Tuesday, August 24, 2010

What is it about 20-Somethings?

In New York Times article What is it about 20-Somethings?, author Robin Marantz Henig spends over 8000 words discussing why people in their 20s are less likely than their ancestors to settle down, estabilish roots, and, generally, grow up. The author also devotes a great deal of time to the question of whether this is a natural biological bent, or if something in our culture is causing this trend.

Go ahead and read the article and form your own opinion before we get to mine. I'll wait. No really, go ahead. Com'on, you know I want you to... ;-)

Welcome back! Ready to hear my opinion? Of course you are, EVERYONE wants to know MY opinion. That's why I blog! Alright, without further ado (ok, just a little: drumroll, please!): I think it's culture. Partly because this "phenomenon" does not show up outside of the western world, and partly based on my own experiences as a Gen X 20-something.

In his moviementory, Waiting for 'Superman', Dave Guggenheim cites a study that says American children rank 21st and 25th in the world in science and math, yet #1 in confidence. We are told we can do anything we want, be anything we want, and we believe it. We're also told that we should try to find jobs that we love, to wait for a soulmate, and that kids are tricky and better saved till later.

So then we graduate from college, with our shiny pieces of paper and our dreams, and find that our ideal perfect fit job (if we've figured out what that is - it's not all that easy to decide ahead of time what will be personally fulfilling, especially since we are now good at all sorts of divergent things, thanks to lots of praise and zillions of extra curricular lessons and activities as kids) is not an entry-level position (or requires several years of committment: I once turned down an absolutely fantastic job because they wanted assurance I'd stick with them for 6 years), everyone wants us to have "experience," and the best living space we can afford is a mildewed studio apartment in a bad neighborhood. Unless the parents help out.

Since the parents love us, want us to keep loving them, and may just feel some guilt over missing a swim meet or two to work and therefore have long ago established patterns of buying our affection, they help us out. Besides, our success or failure reflects on them as human beings.

Presto! We 20-somethings now have the freedom and angst to try to pin down our dreams. Once we get life all figured out - the perfect job and house and life partner and hobbies - once we are entirely fulfilled, we'll start living. It makes more sense to create detailed architechtural plans before building the house, right?

Unfortunately, we still feel that the possibilities are limitless (or limited only by mean people not letting us get what we deserve), and so instead of sturdy cabins, we draw up magnificent castles in the clouds. (I don't mean that we shouldn't dream, but from what I've seen of 20-somethings - myself included - we are not always realistic about our hopes, nor inclined to be content with "settling" for something that is reasonable and puts food on the table. Sure, I love philosophy, but there are not many jobs in that line, and I like working with kids, so why not do that?) When we don't get exactly what we want - sometimes even when we do - we worry about being unfulfilled, not getting the most out of life (or making enough difference), wasting time. So we tend to not committ, not settle down, and avoid responsibility as long as possible. (Responsibility cements things and limits future options!)

I am being a bit cynical and tongue-in-cheek here, making fun of myself and my fellow wanderers. It is true that we don't settle down nearly as early. It is true that society and our parents pushed us to be all that we can be (remember that incredibly successful Army recruiting slogan?) and that that is a hard prospect to live up to. It's also true that there are a lot more opportunities now than there were just a generation ago. I live in Russia, keep in touch with family and friends by internet, and take transoceanic flights for just 1/4 of my monthly salary. It would not have been possible for my parents to do any of those things at my age. I deeply value the experiences I've had. But I still don't know what I'm going to do with my life.

There are just too many good options.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Chronicles of the Raven

James Barclay

I picked this book up on three successive trips to Finland and each time put it back down. Last time I finally succumbed to its alluring green and black cover.

The story follows a band of warriors, The Raven, who saved the world sometime in the past and then disbanded. They reform to find the wife and daughter of one of their members. Unfortunately, everyone else in the world also wants to find them, and nearly all of them want to kill the little girl because her great, uncontrolled power is destroying the magic and the land. Lots of battles of all sorts ensue, quite a lot of people die, several narrow escapes happen. Meanwhile every temper tantrum of the girl manifests as a major natural disaster in the world - and she has lots of temper tantrums.

