Monday, November 17, 2014

Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado

It's always good to be reminded that no matter how many hardships you face and how insurmountable they seem, someone out there has been dealt a worse hand and has come out whole on the other side. This is the true story of how a planeload of 45 rugby players and their friends crashed high in the Andes mountains in the '70s and despite all odds 16 managed to survive. A previous book, Alive by Piers Paul, recounted the same story from a third person viewpoint, based on his interviews with the survivors and their families. The author of this book is one of the survivors, and thus his account differs by personalizing the experience.

At the time of the incident, much attention was focused on the fact that the survivors consumed the bodies of those killed in the crash and in a subsequent avalanche. From Parrado's viewpoint this sensationalistic detail assumes its rightful place as necessary and unavoidable if they hoped to survive. His attention is more focused on the endurance of the cold and snow, the dangers of the trek over the mountain, and the state of mind of the men.

I found it particularly interesting that the men depended on different inspirations to give them the will to survive. Some were sustained by religious belief, some by thoughts of sweethearts. For Parrado, the memory of the love of his father kept him from lapsing into despair.

I don't often read nonfiction, so I don't have much background for comparisons, but I believe this is better than most. It is certainly inspiring.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Falconer by John Cheever

Even though this is obviously a masterful novel, elegantly written and often darkly humorous, it is not one that I really enjoyed reading. I believe that's because the central character and his angst are so foreign to my experience that I cannot empathize or sympathize with him or even understand the problems which shaped his life.

Falconer is the prison where the central character, the drug-addicted Farragut, ends up after killing his brother (perhaps accidentally, perhaps not). The story follows him through the dehumanizing prison experience, with flashbacks to his former life as a university professor. Actually, very little of actual prison life is described and what is told is very mild in comparison to what one understands to be prison life today. As I perceive it, the prison is meant to be symbolic of America, with its hypocritical expectations of behavior and its soul-destroying atmosphere. The novel was written in 1975, and perhaps this is the way many white, upper-class, educated males felt back then, but it is not a mind set that I can really understand. For the record, I have never really understood Saul Bellow either. Maybe I am not perceptive enough or intelligent enough to feel angst.

I expect many would appreciate this novel more than I did. It is certainly well written, though curiously devoid of emotional content.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Hollow City by Ransom Riggs

Here's yet another YA book recommended by my granddaughters. This is a sequel to Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, and like that one, features vintage photographs. Whereas the first book was intended to be somewhat scary, this one is more of an action thriller, with the group of children facing one danger right after another. As such, it is a fun read, although again the author seems unable to decide what age group to appeal to. The story, the language, and the structure seem to be targeted to a child of 8-12, yet the novel continues its romance story between two of the older children.

As fantasy novels go, even children's fantasy novels, I would say that Riggs's books are grade B. The rules for his created world are not quite logical, and he keeps adding new rules to fit his story line. One also feels that he shapes his story to fit the photos rather than the other way around.

Still, if young people enjoy it and it encourages reading, it's all to the good.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer

Here's yet another of my granddaughters' (ages 10 and 13) favorite books that they recommended that I read, and it's a real keeper. Out of all the books they have steered me to, I believe this is the most well done. It's dystopian fiction of sorts, set in a future when the the United States and Mexico are separated by a wide strip of poppy-growing land called Opium. The central character is a young boy, Matt, who discovers at age 6 that he is the clone of the most powerful drug lord of all, El Patron. Considered less than human and despised by El Patron's family, Matt is forced to flee for his life when the old man dies, only to land in more trouble in the borderlands of what was once called Mexico.

What makes this better than most YA books is the attention to character building, the believability and logic of the created world, and the non-preachy consideration of serious issues. I would fault it only for the inclusion of a romance, since Matt is only 14 when the book ends. That seems a bit young for romantic entanglement, but I suppose the author felt it obligatory to appeal to her target audience.

The House of the Scorpian won the National Book Award for Children's Literature and several other honors. I recommend it for age 10 and up. It can be enjoyed by adults as well.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

If this novel were by an unknown author, I doubt that it would have made much of a splash at all. Since it was written by the author of the Harry Potter series, of course it attracted all kinds of attention and undoubtedly sold very well, despite the fact that it's not earth-shaking, groundbreaking, spirit lifting, thought inspiring, or page-turning. It's not a bad novel by any means, but it's not an especially good one either. It's actually pretty depressing in its picture of the people in a small English village.

The action follows several families as they interact with each other, centering around the death of a leading citizen and the subsequent election to fill his place on the Parish Council. The townfolk are variously revealed to be self centered, full of racial and class prejudice, petty, and sometimes just plain mean. Many have compared this to novels by Elizabeth Gaskell and George Eliot in their portrayals of small town life, but both those authors convey a fondness for their characters even while revealing their flaws. Rowling conveys contempt for her adult characters, reserving sympathy for the teenagers, particularly the most down trodden of the lot. She does have a great talent for portraying the confusion and agony of the teenage years.

Rowling is not a literary stylist by any means, but the writing is serviceable and readable. The plot is mildly suspenseful, though it does grow a bit contrived and melodramatic toward the end. The strength of the novel lies in the character portrayal, and all these characters are memorable and believable, even if most are unpleasant and unlikable.

It must be hard for an author to try to follow up such universally popular and acclaimed books as the Harry Potter series. This was not a bad effort, but I believe she is capable of better.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Ian McEwan's most recent publication is as much a polemic against religion as it is a novel. The central character, Fiona Maye, is an English family court judge who rules on matters pertaining to the welfare of children. Among those cases mentioned is one involving two Jewish girls whose divorced parents cannot agree on their schooling because of their religious differences, one being Orthodox and the other not. Another case involves a Catholic couple who refuse to have their conjoined twins separated to save the life of one, considering it to be the will of God that both should die rather than one be sacrificed. Her latest case, the one central to the novel, concerns a Jehovah's Witness boy who needs a blood transfusion to survive, and both his parents and the boy himself (he is almost 18) refuse on religious grounds. McEwan makes abundantly clear that he perceives decisions based on religious belief to be wrongheaded, his wise judge always favoring rational action over emotional reaction. However, the usually exacting and stable judge is undergoing a crisis of her own, leading her to react emotionally and make a misstep, with unexpected consequences.

This is a short novel, but McEwan has previously proven over and over that he can pack great power into a few pages. I did not feel that power in this one. The subplot about the judge's marital problems is given much space, but appears to be included primarily to account for her being uncharacteristically out of balance. (And maybe to flesh out the novel to just over 200 pages, so that it's not a novella.) The whole thing has an almost allegorical feel, a kind of reverse Pilgrim's Progress, with the characters encountering the perils of religious belief and emotionalism on the way to a rational atheism.

Do not make the mistake of presuming I judge this novel harshly because I agree or disagree with McEwan's attitude toward religious belief. I just object to novels whose main thrust is to preach to me, no matter what the subject.