Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Fiction | One Life, Many Stories

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The Forrests by Emily Perkins is another novel by a New Zealand author I added to my 'to-read' shelf back when we were in NZ, and once again (like with Tamar), it wasn't really what I expected.

But this time was better!

The Forrests follows one family recently transplanted to New Zealand from New York. There are four children: Evelyn, Dorothy, Michael, and Ruth; and their parents, Lee and Frank—upon whom the names "Mom" and "Dad" were never bestowed by the Forrest children. This family is sort of odd, and you realize they probably came to New Zealand to escape utter failure by American standards. They spend some time on a commune; they all-but-officially adopt a young neighbor, Daniel. You get the impression that Lee and Frank aren't exactly the most doting or involved parents, but somehow the four Forrest kids survive into adulthood.

That's what The Forrests does—it spans this family through the decades, mostly though the eyes of Dorothy. As a child, Dorothy has a strong sensory awareness of the world; these feelings build her memories and are later her tools of nostalgia as the years progress. We follow Dorothy through adolescent relationships, marriage, kids, and the slow passage into old age, and family is the constant that ties the loose ends of her life together—that bridges one extreme to another.

I think the most spectacular thing about this book is the way the story is told; it's really a series of short vignettes, and it takes a while to realize that Dorothy is our main connection to the lives we're seeing. The chapters generally cover a single incident or occurrence; sometimes it's years spanning between the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, sometimes it's hours. With this loose timeline, it's easy to lose yourself in the characters and their lives. It feels rather symbolic of real life experiences; some are monumental and alter time and place, while some slip by subtly. Suddenly, you find yourself years down the road with a life you never expected, that you may not recognize, about which you may wonder, "How did I get here?"

While at times, this family is frustratingly dysfunctional, that's ultimately not the point of the story at all. And the fact that it takes place in New Zealand is really inconsequential—it could be anytime and anywhere. (Here's where it defied my expectations, as mentioned in the beginning; not really a New Zealand story!) I found myself drawn to the characters in this family, wondering what happened in those gaps of time left out between chapters. I think it's a wonderful portrait of how lives and opinions and situations can change drastically over the years, and I think its beauty and message lies in this, between the lines of the actions that take place on the page.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Reading Notes: The Evolution of God, Part 4

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Ok, it's a little bit pathetic that it's taken me so long to get through this book and finish up the posts on it. It took me literally all summer—I checked it out from the library over Memorial Day weekend, and I returned it on July 30th, the day before I started back to work for the new school year. However, that's not indicative of my feelings for it; I was fascinated, but my priorities shifted over the summer and this book ended up taking a back seat.

The fifth and final section of The Evolution of God is ambiguously titled "God Goes Global (Or Doesn't)." And though its purpose must be a sort of concluding summation and application of the ideas he's presented in the previous four sections...to be honest, it was definitely the most confusing section of all. There was some game theory thrown in and a lot of repetitions about non-zero-sum. But mostly, I think the point Wright is trying to get across is that though religions may differ in belief, they all have the same foundation. They are all born from the same human needs, and their histories are all colorful, sometimes contradictory, and always a product of their times.

Wright contends that "...religions that reach great stature have a tendency to rewrite their history in the process. They cast themselves as distinctive from the get-go, rather than growing organically out of their milieu. They find an epoch-marking figure—a Moses, a Jesus, a Muhammad—and turn him into an epoch-making figure. They depict his message as contrasting sharply with a backdrop that, in fact, his message was infused with." In short, they all find themselves unique when, in fact, their existence largely depends on all that came before. And certain aspects of human nature make us inclined to find answers in religion--thus, for the religions to develop in the first place.

  • Everyone seeks salvation on a personal level simply by driving human needs: good health and good spirit.
  • Either we understand motivations because we relate to them, or we don't relate to them and find them illegitimate. (We like what we know and understand; we fear or dislike what we don't.)
  • And people want to control their environment. Minds are open to explanations that give them such control.

Mostly, though, during this final section, Wright goes heavy on the connection between religion and social behavior...and how, really, we should all just get along, because we're all from the same stock. It's kind of the same argument he had for religions being similar; people are similar and have the same universal needs and struggles.