It is perhaps a problem that this is the third book in a series I have never heard of; there are a lot of references which are never explained and yet which are central to the plot, and I don't ever get a strong feel for who any of the characters are. Presumably this is all laid out in prior books, but I unfortunately do not know.

For instance, would one of the main characters really give away vital secret information in the hearing of a known enemy? I don't know him well enough to tell, but it reeked of plot device, and lost my suspension of disbelief. Too many times unexplained complications foundered them, too many times elaborately powerful and yet barely referenced characters swooped in and saved them. And I did not understand what happened in the end.

The world is overwhelmingly rich and has some really interesting ideas, such as The Protectors, an army of men whose souls reside together and bodies have input from everyone. They are awesome fighters and interesting characters. Unfortunately they have a lame name. So does The Unknown, the main fighter-dude of The Raven. Many of the sentences are ambiguous or downright confusing because of their grammar or word choices, and there were many typos in the text.

There is room here for a great tale, and, perhaps, shored up by the information in the first two books, it would be one. But alone it does not deliver what the lovely green cover seemed to indicate.


Pete Hamill

What would you do with your time if you were granted the gift of immortality - so long as you didn't leave New York? Cormac Samuel O'Connor grows up outside Belfast in the 1500s, the son of a Gael and a Jewess. Both his father and mother's religions are intolerable in their society, so they wear Protestant masks and keep their heads down. Even Cormac doesn't know who they are - or that his name is not Robert Carson. He happily learns to read, absorbs stories of the Hebrew people, learns to help his father at the blacksmith's forge, and grows to love his dog and their new horse.

But when the cruel Earl runs his mother down with a carriage, Cormac's father tells him the truth of who they are. Then he makes a wondrous sword and begins to teach Cormac the way of the Old Irish people, including that murder must be avenged and all the killer's heirs destroyed. So when the Earl kills Cormac's father, the teen follows him across the Atlantic to the village of New York. There he befriends a powerful African who grants him immortality, with the condition that he never leave Manhattan. And there the journey through history begins.

Cormac is involved in all sorts of uprisings, revolutions, and restorations. He sees fire raze the city, helps General Washington fight the Brits, manages to make it through the terrible decades with no fresh water, and is standing only a few blocks away when the World Trade Center towers are attacked. And through it all he seeks and kills decendents of the Earl.

Forever is an interesting story, but loses some in the telling. Hamill uses phrases and idioms that are anachronistic and threw me off. He skips huge chunks of time - most notably the entire twentieth century. We get no sense of how difficult it is for Cormac to adapt to the great changes during that time, how he managed through WWI and WWII, what he thinks of techonology. Just the late 1800s and then the twin towers, bam. And his personal story does not really resolve at the end, either. It's too bad, because the premise and pace of the book are excellent and it is generally worth the read.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow

Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow
Peter Høeg

Denmark is a lovely country. And the police are particularly lovely. And surprising. They accompany the Royal Guard to Amalienborg Palace. They help lost ducklings cross the street. And when a little boy falls off a rooftop, first the uniformed police show up. And then the detectives. And finally the assistant district attorney for special economic crime sends his representative. How reassuring.

The little boy is Smilla's neighbor, her friend. She visits the rooftop, sees his tracks in the snow, and understands that his death was not an accident. So begins an investigation that requires all her courage, determination, and significant resources as she uncovers an old conspiracy and danger.

Smilla knows about snow. She knows about ice. She is, after all, the daughter of an Eskimo hunter from Northern Greenland, even if her wealthy anesthesiologist father forced her to come with him to Denmark for school. But her mother's blood runs true, and Smilla is a woman with the strength of skill, resourcefulness, and character built from creating survival in a harsh world. She knows more about life than she generally admits to nosy passers-by, and she's witty and resolute about it. As a rule I swim against the current. But on certain mornings, such as today, I have enough surplus energy to surrender. I love her.

