good context for the reader: the serfs decide to rebel in London, but Seton really doesn't do that good of a job of showing the political situation - she shows a series of events as they happened but leaves out the reasons.  Katherine is completely clueless about what goes on around her, and honestly a bit of self entitled snob even though she herself acts above her station by being John's mistress.  In the beginning she is married off to a knight, who is already a catch for her, but she just spends the whole time mooning around.  When he leaves, she doesn't try to improve his badly run estates, and pretty much just sits around.  I understand that she is sixteen, but please give me a competent heroine, not such a blank slate.  Then again, I almost wanted to give Seton credit for not taking a historical figure and turning her into a modern day woman until I remembered this was written in the '50s.  Was she actually giving a historically accurate presentation, or was this the idealized version of a '50s wife?

John of Gaunt goes from disliking Katherine to being desperately in love with her (all after his first wife, the pure and perfect Blanche, dies of the plague while cared for by saintly Katherine).  There really wasn't anything that romantic about their relationship, and I disliked both characters.  Given that it was written in the '50s, it should be no surprise to anyone that John of Gaunt is portrayed as having some serious Freudian issues.  Katherine didn't become even half way likable till maybe the last 50-100 pages.  Up until then, she is incredibly self-involved and egotistical but is supposed to be read as sweet and loving.  For example, her daughter is unhappy with the match Katherine has chosen for her, but instead of showing the girl any sympathy, Katherine tells her she will do as told despite that fact that Katherine herself was forced into a marriage she didn't want, but then had the luck to end up with the man she did want.  However, she is completely willing to sell her daughter out and doesn't even see the similarity in the situations.  Additionally, the relationship between John and Katherine is so boring - they are in no way portrayed as partners - he doesn't discuss work or anything of the sort with her; he likes being around her because she is pretty and nice and it relaxes him.  This is what great romance, passion and love are built on?  The man defied convention and married her despite the differences in their statuses (granted she was a third marriage, he had done his duty already) - the relationship has to be anchored on something more than "she's pretty" to inspire that kind of gesture.

I wanted to read the fictional account before I read the non-fiction version but this novel left a bad taste in my mouth so I still haven't gotten around to reading Alison Weir's Mistress of the Monarchy.  As a result, I can't say if it's better but given Weir's other books and how much I disliked this one, I would definitely recommend starting there if the topic is of interest.  I think it really could make for an interesting story in other hands given the vague historical sketch I wrote above.

Book 66: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

I actually stopped watching The Office somewhere around the fourth or fifth season (whichever one had Michael drive his car into a lake due to his GPS) - I liked the second and third seasons, but I don't think the show ever had quite the same magic for me as other viewers.  I also don't buy essay collections that often because it seems like there will usually be a few essays that are absolutely amazing and hilarious mixed with a lot of filler essays that are just okay.  However, the title alone was enough to get me interested (it's a valid question), and then I found myself flipping through the first few pages of her essay on weight.  When someone offered to take me on a shopping spree at the bookstore, this was one of the first books I added to my stack, and I am glad I did.

First off, it didn't seem like any of the essays were really filler as so often happens.  They were all entertaining anecdotes from her life, or of her thoughts, and this is one of the few collections where I can honestly say they weren't a mix of hit or miss for me.  Her humor is also very self-deprecating, and there were many things she said or did that I could have seen myself saying or doing.  She also had random lists throughout the books, and really, I think she would fit in well at Pajiba.  Personally, I like to think she's a reader.  She had a list of stereotypical women one might find in a rom-com (such as the klutz, because that's the only imperfection a woman could possibly have), and explains that she loves romantic comedies but that she "feels almost sheepish writing that, because the genre has been so degraded in the past twenty years or so that admitting you like these movies is essentially an admission of mild stupidity (99)."  Doesn't that sound like a comment Dustin would agree with?  She also has a short essay with a list of movies that might be coming to movie theaters soon, including Apples to Apples 4D, and other game based movies due to her having actually having sat in a meeting about the potential of Yahtzee as a movie.  I feel like this also came up at Pajiba in response to the initial news of the development of Battleship.

Her discussion of one night stands is also hilarious since she is the prudish friend - when her friends start telling her about hook ups, she starts asking random questions that imply they could have been murdered.  I really liked her take on commitment, relationships and marriage.  She doesn't want the big romantic gestures or moments, she is more concerned with the day to day things, like sharing guilty pleasure television.  She describes her parents' relationship and their shared interest in gardening and milkshakes.  Of course she hasn't been married and neither have I, but I agree with her take on it.  I definitely recommend picking this up - she is very self-aware, and sarcastic, and it's just a fun read.  Besides, to quote Mindy:  "This book will take you two days to read.  Did you even see the cover?  It's mostly pink.  If you're reading this book every single night for months, something is not right (5)."  Why not give her two days?  And let's be honest, it probably won't even take that long.

