Monday, January 26, 2015

2015 #3: Astray by Emma Donoghue

I cannot honestly remember when I have so enjoyed a collection of short stories. Donoghue has so many voices inside her--each one unique, yet all united by sojourns of the soul and spirit. From the pages of history, Donoghue develops characters who are flawed in ways that we can recognize when we look in the mirror. I found this collection of short stories to be an excellent companion to A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit (review here). I'd recommend this strongly to travelers, whether their journeys are literal or figurative.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015 #1 and #2: The Circle (Eggers) and Salt (Kurlansky)

50 books has proven to be too much, so I'm setting a smaller goal this year: 25. So far, on January 1st, I have two checked off. I'm being generous and counting books that I started in 2014, obviously.

TITLE: The Circle
AUTHOR: Dave Eggers
PUBLISHER: Vintage Books, 2013 (paperback)
PAGES: 497

Unfortunately, the "protagonist" (if one can even call her that) in Eggers' novel is so unbelievably ridiculous that it detracts from the value of the dystopic message. In contrast to a book like Fahrenheit 451, The Circle lacks subtlety. No one with enough brain cells to pick this book up in the first place needs to be hit over the head with the message. Mae is such an unlikeable character that I didn't want to spend time reading about her. And I think that was Eggers' true misstep here. He could have achieved the same transformation, but she could have had more questions and could have been more dimensional. The last 25 pages of the book were rather chilling and redeemed some of the more dry narrative. I like Eggers as a writer very much, and there are descriptive passages, particularly of San Francisco Bay, which are exquisite to read. Part of me believes that the contrast between the nature scenes and the scenes inside the Circle is part of Eggers' plan, but there's not enough balance. And it is when The Circle robs Mae of her time on the bay that I found the character the most unbelievable.

I will say that the book is unsettling enough that it made me question how much time I spend online and how much I share. While Eggers' vision is one that I think is ultimately hyperbolic and probably not very likely, it does ask us to consider how much we are willing to concede for transparency, and whether "transparency" is the cost of social interaction in the digital age. In short, the book probably could lose at least 100 pages, and still retain its message. Ultimately, the "story of one woman's ambition and idealism" (back cover) never materialized--instead it begins (and ends) as a story of one woman's naïveté and low self-esteem.

TITLE: Salt: A World History
AUTHOR: Mark Kurlansky
PUBLISHER: Penguin Books, 2002 (paperback)
PAGES: 497

"A Turks and Caicos designer drew a crest [for the flag] that included Salt Cay saltworks with salt rakers in the foreground and piles of salt.  Back in England, it was the era of Arctic exporation, and, not knowing where the Turks and Caicos was, the English designer assumed the little white domes were igloos. And so he drew doors on each one. And this scene of salt piles with doors  remained the official crest of the colony for almost 100 years, until replaced in 1968 by a crest featuring a flamingo." (Salt, 432)

This book is peppered (hah) with little anecdotal gems like this. The history of salt is indeed the history of so much more, as Kurlansky aptly demonstrates. Chapter 21, which details the significance of salt in Gandhi's resistance in India, was particularly interesting, as were the early chapters of the book. The book's biggest weakness is its organization, or lack thereof. In fairness, Kurlansky really didn't have that many options, given the topic. A straightforward chronological approach would not work, but the book does not negotiate the back and forth of the narrative as well as it might. I found myself losing track of the different methods, although I will admit this may be due in part to the large gaps of time in between my readings, which is obviously no fault of the book. It is certainly eye-opening in that we take for granted those little grains and what they mean for economics, for social justice, for history. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in world history and/or food.