Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for September, 2014

The Lacuna

Posted by nliakos on September 30, 2014

by Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial 2010, original pub. date 2009)

I have loved about every Kingsolver book I have ever read, from The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams, through Prodigal Summer and The Poisonwood Bible to Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And this one did not disappoint. Cast as a collection of journal entries, letters, newspaper clippings, and commentary, The Lacuna follows the amazing life of Harrison W. Shepherd, beginning when he was taken to his mother’s native Mexico as a teenager after his parents’ divorce and ending in Asheville, North Carolina, where he lived a solitary life except for his secretary, Violet Brown, his only friend in Asheville and his biographer–the protector and transcriber of the aforementioned journals, letters, and clippings as well as the author of the commentary. Together, Violet and Harrison tell how he came to be employed (first as a plaster mixer, then as a cook and finally as a secretary) by the painter Diego Rivera and his wife Frida Kahlo; how employment in the Rivera household led to employment in the household of Russian fugitive Lev Trotsky, until his death in 1940; how he next returned to the United States accompanying some of Kahlo’s artwork, somehow ending up in Asheville, where he published two well-received “pot-boiler” novels set in ancient Mexico and became very successful, until Joseph McCarthy and the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee destroyed his livelihood and his career, as they did so many others’. In this way, Kingsolver takes the reader on a journey through some of the most interesting events of the mid-twentieth century.

Throughout the novel, the concept of a lacuna is woven into the story.  A lacuna is a gap or hole in something, a part that is missing. The first and last lacuna is a kind of tunnel through rock under the sea along a Mexican beach. In between, the loss of one of Harrison Shepherd’s notebooks, the journals he kept all his life, creates another missing link in his story. In an interview in the back of the book, the author describes her quest for a suitable title, and how she finally consulted a thesaurus and found “a grotto, a chasm, an orifice, an interval, a missing link, a void, a . . . lacuna, . . . This word whose many intertwined meanings unlocked every room in the [story].”

The characters are fully formed and (mostly) eminently likable: Harrison Shepherd himself, Violet Brown, the lawyer Artie Gold, Lev Trotsky, and more. Of villains there are plenty: Stalin, of course, and Senator McCarthy, as well as numerous unnamed F.B.I. agents and scurrilous reporters who make up “facts” to please their readers without any consideration for the innocent lives they destroy. The description of the unraveling of the protagonist’s quiet life by a movement which was by far more un-American than anything it could have uncovered in its hearings sickened me. This is America? Of course I knew that it had happened, was still happening, in fact, as my life began. But a novel enables the reader to live the terror along with the protagonist, a simple man who favored opportunity and justice for common people but who was apolitical in his actions. This did not save him from the anti-Communist frenzy that was consuming the soul of America in the late forties and early fifties.


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The Golden Gate (A Novel in Verse)

Posted by nliakos on September 20, 2014

by Vikram Seth (Vintage International 1991; copyright 1986)

I’ve never read a novel in verse before. Is there such a thing? Since Homer, has anyone else done this? Even Shakespeare’s sonnets, I believe, consisted of only 14 lines. But Vikram Seth has written an entire novel of 307 pages (13 chapters) in sonnet form: iambic tetrameter, to be exact. It seems to have been a kind of bet he made with himself, which took him over a year to complete. Even the acknowledgement, dedication, and table of contents are sonnets! The rhyme scheme is consistently ABAB, CCDD, EFFE, GG (unlike Shakespeare).

It’s the story of John, Janet, Liz, Phil, and Ed, who live in the San Francisco Bay Area and spend the thirteen chapters mixing and matching themselves into couples. The plot seems predictable enough at first but suddenly launches into surprising twists and turns. The plot includes loneliness, relationships, dying parents, an olive harvest, homosexual attraction, religious fervor, hostile pets, antiwar protests, and more. Seth inserts himself from time to time into the story, addressing the reader, as in the first few stanzas of Chapter Five, which begin with the following:

A week ago, when I had finished

Writing the chapter you’ve just read

And with avidity undiminished

Was charting out the course ahead,

An editor–at a plush party

(Well-wined, -provisioned, speechy, hearty)

Hosted by (long live!) Thomas Cook

Where my Tibetan travel book (N.B. He really did write one, in 1983.)