Book 65: Russian Winter

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Nina Revskaya, the famous Russian ballerina, emigrated to Europe and then the United States during Stalin's rule.  Now an elderly woman whose body is failing her, she had decided to auction off her jewelry collection and donate the proceeds to the arts.  Drew Brooks is the auction house representative in charge of her collection, though she finds that Nina is less than forthcoming with information regarding her past and some of her jewelry.  Grigori Solodin is a Russian professor who has devoted his life to Nina's husband's work.  Grigori believes there is a connection between himself and Nina that she has never acknowledged.  When he finds out that she has donated her jewelry, he adds a piece of his own to the auction because it seems to be part of a set.  Nina refuses to comment on this oddity, but it sets Drew on an investigation regarding the jewelry's origin.

Between the story of these three individuals, the novel also tells the story of Nina's rise in the ballet in the Soviet Union.  She spends much of her time trying to ignore the bad things that go on around her, such as when her friend Vera's parents are taken into custody the same day that Nina and Vera first try out for the ballet, and just focuses on dancing.  Eventually, she starts getting more important roles, and also meets and marries a man with some connections.  The elder Nina seems to have a rather cynical opinion of some her past friends and associates, so the reader is constantly looking for clues of what went wrong, and how exactly Grigori might fit into the picture.

All the characters in this novel have flaws, or have vulnerabilities.  Grigori, a widower, is haunted by questions of his origins; Drew, a divorcee, feels like she hasn't lived up to her parents' expectation, and Nina feels like she has done wrong in the past and been wronged.  Throughout the novel it is definitely easy to relate to the younger Nina and her interpretations of events, though this doesn't necessarily mean it is easy to feel sympathy for her.  As she goes from one stage and performance to the next, the people around her, including her husband's Jewish friend question whether and when they will be picked up by the police.  Still, she refuses to open her eyes to the repression around her.  Considering that most of the historical fiction I read tends to focus on WWII (or periods before that), it was a nice change of pace for me.  Kalotay brought the paranoia and uncertainty of life in the Soviet Union to life very well, and doesn't try to make excuses for her characters.  While I don't expect this to make any "best of" lists, it was a simple, well-written novel that told a familiar story of love, regret and misunderstandings in a compelling manner.

Book 64: The Ask and the Answer

The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness

I immediately picked this up upon finishing the first novel in the Chaos Walking Trilogy, The Knife of Never Letting Go.  To be honest, I'm surprised I didn't like it more - while many people felt that the second and third novels of The Hunger Games weren't as good as the first due to the slower pacing, I actually enjoyed them just as much but in different ways.  This novel should have then caused a similar reaction but for some reason it didn't.  It might honestly be that I should have waited a day or two between books so I wouldn't be expecting something quite as fast-paced as The Knife of Never Letting Go.

One of the things that kept me hooked with The Knife of Never Letting Go were the questions regarding what the truth really was as Todd discovered that his whole life had been a lie.  In this novel, that question has been answered, and instead Todd gets to see first hand how politics and appeasement work.  The New World capitulated to Mayor Prentiss without a fight.  Instead of being upset with the new rules he puts into place, the citizens are grateful that he didn't treat them more harshly.  The mayor is a master at manipulating the populace, and while Todd sees and understands some of it, he doesn't always see the big picture.  He and Viola spend most of the novel separated from each other (this novel includes scenes from her perspective as well), and she is now part of the small group of rebels that try to fight against the mayor.  Due to their separation, Viola and Todd spend much of the novel worrying about each other, misinterpreting each other, and being manipulated by others based on the strength of their feelings for each other.  Having the two in different camps gives the reader to see the bigger picture, and see that both sides do things that are morally questionable.

Todd especially has to work in a grey area, all because he is afraid if he doesn't obey, the mayor will somehow hurt Viola.  As a result, he ends up working closely with Davy Prentiss, a man (teenager really) whom he had severely disliked in the previous novel, and the mayor's son.  He is forced to do much of the mayor's dirty work, and goes along with it.  It also turns out that the Spackle hadn't all been killed during the war - some of them were kept as slaves by the citizens of Haven, and prevented from communicating with each other through a cure for the Noise (due to the presence of Noise on the planet, they had no need of a spoken language).  He basically shuts down his emotions to deal with the world.  Through him, Ness explores the question of why good men do bad things, and in Todd's case it is mainly to protect Viola.  He also justifies his actions as he gets involved in darker and darker things by telling himself that if he doesn't do them, someone else will, and they will do them in a much harsher way.  He believes in effect that he is reducing the damage that could be caused.  