I would read about Smilla sitting at home and drinking tea, she's just that fantastic. But Høeg lets the boy's death serve as the catalyst for a mysterious investigation. A lawyer turns up. A man who's been translating a tape for her is murdered. People start to follow her, threaten her, try to kill her. The downstairs neighbor befriends her, woos her, they fall in love. They break into old archives, track down people who might have connections, might know things, are chased by police and shadowy people who don't like what she knows. The plot grows in intrigue and danger until Smilla finds herself fighting for her life on the Artic seas. To which she says, oh dear, isn't this annoying. And keeps going. Even evil masterminds should know better than to mess with a determined Eskimo huntress on her own ice.

Throughout the tale, there is a lovely rich texture of being clearly aware of and yet not quite fitting into foreign culture. Both Smilla and the boy are natively Greenlanders, both brought against their will to Denmark for school as children. Displacement from home is not a theme of the book so much as it is the type of thread the story is woven from. There is one way to understand another culture. Living it. Move into it, ask to be tolerated as a guest, learn the language. At some point understanding may come. It will always be wordless. The moment you grasp what is foreign, you will lost the urge to explain it. To explain a phnomenon is to distance yourself from it. When I start talkig about Qaanaaq, to myself or to others, I again start to lose what has never been truly mine.

øeg is not merely philosophical; the writing glints with snark and wit and cynicism. Take this description of a neighbor's apartment: There are rose bushes in large porcelain pots, and they have red blossoms, and it looks as if someone waters them and talks to them and promises them that they will never be sent on holiday to my place, where, for some strange reason, the climate is bad for green plants.

So. I adore the main character, who is strong and resourceful and complex and mysterious and still quite flawed. The writing is fabulous; fluid, philosophical, witty, provocative. The story is intriguing, the action gripping. This is one of the best books I've read in the last three years.

Truth and Beauty

Truth and Beauty: a friendship
Ann Patchett

The moving story of Ann Patchett's friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy, told candidly and with great love. Lucy was always a star, finding limelight even in dusty midwestern towns and run-down old duplexes. Everyone knew her, and the story of her heroic battle against cancer that left her face mangled and forever dissolving, despite the continued efforts of surgeons in the UK and the US. Nevertheless, Lucy loved liveliness. She was the grasshopper, entertaining, delightful, and energetic.

Ann describes herself, on the other hand, as the ant: hard working, loyal, and dull. Lucy is deeply attached to her, and their lives march side by side for twenty years, taking them through college, Master's degrees, struggling to pay the rent while trying to write their first books, applying for fellowships and grants and competitions.

Their lives solidify: Ann settling in her hometown, dating a nice doctor, writing steadily; Lucy based in New York, surrounded by friends. Ann wins a fellowship and writes her first book. Lucy writes a bestseller about her struggle.

But Lucy's continued battle against depression and the endless rounds of grueling surgery take their toll. She is lonely, insecure, lost. She experiments and then becomes addicted to drugs. Ann flies up to New York, reassures, calms, praises, calls every day. She loves Lucy.

That love is what makes this book remarkable, heartwarming, real. Yes, it's about people who have problems, are inadequate, battle and sometimes give into anger, fear, and pain. And yet they choose to love each other. It's true, and it's beautiful.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

In the Country of Men

In the Country of Men
Hisham Matar

Suleiman is a nine-year-old boy in tumultuous Libya. He plays in the dust with the neighborhood boys, makes things from odds and ends in his workshop on the roof, eats mulberries until he is sick, and lives with his mother and father. But his father is often gone on business trips, and Suleiman's mother gets sick when she's alone. Still, Suleiman lives a normal sort of life - until the police show up and drag off the man who lives next door, a friend of father, father of Suleiman's best friend. The man's execution in a basketball stadium is aired on live TV. Will Suleiman's father be next?

What makes this story tumultuous is not the politics or the brutality, it's the chilling realization that everyone, even a young child, is subject to renouncing good in an effort to hide away from evil. We see values shift: Mama hated Baba, hides from him, yet only sings happily when he is around; Baba believes in truth but won't answer questions; Suleiman is considered too young to pay attention to and ends up trying to impress whatever adult he can find - even if the adult happens to be a police officer spying on Baba. All of them are forced to wonder what it means to be a man in Libya, a person in Libya.

