Sunday, August 31, 2014

What Happened in August, 2014


And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hooven Santmyer

I tried.  Seriously, people, I tried.  For a full month I have been reading . . . And Ladies of the Club and I am still only 1/3 of the way through. 

. . . And Ladies of the Club was a popular book in the 1980s, and The Typical Book Group picked it as our summer BFB (Big Fat Book).  The story starts just after the Civil War, when two of the main characters, Sally and Anne, graduate from college and enter the real world of Waynesboro, OH.  They are asked by one of their teachers if they are interested in becoming part of a yet to be formed literary women's club, and they quickly agree.  From there, we meet 10 other women who become club members, their families, and their husbands. 

400 pages in, I am still in the late 1800s, three of the club members have died, and several others have been admitted.  The members have confronted social and political issues, like calls for prohibition, presidential elections, and the challenges of reuniting a divided country. 

The story reads like a classic, with not a lot of action, and lots of social dilemmas.  While I don't find it  boring, it is so soothing that it frequently lulls me to sleep after 5 or fewer pages.  So, I'm taking a break.  I would hate to waste two months reading a book only to say "meh" at the end.  We'll see.  If I read a couple more books and keep thinking about this one, I'll come back.

Tags:  Historical Fiction, Big Fat Books

The Circle by Dave Eggers

The Circle is a company, likely based on Google or Facebook, where everyone who is smart and young wants to work.  They have a campus, which they would prefer that you not leave, where bands clamour to perform, where food and health care is provided and where innovation is constant.  The Circle wants to find out everything that is knowable in the modern world.  Do 27 year olds prefer Cancun or Hawaii?  How many grains of sand are there in the desert?  What happens when you transfer sea animals that have never before been seen into a Circle designed habitat?  The Circle is all about transparency.  If a person visits a park and doesn't post pictures to Facebook to tell their friends about it, why didn't they?  Were they ashamed?  Are they trying to hide their activities?  Or are they being anti-social?  It is quickly determined that all people are entitled to all experiences.  If you go to an art show in California, and I am stuck in Michigan, I can be there with you if you post about it.  But if you don't post about the experience, you are stealing that opportunity from me.  

Mae, a floundering Carlton College graduate, begins to work for The Circle when her friend, Annie, invites her to apply.  Mae quickly finds herself overwhelmed with gratitude to Annie, but also surprised by how much of her life The Circle wants to consume, and how much she is willing to give it.  Mae's dad is suffering from MS, and she is able to get better insurance coverage for him through The Circle.  In exchange, The Circle will monitor all of his care, which will obviously require live video supervision from 10 different cameras in his house.  Soon her parents begin to feel that this is too much, but Mae is insistent that The Circle knows best. 

The Circle is a commentary about how much of our privacy we are willing to give up while getting little in return.  As a customer experience worker, Mae finds herself devoting valuable time to people who she has never met but who have asked her to like them, instead of spending time with her family members and real life friends.  The instant gratification of having another "friend" and getting a favorable rating outweighs anything that Mae believes her parents could provide to her.

Part 1984, part "War Games", and part MaddAddam, The Circle predicts a not so distant future where online participation is mandatory.  Individuals control crime by mounting inexpensive video cameras which anyone can log into and see through.  This sounds good enough, but in a world where secrets are considered lies the superficial takes the place of the real.  Margaret Atwood calls much of her work "speculative fiction" instead of "science fiction", which is very apt in this case.  We can't be too many years away from a time when much of The Circle's technology is possible.  It is as though The Circle is a predecessor to the corporations that control the world in Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy.  In MaddAddam, each corporation has a campus and controls the lives of its employees, but there secrets are essential, and the corps will do anything to keep their secrets from getting out.  In the timeline of speculative fiction, The Circle would be placed between Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore and Oryx and Crake.  The Circle was a NYT Notable for 2013.

Eggers did an incredible job of imagining the world that could be.  Some of the technology that he explains, especially the "See Change" video cameras which can be mounted anywhere and are so inexpensive that they are readily available to everyone, seems possible.  My guess is that this is something that Eggers has mulled over, and that he hasn't gotten too many hours of sleep, for fear of the future.

The Circle was read by Dion Graham, who also read several of Egger's earlier books including A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What is the What.  To me, he is the voice of Dave Eggers.  It is a testament to Graham's ability that he is able to read these stories with such a range of topics and characters.

Challenges:  Audiobook Challenge, I Love Library Books Challenge

Tags:  NYT Notables; Sci-Fi-ish

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Have you ever had that feeling that if you just had something to do over again, you would do it differently?  So has Ursula Todd.  In Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, the novel consists of a series of episodes in Ursula's life.  There are three primary story lines, being the stories of Ursula's birth, that of her 16th birthday, and that of her World War II experience.  In each of these, the first time the story is told, it ends horribly for her, and she dies.  Each story is then retold, with Ursula making slightly different choices, as though she knows that she is trying to keep something from happening, but doesn't quite remember what.  Again, something horrible happens, and she dies.  The stories are retold again and again until Ursula has carefully navigated around all of the hidden hazards of her life, and can move on to the next episode.

Ursula feels a strong sense of deja vu, and eventually realizes that she has the ability to change the course of history, one tiny interception at a time.  If her maid falls down the stairs and can't go to a celebration in London, she won't bring the flu back to Ursula's household.  If she befriends Eva Braun, could she prevent World War II?

Atkinson's novel twists and turns while moving two steps forward and one step back.  It is almost as though she took Ursula's life, couldn't decide which way to go, and told the story every way that she could imagine.  However, the result is so carefully constructed that the novel presents Ursula's choices almost as a form of Darwinian evolution rather than simple drafts that didn't work out.

Life After Life was a NYT Notable Book for 2013, and the 2013 GoodReads Choice winner for Historical Fiction.

Tags:  Historical Fiction, NYT Notables, WWII Civilian Stories, British Stories

September Preview:

In September, I plan to read and review the following in paper or electronic form:

Safe Haven by Nicholas Sparks
. . . And Ladies of the Club by Helen Hoover Santmyer (Try, Try again!)
The Wife, the Maid and the Mistress by Ariel Lawhon

I also plan to finish listening to The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson, and will post about that, and will start listening to The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  However, at 32 hours, I am unlikely to post a review of this one before October.


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