Normally, this is the kind of stuff I enjoy - seeing how the people in power massage the truth to get people to fall in line with them, seeing how people don't complain about the small changes until suddenly there are so many rules in place that it is too late to make a difference.  I think the reason I didn't like it as much in this case is because as much as Todd cares for Viola (and vice versa), I sometimes had a hard time believing that he would acquiesce as much as he did.  While The Hunger Games may have been a bit slow in the middle, I never had any doubts about things being in character with Katniss.  Equally, I liked Viola more when I didn't know everything she was thinking.  I guess it is easy to forget that the characters are only about 14, but Viola seemed the more naive of the two.  Todd and Viola are both swept up by things larger than them but I preferred Todd's narrative to Viola's.  I can't quite put my finger on it, but something about Viola's perspective just didn't do it for me.  It might be because the whole previous book was from Todd's perspective so I was much more concerned with him than I was with her.  And to be honest, I don't think the things the rebels were doing was quite as interesting as watching the mayor and wondering what exactly his evil plan might be.  The novel was a good study about power, and I think he left in a good place for the third novel in the series.  For me, there was just something slightly off compared to the previous novel, but I definitely want to see how it all ends.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Book 63: Faithful Place

I really, really liked Tana French's novel In the Woods, but was ambivalent about her follow up, The Likeness.  The premise was interesting, I enjoyed most of the characters, but the main character got on my nerves a bit, or at least her actions in the novel did.  Faithful Place was right up there with In the Woods for me, though.  Something about reading French's Dublin-set novels tends to remind me of Dennis Lehane's Boston mystery novels - the tight knit communities that are closed to outsiders, the tough guys and women that populate them, the dysfunctional families.  This is definitely a good thing because I love Lehane.
Faithful Place is narrated by Frank Mackey, who played a supporting role in The Likeness (much like the narrator of that novel had a supporting role in In the Woods) - I like how French isn't exactly writing a series, but keeps returning to familiar characters and giving them all a chance to tell their story.  Frank works in undercover, his marriage has failed, and he has not spoken to his dysfunctional family with the exception of his little sister since he left 22 years before to start a new life with his girlfriend Rosie.  Unfortunately, things didn't go as planned, and Rosie didn't go with him, so instead of going to London, he ended up on the police force in Dublin.  Still, he has enjoyed his work, and hasn't regretted his lack of contact with his family though he has wondered about Rosie, his first great love on occasion.
His little sister tells him that some people found a suitcase in an old abandoned building that the kids used to hang out in, and that his mother has possession of it.  With this simple act, he becomes involved in his family's lives again, and starts questioning what he knew about his past, because it is quite clear that it is Rosie's suitcase.  While he is investigating the building, he and his brother also discover a body later, and Frank has to start reevaluating everything he thought was true: he had spent his entire life believing that Rosie chose not to go with him, but now he finds himself involved in an investigation to find out who murdered her the day they were to leave and why.
In addition to this new mystery in Frank's life, French portrays his family issues and drama very well.  His father is an alcoholic, his mother's manipulative and demanding, but part of him feels torn regarding his relationship with his siblings.  He is also trying to balance his job with his relationship with his daughter and her interest in her father's family.  French did a good job of balancing Frank's investigation into the crime with his personal relationships in the novel.  As an undercover officer, Frank feels like he acts differenly than other police officers because of the way his jobs usually pan out, and this can be seen in the way he occasionally butts heads with the leading officer on the case, or how he gets involved when he shouldn't.  The plot is tightly written, and French's writing helps elevate her mysteries above the average thriller even if by the end it is obvious who the killer was.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Book 62: A Murderous Procession

