Friday, July 1, 2016

Book Reviews June 2016

Only Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill.  This is a YA novel with a premise similar to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  It’s set in a future when girls are created in a laboratory for the sole use of men.  The girls are raised in an institution – where the novel takes place – and when they are 17 will be picked to be either companions (a wife who gives birth to sons and is terminated at age 40), concubines, or chastities (nuns who teach the girls).  They are picked by the 17 year old boys in their district, and have no say in the outcome.  The girls are raised to look pretty and are ranked several times a day via social media.  In fact, a good portion of the book, besides being a critique of gender roles, is a critique of social media and how nothing happens these days if it isn’t recorded on social media.  It would be a great book to teach to highschool or junior high-age kids, and it was more or less an interesting read.  The main character is frieda (women don’t get their names capitalized), who is coming of age and trying to be chosen as a companion.  Her best friend, isabel, is acting strangely, and frieda is desperately trying to remain in good terms with the queen bee mean girl, megan.  Of course, there is no way for a girl to win in this society, and the reader watches as things get worse and worse for frieda.  My criticisms are that it went on a bit too long – you see what is going to happen to frieda long before she does, and then have to cover a lot of ground to get her there; and it is also frustrating that frieda doesn’t find out more information from her former bestie, isabel, since isabel clearly knows more about what is going on than any of the other girls in the school.

Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson.  This is the fourth book in her Rebecka Martinsson series and it is even better than the first three.  I’ve said this all before in the earlier reviews, so won’t go into too much detail, but these books are truly wonderful.  Larsson is a great story-teller, her characters are fascinating, and even the evil ones are three-dimensional and nuanced.  In this book, one of the narrators is a dead woman, and she is given the chance to speak just enough to keep things interesting.  Once again, Rebecka is working on a case that gets her into trouble.  However, in this novel, unlike the first three, it is Rebecka who is happy and stable and Anna-Maria Mella, the detective, who is having problems.  It’s all quite under-stated and magnificent.  Read it!

Quiet:  The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  This is a mostly interesting examination of the difficulties introverts face here in the US, where the characteristics of extroverts are prized.  She spends a significant amount of the book on workplace issues, which was not as interesting to me as daily life issues.  But she does reveal many surprising results from studies which show how ineffective open-style office layouts are (as opposed to more traditional layouts where privacy is possible), and also how ineffective group brainstorming is (in contrast to what is usually thought, most people – extroverts included – come up with the good ideas on their own).  One CEO even initiated “no talk Thursdays” and devoted the day to work and contemplation and found it was the most productive day of the week for all involved.  Cain examines how introverts are often undervalued in schools, how certain Asian cultures have trouble in the US because talking is valued over listening, and even how the stock market crash of 2008 occurred in part because extroverts and risk-takers had taken over the financial institutions.  She definitely made interesting points in each chapter, although sometimes you had to wait for them.  And her writing style was such that I had no trouble putting the book down.  On the whole, however, it was an interesting topic and she explored it in depth.

The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante.  This is the second book in the Naples quartet and follows Elena and Lila on their very different paths as teenagers.  When the book begins Lila is newly married to Stefano Carracci as a 16 year old, and spends her first week of married life getting beaten up by him.  Elena is in high school continuing her hard studying and doing extremely well.  She struggles, as before, to reconcile her life in school with her life in “the neighborhood” where most girls don’t attend school beyond elementary.  Lila has money now, but hates Stefano and is unhappy with her marriage and with the pressure to have a child.  Elena and Lila have important encounters every now and then, and then spend a rather tormented summer together at the beach, but live quite separate lives.  This description of the book is misleading though, as it is not at all a story about teenagers at a beach or in love.  It’s meaty, albeit very slow paced, and the curious and intriguing part is the underlying theme of how Elena and Lila’s initial friendship as very young children becomes the core of their lives in odd ways.  Ferrante keeps returning to this; no matter what they do, they are drawn into the orbit of the other, and each continually responds to what the other has and they do not.  I’m still surprised in some ways that this quartet has been so popular, as the writing and theme is very unusual and not what it appears to be.  I keep coming up with the unhelpful description of:  it is strange.  And so I shall read on, wanting Elena and Lila to thrive.

The Second Deadly Sin by Asa Larsson.  This is another wonderful Rebecka Martinsson mystery from Asa Larsson.  It’s the last so far, although I certainly hope she is working on and almost completed with the next.  There are five, and each one has been better than the next, and the first was excellent.  Rebecka is still living and working in Kiruna, but this time when a murder occurs in the area, she is taken off the case and replaced by the bumbling prosecutor from the first book, Von Post.  Not pleased by this, Rebecka takes the seven weeks of leave that’s owed to her (oh Scandinavian time off!  May it someday be the same in the USA!), and not quite on purpose sets out to solve the case on her own—or at least the parts of it that Von Post won’t look into.  It’s all wonderful as per usual – there’s a lot of Krister, the police officer who handles the police dogs, and of course Anna Maria Mella and Stalnacke are there doing their excellent detective work.  It’s another truly magnificent novel and I was sad when I reached the end. 

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.  I had avoided reading this book on purpose for a while.  I had read the two articles he published before he died and was both impressed and moved by them.  However, dying and leaving a child behind is a particular nightmare of mine at the moment, so I didn’t think I would read the book just yet.  But then the book was everywhere, and everyone loved it, and my friend offered to lend it to me so I decided I’d read it.  And it is good and tragically sad and everything you’d expect.  Paul Kalanithi was just completing his residency in neurosurgery (having multiple degrees in literature and medicine), when he realized he had lung cancer.  So a lot of the book is from the vantage point of a doctor who becomes a patient, and how it feels to be on that side of the relationship.  He also looks quite directly at death and dying and coming face to face with one’s own mortality much sooner than expected.  It’s terribly sad.  In the midst of his diagnosis, he and his wife, Lucy, also a doctor, decide to have a child, and he is able to spend 8 months with his daughter.  He’s an interesting writer and it is worth reading, although I was more impressed with the first part – in which he writes of his life up to the point of diagnosis, and what brought him to go to medical school.  He’s obviously a caring man, but I found it fascinating that his pursuit of a medical career was really from a philosophical vantage point:  he was interested in how much personhood and personality reside in the brain, and how for every operation he would perform, there would be a weighing of life and death and personality and mental acuity, and what changes can be made while keeping life worth living.  It is tragic that he ran out of time, and the book reveals just what a unique individual was lost.

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