Sunday, October 4, 2009

Books: Obama's Pick vs. The Pick of the Blogosphere

While flying to the heartland last week, I read Netherland by Joseph O'Neill. I must confess that I hadn't heard of it, even though it won all sorts of awards, before President Obama read it. We were having some trouble coming up with a book for our book club, so I suggested this one. If it's good enough for the president . . .

At first, I liked the book, even though I skimmed over all the details about cricket. The book had some truly lyrical bits, like this one: " . . . we all find ourselves in temporal currents and . . . unless you're paying attention you'll discover, often too late, that an undertow of weeks or of years has pulled you deep into trouble" (64).

I was interested in the book because I thought it would be about the family of the main character, how the events of Sept. 11 pulled them apart and how they find their way back together. And in many ways, that's what the book is about. But most of the scenes revolve around the narrator and this shadowy Trinidadian character who plays cricket and introduces our narrator to the seamy underworld of New York City.

I wanted more details about how the narrator and his wife get back together. The book completely skips that part.

I confess that I have personal reasons for being interested, since I live in hurricane country and have had some scary glimpses of a possible hurricane-ravaged future. In 2005, we suffered 2 hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina did a fair amount of damage to South Florida before devastating New Orleans, and then once we got cleaned up from that event, Hurricane Wilma came through and wrought more damage. I saw relationships damaged because of these events, and the thought that damaged relationships can be repaired is one that modern literature/movies/music/pop culture doesn't address very often.

This book gives you no road map, and maybe there is no road map. Maybe people just have to muddle through and if they're lucky, they find themselves in the arms of loved ones again.

The ending of the book seems very subdued, especially compared to the explosive events that lead up to the end. I'm still puzzling over it.

Likewise, I'm also still thinking about the ending of The Unit, a book I first read about in several different blog entries, although I can only find one of the blog entries (go here for Karen's take on the novel). All the bloggers made comparisons to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, one of my all-time favorite books.

The Unit, by Ninni Holmqvist, shows us a future where non-essentials (people with no children) go to a huge institution when they turn 50. At first, it seems wonderful. People only work on what they want to work on (and most of them are artists), and everyone's needs are taken care of. Of course, there's a downside, and that is that these people are used in medical experiments (some non-harmful, but most with significant downsides) or have their organs harvested.

It's an interesting book about what makes people essential in a society. The ending is puzzling, and I continue to think about it. Unlike one blogger, whose entry I can't find these many months later, I didn't find the ending explosive or unforeseeable (although the event that propels the characters towards the ending did surprise me). But I thought the writer had gotten herself into a bit of a trap, and I couldn't figure out how she'd write herself out. I'm still not sure I'm satisfied with the ending, but it may have made the most sense in the world of the book.

I've come to enjoy, sort of, travelling by plane, even with all the indignities of lines and security requirements and seats that are too cramped, because I have long hours to read. It's often not as quiet as I would like (must we have CNN blaring at us from every angle?). But the joy of a good book is that I can submerge myself in a different world. And the joy of an extended reading period is to remind myself that I can still do this. After several days at work, I lose my ability for long, close focus that reading requires. Happily, at this point, my ability to read a book comes back quickly. I live in fear of losing that capacity.

1 comment:

Karen J. Weyant said...

I'm not sure about the ending, either. I have a friend who is teaching this book in her writing about literature class (theme: the medical world). I am curious about what her students think of the ending.