A Murderous Procession by Ariana Franklin
I am a bit of a completionist - once I start a series, I will usually continue to read it unless it becomes completely horrible or repetitive. If I don't love the series, I won't rush out to get the next one, but I'll definitely keep an eye out for any paperback versions. This is the fourth in a series of murder mystery/thrillers that take place during the reign of Henry II, and follows the protagonist Adelia, a female doctor from Sicily that is trained as a forensic examiner/coroner. Her work from the past three novels as gained her the trust of Henry II, so he chooses her to escort his daughter Joanna to Sicily for her wedding. Given the sexism and superstition of the time, Adelia poses as the assistant to her friend and protector Mansur while he pretends to be a doctor. Since he is Muslim, the two of them still have a hard time being accepted into the princess's circle which is dominated by superstitious, racist and sexist church members with comparatively antiquated views of medicine.
The other issue is that the procession is plagued by bad luck and death. First a horse, then a knight, then a laundry woman. All of these creatures die for mysterious and odd reasons, and the only thing they have in common is that they appear to have irritated Adelia at some point or another. Rowley, Adelia's lover, is one of the bishops on this journey and he and Mansur believe that someone is trying to turn everyone against Adelia. Adelia doesn't believe them, even when they tell her of attempts on her life that took place before she left England that had been hidden from her. While I think this is one of the better novels in the series (whether this is the case because it actually is or because I've had a break from the series so it wasn't as repetitive to me), I did get annoyed with how long Adelia decided to live in denial and how long it took for her to realize that something was indeed afoot.
Franklin must have stumbled on some interesting communities during her research since she has Adelia and her friends become separated from everyone else during the trip, which gives her a chance to introduce them to the reader. While some of it was farfetched, I'm not exactly reading these for historical accuracy, so it was a fun read. The novel ended on what could be considered a bit of a cliff hanger (okay, definitely an open ended question), but to me it also seemed like a good way to end the series once I discovered that this was the last one. It leaves the reader to decide what destiny they want for Adelia and Rowley, and where they see things going. Some other things had already been implied earlier, so there really is only one question that needs answering, and as I said, the readers can decide how they want things to end. Of course, I have since discovered that the author has died so I'm not sure if it ended the way it did because she intended to write a sequel, or if she wanted to give her readers the choice.

Book 61: The Knife of Never Letting Go

I don't read young adult fiction all too often but I've seen this novel referenced by several other Cannonball Read participants so I decided to try it out. It's very well plotted and paced, which makes it very hard to put down. I basically finished it in almost one sitting with a few interruptions, and already told my dad who enjoyed The Hunger Games to pick it up when I was about halfway through.
Todd Hewitt, the narrator, is the last boy in Prentisstown. Years ago, there was a war on New World between the local species called the Spackle and the settlers, and they released a germ into the air that killed all the women, half the men and left the rest of the men infected with Noise. Due to Noise, all the men can hear everyone's thoughts, including the animals in the area. This doesn't mean it is impossible to lie in the Noise because the men have learned to hide thoughts underneath the noise of other thoughts, but it does make it difficult to keep things hidden. This is the problem Todd faces 30 days before his 13th birthday, which is the day he will become a man - he discovers quiet. While in the swamp, he and his dog Manchee stumble across a hole in the Noise, and he doesn't know how to explain but also doesn't think he should share it with the town. Instead he goes home to tell Ben (his parents died due to the virus, and Ben and Cillian raised him). Ben and Cilian's reaction is unexpected to say the least - they pull out a backpack they've had packed for his escape, and tell him he must leave Prentisstown forever for his protection. The town's sheriff is already knocking at his door as his two guardians send him off with food, his mother's journal that he can't read and the message that he has been lied to his whole life.
The journal includes a map which Todd determines to follow. Honestly, I don't want to get too much farther into the plot - I was definitely expecting some of the twists but not necessarily all of them, and I would hate to ruin the surprise for other readers. Along the journey, Todd discovers many things that surprise him as well as the truth. The novel ends on a cliffhanger since it is part of a trilogy but I feel like it was a good place to end - it ended in a dark place, and has definitely left me wanting more (kind of like The Empire Strikes Back). I'm already kicking myself because I only got the first two books in the series - I figured if it was good, I would want to keep reading but wasn't sure if I actually wanted to commit to the whole trilogy or if it would be good. I only hope they still have a copy of the last part in the bookstore this afternoon.