The writing is clean and full of emotion, but the story leaves the world messy and untouched by the lives of the characters. Perhaps life is hopeless, perhaps there is nothing we can do but muddle along trying to find the lesser evils to invite into life so they can take up the space the greater horrors seek to fill. But if that's true, I don't really want to read about it.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010


Banana Yoshimoto

Ok, I admit it - I bought this book simply because the author's name is Banana. Seriously, who could pass that up?

The volume is a novella and a short story sharing similar themes of identity, loss, and coping with life. Kitchen, the novella, follows a young girl as she deals with bereavement and is taken in by a kind young man and his transgendered parent. Refreshingly, the story grinds no axes, focusing instead on each character as a person and their means of finding comfort and focus after family dies.

For our main character, that comfort is found in her surrogate family, and in kitchens. She loves the hum of refrigerators, the mundane ceremony of making and sharing tea, the preparation of food, the way it touches life.

The short story allows a grieving young widow final closure through a mystical once a century event.

Translated from Japanese by Megan Backus, Kitchen is a carefully written sojourn through dark times to life beyond. The style is oriental, yet accessible to the Western mind; the story flows like water over an unfamiliar landscape. Though the subject matter is heavy, the story is hopeful and manages to remain light without being shallow or sacriligious. I enjoyed it thoroughly, and will probably re-read it several times.

And I still love the author's name.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Bourne Supremacy

The Bourne Supremacy
Robert Ludlum

One of the things I really like about the Bourne movies is that Bourne is always in control, always wins, is explicitly and thoroughly trained and brilliant at what he does. One of the things I really like about the Bourne books is that Bourne loses control, has fits of incapacitation, sometimes falls for traps, and has multiple personality disorder. It is fitting in a tight, compact package like a film that Bourne also be a tight compact package, but it is much more interesting reading if he falls apart and the narrative includes some of his shattered thoughts. (Gosh, I sound cruel.)

The Bourne Supremacy has to do with a different Jason Bourne showing up and making some unnerving kills, trading under the name of the legacy. That's pretty much where the similarities between the book and the film end. For one, Marie is kidnapped, not shot, and the covert forces of the US and Britain know that it is not "their" Bourne who has shown up and assasinated a high-ranking diplomat. The main problem is not embezzlement, it's a strategy to incite full-scale war in Asia. Oh, and the book takes place in Hong Kong and China, not Europe and New York.

As in the first book, the fight scenes tend to be repetitive (his foot "lashes up" countless times) and overcomplicated - print is not the media for blow-by-blow. On the other hand, we get internal dialogue and emotion, and it's generally well-written and entertaining. Marie, being alive, gets to do things like make hell for the CIA agents who kidnapped her, and escape to wander around Kowloon. Bourne gets to shoot up Mao's mausoleum and speak Mandarin and Cantonese.

The characters are well-developed and flawed enough to be both believable and likeable. The storyline is twisted enough to warrant surprise at the end, and the pace is fast enough that I forgot where I was and nearly missed my public transit stop on more than one occasion. It's not the film; these are altogether different characters, with altogether different stories. But the book is gripping, decently written, and very much entertaining. I'll probably read it again several times, raised eyebrows on the metro notwithstanding.

Blue Willow

Blue Willow
Deborah Smith

I bought this because I liked the design on the spine. It turns out to be a promotional copy, and has lots of funny typos, but it still manages to be five hundred and thirty-three pages of readable plot, which I finished in three days.

The story follows the lives of Lily MacKenzie, a muscular, independent red-headed farm girl from small-town Georgia, and Artemas Colebrook, heir to a broken family and a bankrupt china company. To him, Lily has always symbolized goodness, security, and his real home. To her, Artemas is the lost prince who will come back to a hard world and restore what was unthinkingly squandered and broken. Both dream of the time when they can be together, enjoying treasured home. But the hard, cold world has other plans.