"To say that other people are people, too, may sound like an unremarkable insight. But it is one that is often ignored, and one that is in some sense unnatural. After all, any organism created by natural selection is, by default, under the illusion that it is special...Obviously, we can't all be right in any objective sense. The truth must be otherwise. The extension of moral imagination brings us closer to that truth."

If he ever makes an argument for the existence of God, it's here. To Wright, the Abrahamic scriptures show that there is a moral truth that's imposed on us; and cultural evolution has shown us that it makes sense to progress morally or else there are consequences. For the author, this is evidence in favor of the god hypothesis. Basically, religion can essentially be the belief in an unseen order: [it] "consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto" (William James). Wright is always vague on his own beliefs. They may not include a literal world-ruling, omniscient figure; but he seems to believe in a sense of order that exists in the world, and if you, personally, want to credit this order to a higher power God figure, then by all means you can.

The final chapter in this book is aptly titled "Well, Aren't We Special?" and I hope you can see how applicable that is to all the arguments Wright has raised in this book. Whether it's an entire religion, a population, or an individual, your way is always the right way; you're the chosen one; you are special. Back to that point of fearing or vilifying what we don't understand, this is just a part of human nature. But Wright finds proof of God in the fact that we can recognize and resist this innate fault to create a more harmonious existence. Evolution created beings so smart that they spawned another kind of evolution—cultural evolution—that forged a new connection between the growth of social organization and the progress toward moral truth. Basically, cause and effect guide us towards moral truth.

"As interdependence, and hence social structure, grew beyond the bounds of family—and then beyond the bounds of hunter-gatherer band, of chiefdom, of state—the way was paved by extensions of sympathy. This sympathy didn't have to involve its initial sponsor, love; you don't have to love someone to trade with them or even to consider them compatriots. But there has to be enough moral imagination, enough sympathetic consideration, to keep them out of the cognitive category of enemy; you have to consider them, in some sense, one of you."

You may be thinking that this book ended with a lot more philosophical ponderings than anticipated...and you're not alone. I feel somewhat like Wright just used a lot of history as a prelude to a big, theoretically-inspired hug; he's giving us a pep talk, not only on why it's beneficial for us all to just get along, but hey, it's going to be easy—because someone or something out there is making sure mankind makes the right choices, because it's our destiny. Well...thank god (or maybe God) for that.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Reading Roundup: The End of Summer Reading, Part 2

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Well I certainly didn't intend to go 10 days in between my "End of Summer Reading" compilation posts. This was supposed to be a quick catch-up before school started, and now we're two weeks in and it has CONSUMED MY LIFE. I've got several book tours on the lineup for the next couple of months, which I am very excited about, but other than that, expect many compilation posts...particularly on middle school books! I can't even believe how busy the days seem, but at least it's finally doing something I love. And surely it will calm down into a routine where I can socialize and stay up past 10pm soon...right?

Bloodroot by Amy Greene is an example of how great storytelling can make even the most depressing of lives enjoyable to read. The book follows a number of voices as they weave together the story of one Appalachian family living on Bloodroot Mountain. Mostly, it's the story of Myra Lamb, a wild and spirited young girl who captivates the attention of our several storytellers. We hear from the grandmother that raised her and passed down the special "touch" that enchants; her neighbor and childhood friend who loves her with all his heart (though, sadly, the feeling isn't mutual); the husband who wrongfully tried to tame her; and the children who must endure the hardships and consequences of her decisions.

Overall, I found this book haunting. Its structure, with its alternating perspectives and nonlinear sequence, could be confusing, but it isn't; without distinguished chapters, it could drag on, but it doesn't. Bloodroot is steeped in the mysticism and folklore of Appalachia, and though its a universal story of history, tragedy, and family, it's also one so inextricably tied to this particular setting, on the top of an isolated mountain barely touched by modernity. I think there is a lot that could be delved into here, but it's also simply an engrossing story about people and how their choices affect their lives. Particularly recommended for book groups.

And now a light, fun one: Dying in the Wool is the first in Frances Brody's "Kate Shackleton" mystery series. If it reminds you an awful lot of the "Maisie Dobbs" series, in both subject and book design, then I'm glad I'm not the only one.