Book 60: The Great Influenza

I had only vaguely heard about the influenza epidemic of 1918 due to a historical novel, but don't remember ever hearing about it in school as part of World War I history or anything along those lines, despite the death rates it caused.  This book is very extensive as Barry covers a multitude of topics to explain the situation during which the epidemic occurred - this means discussing the state of science, medicine and the government at the time and in the years leading up to the flu.  I also have to say he did a good job of explaining himself enough for a laymen to understand, and sometimes repeating a few explanations from chapter to chapter for the non-scientist readers.
Medical science in the United States was a disgrace in the mid to late 19th century.  It was easier to get a medical degree than a college degree, and doctors believed in many cures that didn't work, and in fact hurt the patient, such as bleeding.  There were a few scientifically minded people that went to Europe to study medicine which had made great medical advances beyond the United States.  It was this environment that lead to the founding of John Hopkins, intended to be a premiere medical institute in the United States under the lead of a group of scientifically minded physicians.  While John Hopkins made great strides, and slowly began improving medical standards throughout the whole country, by the time the influenza struck there were still not as many good doctors as one may have wanted - there were still holdovers practicing from the earlier period.  However, the men of John Hopkins had quickly made advancements in science and as an instituion was comparable if not better than ones in Europe.  Basically, when the influenza hit there was a small cadre of brilliant men to lead the fight, but they didn't have an army of doctors to lead.  As Barry put it, they had generals and were missing the sergeants.
Of course it didn't help the civilian population that a large percentage of the doctors approved by the medical association were part of the military as well as many nurses.  As a result, many of the cities were completely overwhelmed and suffered a shortage of medical personnel when the influenza epidemic swept the nation (the military was overwhelmed as well - the camps were all overcrowded, beyond medical recommendations which helped spread the virus more quickly).  The war led to a few other things as well: Wilson was completely focused on the war and didn't even address or discuss the influenza once.  Soldiers kept getting moved around despite warnings, leading to the spread of the illness from one barracks to another, from one camp to another, and across the ocean.  Wilson had mobilized the nation in his war effort, and the level of self-censorship and real censorship was amazing.  Anything slightly critical of the government or the war could lead to imprisonment, people were ostracized for not buying war bonds - the nation had one focus, and that was to win the war.  Newspapers saw it as their jobs to keep morale up, not to report the truth.  This led to several issues when it came to the flu.  First, the newspapers kept downplaying the epidemic instead of warning people.  Even with the scientist racing to find solutions, there were none to be found.  There were no cures, the only prevention that seemed to work was complete quarantine which is almost impossible to do, but it still would have been at least somewhat helpful to encourage people to limit their daily contacts earlier rather than later.  The other problem is that even while the newspapers were downplaying the issues, the populace saw how bad the influenza was so they no longer trusted the papers.  In fact their lack of knowledge made them even more fearful because they built the flu up to something that was even more horrific.  As a result, in many cities people didn't help each other from fear of being infected.  Barry states that San Francisco alone gave out true details, and they had a terrific response from the community.  While many of the deaths may not have been preventable, in some cases, the people didn't die of the flu itself but due to the fact that they were too incapacitated to take care of themselves and get water or food.  These types of death could have been prevented if there had been a larger corps of civilian volunteers.
In the end, the scientists didn't find the answers or a cure - the virus itself simply mutated enough that it became less dangerous, and the survivors developed resistance.  It was only years later that scientists were able to answer the question of what had caused the epidemic accurately after having pursued some false steps during the crisis.  One person's work on the flu led him to focus in on smaller and smaller details until he discovered the importance of DNA and genes (DNA had been discovered previously but not its purpose).
Overall, this book was very well done.  He doesn't exactly stay very linear in the middle portion during the influenza outbreak, instead taking a topic and focusing on it, then jumping back in time and referring to earlier issues as part of another discussion.  It works, but it is something to be aware of to avoid confusion.  As I said earlier, for the most part, the parts where he repeats himself were helpful for me, especially the more scientific facts, but there were a few other points and ancedotes that he repeated that weren't necessary.  However, given the topic I think I preferred having one or two things referenced more often than I needed than three or four things less often.  The politics and the government's response or lack thereof were definitely illuminating, and it was crazy to see just how much the nation as a whole bought into the war.  While today it seems crazy that a nation can have its military at war without the whole or at least part of the nation being involved, the extent to which it defined live in the American community during World War I is extreme.  It is suprising that this isn't mentioned more than it is in history - we all still know about the plagues in Europe and depending on the numbers this flu may have caused similar death rates.  Of course, coming on the tail end of a war that disillusioned a generation, it is perhaps no surprise that it would be glossed over due to all the other significant historical events that had preceeded and followed the epidemic.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Book 59: The Post-Birthday World