When still a boy, Artemas realizes the destruction and cruelty of his parents and decides to protect and raise his five younger siblings. His grandmother trains him in the family business and leaves it to him when he is barely out of adolescence. He vows to do what is best for his family and restore their crushed legacy, no matter what the cost. It's an unrelenting vow, even when he realizes it means he must give up Lily.

She grows up with hard work and the pure love of her parents, writing encouraging letters to the older boy she met as a child. But when her parents are killed in a terrible accident and Artemas ignores her attempts at contact, her world is shattered. Bitter and grieving, she leaves her home to fight out a new life in Atlanta.

And so their worlds separate into difficult lives. Until Artemas moves the headquarters of the now fabulously successful family corporation to Atlanta, and hires Lily's husband to design the building. On opening day, the building crumbles, killing Lily's husband and son, maiming Artemas's brother, and killing his sister. Hatred and blame reawaken the old wounds between Lily and Artemas, resurrecting the pain of lost dreams as well.

But this is a romance novel (yeah, I was tricked by the cover copy), so everything is likely to turn out happily, even if it takes more than five hundred pages of angst, shouting, misunderstanding, and sex to do it.

The main characters are believable enough to root for, but many of the minor characters are not well developed. There are several scenes and veins of domestic abuse, but they do not make the kind of deep impact on the plot that such a situation does on a real life. Likewise, several other plot points end up being trite or shallow, or just don't really make sense. Multiple times I read a passage with the feeling that it was there just because the author needed it to be, rather than because the characters believably would have taken that course.

That being said, I did enjoy the book, overall. It was written as entertainment, and it entertained me. I'm not likely to read it again, but it was worth my metro time for a couple of days.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

North of Ithaka

North of Ithaka
Eleni Gage

By time she turned twenty-seven, Eleni Gage was tired of the not-so-subtle hints of her loud, superstitious aunts about marriage. But she wasn't tired of the stories they told of their childhood home, even though they broke off darkly with the invasion of the German army in WWII.

Eleni knows their home was turned into the headquarters of the army and used as a prison, torture chamber, and burial ground for those executed, including her grandmother. She knows the house has since fallen into ruin. And she knows the past is calling her.

Funded by her father and fueled by a desire to understand their family's tragic past and somehow redeem the future, she leaves a career as a New York journalist and moves to Lia, a a tiny village in northern Greece. There she navigates local custom (such as sacrificing a rooster on the foundations of a new house), stubborn tempers, and fights against squirrels to dig up and restore her family's past, revere the memory of her grandmother, and rebuild the family home. Along the way she learns to cook, how to balance superstition and orthodox religion, and what it means to be a Northern Greek.

Eleni's writing is frank and clear, recounting her mistakes, frustrations, revelations, and good times. Her descriptions of Greek village life are thoughtful and entertaining, and the neighbors never fail to be kind, loud, and overly concerned with everyone's business. As a bonus, Eleni includes recipes for many of the ritual foods mentioned throughout the book, such as rooster stew. It's not a page turner, but North of Ithaka is just the thing if you want a light, satisfying read.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Wheel on the School

The Wheel on the School
Meindert DeJong

I loved this book as a child (as well as several other books by this author), so when I saw it in a used book store I picked it up right away. Then I brought it home and read it all in one day. It's one of those books for children that is so delightful that one never outgrows it. Besides, three of the main characters are elderly.

Lina is the only girl in her tiny six pupil school. One day she writes an essay about storks. They nest on her Aunt's house in a neighboring town, but none of the lucky birds grace their Dutch fishing village. Lina, the teacher, and the five boys set out to investigate why. It is decided that they need to put a wagon wheel up on the steep roof so the storks have something to nest on. But can they find one?

Their search takes them all over the countryside, where they meet unexpected allies, nearly drown several times, and finally succeed in finding a wheel. But a major storm is killing the storks, migrating over the sea from Africa. Will any survive? Will any choose the little town of Shora for their new lives? They will if the townsfolk and the children have anything to say about it.

Warm, fresh, and lively, The Wheel on the School is a delightful tale of community, overcoming fear and prejudice, and the power of beliving in the impossible.