Was honored–seized my arm” “Dear fellow,

What’s your next work?” “A novel. . .” “Great!

We hope that you, dear Mr. Seth–“

“. . . In verse,” I added. He turned yellow.

“How marvelously quaint,” he said,

And subsequently cut me dead.

A completely unique novel and a very satisfying read.

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Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World

Posted by nliakos on September 9, 2014

by Don Tapscott (McGraw Hill, 2009)

This book follows up on Growing Up Digital, which I never read, and is by the author of Wikinomics, which I did read and found a bit dated (at least, I wanted to know whether all those predictions had come to pass). In Grown Up Digital, Tapscott examines the many ways Net Geners, as he calls the folks who were between 11 and 31 when he was writing the book, are different from the Baby Boomers (his generation, and mine) in particular, and also the Gen Xers and Millennials. He lists eight characteristics common to the Net Generation (devotion to freedom as opposed to chaining oneself to the first job one gets; customization (individualizing everything), scrutiny (of marketing ploys, political promises, etc.), integrity (demanding it of people, corporations, and politicians), collaboration, entertainment (wanting products and jobs to have an element of fun), speed (insistence on efficiency and instant responses), and innovation. Then he proceeds to look at how this super-connected generation has changed/is changing/will change education, the workplace, the marketplace (Net Geners as consumers/prosumers, cf. Wikinomics), the family, and politics (Barack Obama had just beaten Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries leading up to the 2008 election but had not yet been elected President when Tapscott was writing the book).

For me, the most interesting chapter may have been the one on family. Here, the realities of the Baby Boom generation (extreme conflict with their parents over politics, music, fashion, and sex resulting in impatience to break free of family ties and move out of the family home as soon as possible) are contrasted with the friendlier, less hierarchical relationships between Net Geners and their Baby Boom parents, who democratized the family but are now having second thoughts when their kids don’t want to move out–because, as Tapscott points out several times in the book, they don’t need to leave home to find freedom; they have freedom at home. Boomers think there must be something wrong with young adults who are not anxious to move out of their parents’ house; Tapscott finds this reluctance to leave rather charming, and in part a response to the more democratic family structure initiated by the Boomers who did not want to boss their children around the way they had been bossed around. They just assumed their kids would move out on schedule, but in many cases, it isn’t happening. Net Geners are not embarrassed about liking their parents, who in many cases have hovered over them all their lives. It’s a whole different dynamic, but as Tapscott points out, not necessarily a bad one. He made me reconsider my unexamined opinion that living at home after college is bad.

My complaints are (again) poor editing (I sometimes found more than one mistake in the same paragraph!) and unnecessary length due to a lot of repetition. Maybe publishers just want a book to be at least a certain length (I heard this somewhere about TED eBooks, which are not afraid to be short). I could have done without all the repetition, but then again, it probably helps me to remember what I read. The text contains little snippets (like pop-ups on a web page) and longer snippets that relate vaguely to the content on the page, which were distracting to my linear Baby Boomer brain; Tapscott mentions how Net Geners may not read a lot of books but are expert at gleaning what they need by jumping through a book without reading everything, as you often have to do when reading a webpage. I must admit I could not do this with a book! I feel constrained to read the whole thing; otherwise, I wouldn’t feel I had actually read it. But this book made me realize that this might just be silly.

Like Wikinomics, the book (already five years old) probably needs updating, but in this case I felt like it opened my mind to see this cohort (including my students and my daughter’s contemporaries) in a whole new light. Tapscott believes Net Geners really can change the world for the better if we accept them with an open mind and grant them the opportunity to do so. After reading the book, I can see how this may be so.

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