In The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver explores the question of "what if?"  Irina and Lawrence, two Americans living in London, have been in a committed relationship for several years, and have a yearly tradition of spending the evening with their friend/acquaintance Ramsey on his birthday.  During the year when the novel begins, Irina ends up alone at dinner with Ramsey, and finds herself tempted to kiss him.  From this chapter forward, the novel splits in two, with the chapters alternating between what things would be like if Irina did in fact give into temptation, and what things would be like if she didn't.
The novel is told from Irina's perspective, so it was very interesting to me how I was made to feel about the different men in her life based on which part of the narrative is occuring.  I really enjoyed the novel, and the way Lionel Shriver explored the ways things would develop based on this choice.  She takes the reader through many parallel scenes, leading the reader to believe that many things would have occurred similarly yet rather differently (for example, Ramsey attends a certain snooker tournament in both alternatives, Irina ends up writing a children's story rather than just illustrating in both relationships).  Neither man is exactly perfect: Ramsey is temperamental, egotistical and starts many embarassing arguments, while Lawrence is arrogant and domineering.  Still I preferred her life with Ramsey which was a bit of surprise since that's the one that involved her cheating.  However, one thing that was good about that situation is that Irina didn't sneak around behind Lawrence's back for an extended period of time, and quickly made up her mind to leave him.  In fact, I really liked Lawrence as the man she left, and felt very sympathetic for him, but strongly disliked his smugness when they were in a relationship together.  I think one reason may be that Lawrence was a bit better at being diplomatic but in some cases this meant he sided against Irina while Ramsey would start arguments with others to defend her.
The chapter that closes the novel closes the loop again, and can be read as the ending to either story line.  The ending is the same but the journey and the subtext of the scene are completely different based on the previous chapters.  I liked that Shriver brought the stories back together the way she did, since it does support the saying, "it's not the ending that matters, it's the journey."  It's one of the reasons I have no problems reading books, watching movies or shows even when I know what the ending will be.  I really liked this novel, and how well Shriver developed the characters.  I also thought it was easy to believe how different Lawrence would be from one narrative to the other since Irina was treating him differently - he acts considerate in response to her odd behavior, but completely takes her for granted when she feels appreciative of their relationship.

Book 58: At Home

Before reading this book, I had read two others by Bill Bryson, which left me in the ambivalent camp.  I loved A Short History of Nearly Everything but really disliked Neither Here Nor There.  From what I've heard, that last one wasn't exactly characteristic of him, but it has still made me hesitant to pick up any more of his travel writing.  At Home, however, sounded like it would be more like A Short History and therefore, right up my alley.  Having now read this one, I'm in the pro-Bryson camp (not fanatically or anything) for now.
Bryson states in his foreword that the idea behind this book was to stick close to home after having researched the history of the whole planet/universe.  He also states that the project became much larger than he would have imagined, and as a result, his focus in this book is the home from 1850 onward.  Using his own home from that time period as a stepping stone, he explores the different rooms of the house, their contents, their history and uses.  In some ways, his approach was exactly what I was expecting, in others a bit less so.  I guess there really is only so much you can say about the bedroom itself ("historically, this is where people sleep"), so it makes sense that he broadens his topics.  For the most part, it works, although in one or two cases I thought he was reaching.  For example, using the basement to discuss the history of building materials I could go with - it is after all the foundation of the house.  Using the study to explore the animals and pests that live in the house because that's where he catches the most mice?  Um, ok.
He introduces quite a few different people that made contributions to the world with their inventions, and never received the proper recognition, and can thank Bryson if anyone remembers their names after this.  Since I spent a month in the UK over the summer, I especially enjoyed when he referred to some famous homes and their construction, such Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace.  I also enjoyed the background on the landscape artist Capability Brown whose work I kept running into and enjoying in the gardens and parks of many of these famous landmarks.  He also had a chapter that included a discussion of fashion, which was interesting and frightening and a bit of a call back to my 18th century literature class.  The history of the home becomes a global history in the hands of Bryson as he discusses how tea became popular (and how it started to be grown in India), how ice became a commodity, and several other little details that quickly affected events throughout the world.
It was a pleasurable read, and I learned a few things.  I generally take these types of general histories with a grain of salt, if only because I understand that Bryson can't complete super-detailed research on every single topic so there are going to be a few discrepancies or errors based on  his source material.  However, since I won't have time to pick up detailed reports or books about half the topics he addressed, it is an easy way to learn a little bit about a lot of topics, and if I want to learn more, I can use this book as a starting point.