Besides, it's illustrated by Maurice Sendak. How could it get any better than that?

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Alentejo Blue

Alentejo Blue
Monica Ali

Set in a hot summer of rural Portugal, Alentejo Blue follows the colored threads of different lives as they cross and recross in the tangle of small town life. There are those who have lived in Mamarrosa their entire lives, those who left and came back full of wisdom about the greater world, and those who fled their lives in other places for the exotic quiet of a foreign village. A drunk English writer, an engaged couple, a destitute family, a fat chef. Each character wrestles through quirks and needs to make decisions, sometimes whether to go abroad, sometimes whether to light a match. Their decisions form patterns in the village tapestry.

Unfortunately, none of the characters were compelling: small town folk making difficult mistakes and not resolving anything. The only person I found myself rooting for was the girl who was going abroad to work; disappointing in a book about a village. And, characteristically, even she makes terrible decisions and is ignored by the consequences. Lack of resolution gave an otherwise promising book a flabby, unfinished feel. It's a pity; the title was so intriguing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Dispossessed

The Dispossessed
Ursula K. LeGuin

Shevek is brilliant young physicist working on a theory that will allow instantaneous space travel (teleportation!). He's also an Odonian, part of a socialist anarchist society living on the harsh moon of his peoples' home planet. But moneyless settlers fighting dust and famine for survival are not overly interested in teleportation. For the sake of his research and to bridge the gulf between the society they left and the one they created, Shev takes an unprescedented journey to earth, hoping to tear down walls and trade his theory for mutual cooperation and freedom.

Woven into Shev's experiences with earth technology, style, customs, and depravity are chapters about his youth, family, culture, and the events which led to leaving his home. LeGuin's descriptions are creative and compelling, and the characters are memorable, but the best part of this book is seeing the world through the eyes of an outsider.

The childlike simplicity and trust that Shevek has, his expectation that people will do right by each other and his surprise at being cheated and manipulated harkens to the stories fondly told of Soviet times. "See, Soviet people were very kind to each other, and did not expect to be cheated. It was easy to scam them, because they didn't even think of such a thing." "In Soviet times, people helped each other, shared what they had with their neighbors. It was a community." Even so, this is not a romantic anarchist utopia; LeGuin does not sugar coat the harshness and flaws of the Odonian society. We are left with a startling picture of what happens when people focus on one aspect of human nature and stretch it into encompassing morality.

I am afraid that if I keep writing, I'll degenerate into rambling. But first, I have one last thing to say: I really want Shev's teleportation technology.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Anil's Ghost

Anil's Ghost
Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje's stories have the feeling of a sepia photograph; they're rich, real, and yet hallowed by lack of color. His prose lives in sparse details. A water drop falls from a leaf, a woman sighs, a headlight blinks a man into consciousness for a second. The world turns. Evil in chaos, scientists and artists struggling to create. Risking their next moment in a sepia photograph to show up in truth.

He haunts me, flashes of a ghost barely not seen. And yet the story is very solid, gritty, terrible and beautiful and full of soil as well as soul. Anil's Ghost is a mystery, a mystery about government killings in Sri Lanka, a mystery about an unsual skeleton, a mystery of choices, conscience, and survival. It's about Anil, who left. Sarath, who retreated into cynicism and the archeology of ancient temple ruins. Gamini, who hides in drugs and twenty-hour shifts in the ER. And whether it is possible to do anything but survive in the face of constant murder and betrayal.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Oh, Dear

A two week long roaming vacation with one's brother all over the UK is fantastic for the soul, but not for reading. Particularly since we each had only a small backpack as luggage. And then work ate me. So.

I will do my best to review these books in the next couple of weeks...

January booklist:

To Swim Across the World, Francis and Ginger Park
*The Firstborn Advantage: Making your birth order work for you, Dr. Kevin Leman
*Blue Like Jazz, Donald Miller
The Last Samurai, Helen DeWitt
Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
*The Kingdom by the Sea, Paul Theroux
The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin

*denotes a book I read for the first time