Our narrator is Kate, a young woman with a recent knack for finding missing people—whether they be dead or just didn't want to be found. This is sort of a hobby she's taken up in the years since her husband went missing himself, presumed dead during WWI. Now an old friend has come to Kate with another missing-persons case; Joshua Braithwaite, a wealthy and successful businessman, the owner of the local wool mill in Bridgestead, has been missing for the past seven years, and Tabitha is convinced her father is alive...and she wants to find him before her own wedding. With a delightful male sidekick (a sort of buddy cop scenario), Kate begins her very first professional investigation, digging up long-forgotten secrets that someone in the town would rather remain buried.

This book is just fun. Kate is an unconventional character for her time, displaying a level of confidence on par with her male colleagues, despite the anxieties nagging below the surface. She's never fully accepted the presumed death of her own husband, but she's found her own way and values her independence...and this ambiguity certainly has the potential to develop further as the series progresses. A fun mystery with a strong protagonist and enjoyable setting.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Reading Roundup: The End of Summer Reading*, Part 1

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It has happened—after a nice seven month vacation, I've gone back to work with the new school year. I can't even describe how full my head is with new tasks and to-do lists. In an effort to whittle my "to-post-about" queue down before the chaos really begins, I'm going to be quick in talking about what I've read as my vacation neared its end.

I took a picture of Deborah Challinor's Tamar on a "New Zealand Authors" shelf back when we were in New Zealand, and I was looking forward to reading it when we got home. A trilogy of historical fiction sounded right up my alley. And because my public library didn't have it, nor would they get it through Inter-library Loan, it became my inaugural eBook purchase as well.

Tamar chronicles the journey of the eponymous main character, a young woman who emigrates from England to New Zealand near the end of the 19th century. Initially seeming rather meek and naive, Tamar surprises the reader as her strength and resilience are revealed during a long, arduous journey across oceans and as she navigates her way through a rough new home. An unconventional friendship is what gives Tamar much of her strength—on the passage from England she befriends Myrna MacTaggart who is moving to Auckland to establish the finest brothel in New Zealand. Myrna provides comfort and guidance to Tamar as she finds herself a place to live and work, settles into a new homeland, and eventually escapes from a disastrous marriage.

So, I was really looking forward to this sweeping trilogy of historical fiction on a place I recently visited. But truth be told, it was so much more ROMANCE-Y than I had expected. Like, I sort of felt duped. If we're classifying by genre, this is definitely Romance and definitely not Historical Fiction. Tamar is a sympathetic character, and the plot of this is definitely detailed enough to provide some level of substance. Overall, though, I was expecting and hoping to read a series that was dependent on its physical and historical setting, and this ended up being much more about characters who could've existed anywhere. I'm not criticizing the book itself, and I would recommend it to a reader that seems interested, but it disappointed me based on my own expectations.

Ok, I won't lie. I put Tom Drury's Pacific on my 'to-read' list because I really just liked the cover and title. Simple. Brief. It gave me a good vibe. And overall, I can't totally contradict that, though my final opinion is a little lacking.

The story follows (somewhat) a 14-year-old named Micah who is moving across the country to Los Angeles to live with his long-absent mother. But the narrative doesn't just focus on Micah. In fact, it doesn't actually focus on him more than any other character. Instead, it gives brief snippets on all these other people connected to Micah—his impetuous actress mother; his petty thief of a father back home; his half-sister; an ex-con antique salesman; a troubled mystic; and the retired sheriff turned detective. Their stories barely overlap, yet they're all still connected and they all exist; Drury has fleshed them each out with enough of a life that the reader can imagine how they will each proceed. They're a rather pathetic lot with their own flaws, but they all have hope of something good coming down the road towards them.

Drury's writing is solid—descriptive, engaging, succinct. The characters are all interesting, and I was invested in them. But ultimately, this is a snapshot of lives and...that's it; they fade after your encounter with this book, because you didn't know enough or see enough about each of them to really remember them. It's a brief collection of unique lives, brief encounters with people you'll never hear about again. Though I was invested while reading, for a reader like me that wants a deeper connection, it ultimately felt incomplete.

* Just because my summer vacation is over doesn't actually mean it's the end of summer. We've still got plenty of days of heat and sun, and I've still got plenty of Pilcher to get me through days by the pool!