Book 57: Committed

I'll probably lose my Pajiba membership after this one, but I actually liked Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love.  Italy and food, what's not to like?  Gilbert even addresses that book in her prologue.  She wasn't expecting it to be the success it became, and says that if anything she was worried about her usual readership not enjoying the book when she wrote it.  As easy as it is to judge her for running away from her problems and traveling, she actually approached it in a smart way: she sold it as a book to her publishers, and then went on the trip.  If I could get someone to pay for me to travel and live abroad for over a year, I would absolutely do it.  It's not like she quit her job: she was a writer, and she had also traveled for work before.  Obviously, the Oprah-fication of the book is a whole different phenomenon, but I think people's reaction to the book and the book itself can be viewed separately.
Gilbert uses Committed to explore her feelings about love, marriage and committment.  After her partner Felipe is detained and prevented from entering the States (he'd been using too many temporary visas), the only way for them to live together in the United States is marriage.  For the next year, they live out of the country waiting for the immigration process to give Felipe a fiance visa so they can return to Philadelphia and get married.  Given her bad divorce, she uses that year to explore the history of marriage, and her fears.
The best parts of the book are when she discusses the history of marriage and the expectations people have when getting married.  While marriage has a long tradition in the world, it is a history that is rather fluid - nothing about the institution is really that set in stone: the early church was rather against marriage, and it wasn't until the medieval period that the church began to get actively involved in the institution.  White weddings can be traced back to Queen Victoria, and it is only rather recently that love became the main determination in marriage partners.  Given this whole idea of love, it seems that people sometimes maybe expect too much of their marriages which is why they can often fail.  Much of this is common sense, but just because it is common sense, doesn't mean that everyone necessarily thinks of it that way until it's actually pointed out to them.
Mostly, however, the book focuses on the personal: her past, his past, her family background, their year long wait.  Most of this fits in well with the book, though I think she could have cut a few pages, or shown more of the history.  Since she is traveling in southeast Asia for part of this, she also uses this as an opportunity to speak to some of the locals about their marriage traditions.  I'm not sure if those scenes necessarily needed to be in the book - they come very close to crossing that line of glamorizing "the noble savage."
Overall, it was a fun, light read, and she made a few points that I definitely agreed with.  She does draw things out a bit much in some sections, and in others, she definitely goes a bit off topic, but it didn't hurt the book too much.  She chose to make it more personal, though I think I would have enjoyed it more if there are had been more facts.  She mentions some of the books and authors she used for her research, but a recommended further reading list would have been a great addition to the book as well.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Book 56: The Double Bind

I loved Bohjalian's novel Skeletons at the Feast but it took me quite a while to pick up another one of his.  I think I may have been worried that since I like Holocaust/WWII literature, I would of course love his novel on that subject, but that it wouldn't translate into good novels about other topics.  However, while I am still not sure about all of his novels appealing to me, my worry was definitely unfounded.
The novel is told mainly from Laurel's perspective, but the novel does have a third person omnipotent narrator.  It is also interlaced with excerpts from a doctor's report, and old photographs.  The story kicks off after Bobbie Crocker's death, an old man that is connected to the shelter where Laurel works.  Bobbie had always discussed his photography but not shared it with anyone.  However, the pictures are among his effects, and many of them are quite good - since Laurel is also quite interested in photography, her boss places her in charge of a project to turn them into an exhibit to raise money for the shelter.  As she examines the photos, she realizes that she and Bobbie had more in common than just a shared love of photography: they are from the same area.  Laurel had grown up in the shadow of Jay Gatsby's old mansion, and she begins to suspect that Bobbie may have been a Buchanan.  As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes more paranoid, believing that the Buchanans want to hide the connection between themselves and a homeless man with a mental disorder.
As a reader, it was easy to become caught up in the mystery and wonder what other clues Laurel might find.  Her friends and family all believe she needs to let the project go because they think she is too fragile given her past.  While the novel's actions start with Bobbie's death, the first chapter actually tells the reader all about Laurel's attack in the woods during which she narrowly avoided rape.  As a result of this attack, she became more withdrawn, and became involved in the shelter.  Her best friend and roommate is one of the few people from that period of her life she is still in contact with.  As she investigates Bobbie's past, she discovers there may be yet other links between them, making her face her past.
I was actually thrown a bit when I first read the references to Jay Gatsby, his mansion and West Egg.  However, I ended up quite liking the idea that these characters lived in the same fictional universe as characters of The Great Gatsby.  It really was quite interesting where Bohjalian went with that connection, and how he worked it in.  It really made me want to revisit The Great Gatsby - I've always loved that novel (I couldn't get into some of Fitzgerald's other work, but The Great Gatsby always just seemed perfect to me).  One other thing that is of possible interest: the photographs in the novel are actually all photographs that were found among the personal effects of an elderly man that had found a place to live through the help of a homeless shelter.  That part of the story was inspired by real events, and the photos were quite striking.
While the story may sound like a simple thriller or detective story, Bohjalian turns it into a novel about much more and something completely different.  His approach to the topic was rather creative, and I will definitely be reading more of him in the future (in fact, one of the reasons I haven't read much more of him by now is because I didn't want to read too many novels by the same author without blogging about them - I thought I might start confusing them too much in my head).  I'm particularly interested in his most recent one I saw at the book store, which appears to be a ghost story.

Book 55: She-Wolves

The feminist anglophile in me had to have this book as soon as I saw it on Amazon.  Castor takes a close look at four women, devoting about a hundred pages to each, that have played influential roles in English history between 1066 and 1553 (Queen Mary is briefly addressed in the prologue and epilogue since the title is before Elizabeth but is not the main focus).  Castor uses Edward VI's imminent death as a framing device, since Edward's only possible heirs are all women.  However, as much as the English may have wanted to deny it, there was a small precedence of women in power.
Castor begins with Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror.  Her father's only son had died, and this left Matilda, who was married to the German Emperor Henry as his sole heir.  After her husband's death, Matilda returned to England and the lords there swore to uphold her claim to the throne upon her father's death.  Unfortunately for her, her cousin Stephen of Blois was in the right place when Henry died, ignored his vow and ran off to get himself crowned.  Matilda, however, wasn't about to stand for this betrayal, leading to a period of civil war in England.  Castor does a great job of analyzing the sources, and the inherent sexism that Matilda faced: some of her contemporaries found her haughty but it is debatable whether they would have really been using those types of words if a man would have displayed the same behavior.  While Matilda herself was never able to completely regain the throne for herself, she did ensure that the throne would be there for her son, Henry II.
Henry II of course leads to the next woman, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was the ruler of Aquitaine in her own right before she even married Henry II.  At various times, she ruled the country in her husband and sons' absences, and at one point even rebelled against her husband, leading her to be put under house arrest for over a decade until his death.  I've already read a biography on Eleanor as well as one or two historical fiction novels, so this section while well-written wasn't quite as interesting to me.  It was definitely a good review, though, and would work well as an introduction for people unfamiliar with Eleanor.
I quite enjoyed the next queen Castor discussed, especially given my fondness for the film Braveheart which alluded to many of the people in this chapter in completely inaccurate ways.  Queen Isabella of France's husband Edward II was an ineffectual ruler, whose favorites gained too much power.  While this would have been bad on its own, Edward II made bad decisions as a ruler, partially due to his favorites, he held grudges, and he didn't even pretend to give the Queen any type of respect or power (he gave on of his favorites on of her estates etc).  Given how unhappy the whole country was with this ruler, Isabella took matters into her own hands, and decided to save the throne for her son, Edward III.  Unfortunately, she also began an affair and it turned out she had many of the same flaws as her spouse when it came to government and giving favorites too much power.  She quickly went from being seen as a savior to being seen as yet another despotic ruler.  However, for a period, she should herself to be decisive, capable and powerful.
 The last true subject of the book (as I said, the Tudors are discussed but I don't see them as the subject as much as prologue and afterword) is Margaret of Anjou, the woman who married Henry VI.  This chapter is basically a brief run down of the Wars of the Roses.  The rules of succession weren't always as set in stone as they were today, and sometimes, might made right.  That is how the children of a fourth son gained the throne over the children of a second son.  Henry VI was king, but there was another family that had a stronger claim to the throne - the Yorks.  The Yorks may have been happy to ignore their claim, but Henry VI was gullible and easily guided, and completely cut them off from power.  Margaret of Anjou may or may not have been aware of all the intriciacies and slights involved, but she certainly felt her, her husband's and later her son's positions were under threat, and she lobbied hard to protect them.  While I read a book after this one that put me firmly on the side of the Yorkist, Margaret is portrayed as a very sympathetic character.  Like her husband, she may have been too easily influenced by a certain part of the court - as a foreign princess, she didn't know all the background or traditions, and I can definitely see why having a foreign princess would be a bad thing for these reasons.  Of course, if she had been English, she would have been showing her own family too much favor so it all simply depends on the person.
I quite enjoyed this book and its topic - while Mary and Elizabeth may have been the first recognized monarchs (Lady Jane doesn't quite count), there had been women before them that played influential roles in the government and history of England.  These women in particular weren't happy to stay in the sidelines or be the woman behind the man, and weren't afraid to take matters in their own hands for themselves or their families if they thought it necessary.  I definitely recommend this, and not just to history buffs since it is written in a very approachable style.  She also included a list of books for further reading in the back.