Review: Landline by Rainbow Rowell

18081809Blurb:

Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble. That it’s been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always beside the point.

Two days before they’re supposed to visit Neal’s family in Omaha for Christmas, Georgie tells Neal that she can’t go. She’s a TV writer, and something’s come up on her show; she has to stay in Los Angeles. She knows that Neal will be upset with her — Neal is always a little upset with Georgie — but she doesn’t expect to him to pack up the kids and go home without her.

When her husband and the kids leave for the airport, Georgie wonders if she’s finally done it. If she’s ruined everything.

That night, Georgie discovers a way to communicate with Neal in the past. It’s not time travel, not exactly, but she feels like she’s been given an opportunity to fix her marriage before it starts . . .

Is that what she’s supposed to do?

Or would Georgie and Neal be better off if their marriage never happened?

Review:

Rainbow Rowell, author of my favorite heart-stuttering tales of first love Eleanor & Park and Fangirl, conquers tepid marriage in Landline. Well not so much “conquers” as “casually approaches and throws up her arms in semi-defeat.” Because while a love story comes with a prepackaged resolution—a kiss and confession of mutual desire—a story about a couple with two kids, married for 15 years, not necessarily in love, more so in shambles doesn’t really have a resolution. Sure, the embittered husband and wife can close the book with a kiss and a re-confession of mutual desire, but that’s no promise that the conflict of the 300 previous pages has been definitively surpassed. It’s probably just lying in wait around the next bend.

So what I’m saying is Rainbow Rowell has decided to attack an altogether different subject in Landline. It’s still a talky romance but it’s not romantic. It’s a harsh and measured look into sputtering relationships, into what happens post-happily ever after. I didn’t like it as much as Rowell’s YA novels, and superficially, I must admit that it’s partially due to the lack of will-they-or-won’t-they-please-please-will-they?? flirtation that accompanies two young people falling in love. But although I may appreciate it less, Rowell is no less wise when it comes to describing two older people falling in and out of love on a day-to-day basis. She has some truly fantastic musings on love and marriage, ideas that young’uns like me, people nowhere near slipping a ring on their left hand finger, might be reluctant to accept. She suggests that love is sometimes not enough, that two people can adore each other to the end of time but they will never be happy if they try to stay together. Rowell says things that her teenage characters Eleanor and Park and Cath and Levi might scoff at upon hearing but then anxiously turn over again and again in their heads at night before falling asleep. These are truths feared by the young and gained only by maturity.

What I liked less is the gimmick that moves the plot forward. After skipping Christmas with her husband’s family in Nebraska to work, Georgie feels like her marriage might be over until she finds a magic phone that calls her husband Neal in the past. This unrealistic device is incongruous next to the realistic portrait of marriage. It’s also unnecessary. If Rowell wanted Georgie to compare her present relationship to her past relationship, she could have accomplished this merely by making Georgie reflect and remember. In general, the novel feels somewhat rushed, like it could have been constructed with more care and an eye on deleting superfluous scenes.

Selfishly, I want Rainbow Rowell to return to the realm of YA so I can watch two young kids kiss and confess mutual desire, i.e., fall in love. But she definitely has the skill to write about broken relationships and the (im)possibility of their repair—next time, however, she’ll hopefully do this with one less magic phone.

2.5 stars out of 5

Review: The Hot Zone by Richard Preston

337074Blurb:

As the tropical wildernesses of the world are destroyed, previously unknown viruses that have lived for eons are entering human populations. The Hot Zone is the hair-raising story of how a strain of one such virus (even more infectious and horrible than HIV) showed up in 1989 in a Virginia laboratory–and of the efforts of a military bio-hazard SWAT team to identify the virus and prevent it from spreading.

Review:

Since March 2014 an epidemic of Ebola virus—specifically the Ebola Zaire strain—has been ravaging West Africa. More than 800 people in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have died so far. Here’s what Richard Preston has to say about Ebola Zaire in The Hot Zone:

It attacks connective tissue with particular ferocity; it multiples in collagen, the chief constituent protein of the tissue that holds the organs together. In this way, collagen in the body turns to mush, and the underlayers of the skin die and liquefy. The skin bubbles up into a sea of tiny white blisters mixed with red spots known as a maculopapular rash. Spontaneous rips appear in the skin, and hemorrhagic blood pours from the rips. The red spots on the skin grow and spread and merge to become huge, spontaneous bruises, and the skin goes soft and pulpy, and can tear off if it is touched with any kind of pressure. Your mouth bleeds, and you bleed around your teeth, and you may have hemorrhages from the salivary glands—literally every opening in the body bleeds, no matter how small. The surface of the tongue turns brilliant red and then sloughs off, and is swallowed or spat out. It is said to be extraordinarily painful to lose the surface of one’s tongue. The tongue’s skin may be torn off during rushes of the black vomit. The back of the throat and the lining of the windpipe may also slough off, and the dead tissue slides down the windpipe into the lungs or is coughed up with sputum. Your heart bleeds into itself; the heart muscle softens and has hemorrhages into its chambers, and blood squeezes out of the heart muscle as the heart beats, and it floods the chest cavity. The brain becomes clogged with dead blood cells, a condition known as sludging of the brain. Ebola attacks the lining of the eyeball, and the eyeballs may fill up with blood: you may go blind. Droplets of blood stand out on the eyelids: you may weep blood. The blood runs from your eyes down your cheeks and refuses to coagulate…

Preston continues in this manner for two more pages, describing clinically and carefully the devastation of a body wracked with Ebola. I will spare you most of the gory details but in The Hot Zone Preston doesn’t, so now I know this: Ebola Zaire ends with complete body liquefaction. I also know this: in one hospital room where a patient died from the virus, every surface in the room—walls, bed, floor—was covered with blood, which, of course, was covered in hundreds of millions of festering Ebola virus, waiting to hop to the next living host.

This detailed look into Ebola inspires extreme reactions. I was awed. Terrified, undoubtedly. And, strangely, impressed, intoxicated by the beauty of such a deadly thing. Preston and some of the medical researchers he profiles are entranced by Ebola, obsessed by the “gorgeous” threadlike structure of the virus, its incredible simplicity and single-minded destruction. Can something that rips the skin, sludges the brain, sloughs off the intestines and tongues, hardens the spleen, mashes the liver, and stops the heart truly be beautiful? I guess it depends on whether you’re reading about it or whether you’re suffering from it.

Preston loses his way at the midpoint of the book when he leaves Africa for Washington D.C., where a facility of lab monkeys start dying from another strain of the Ebola virus. The second half of the book is devoted to the military mission to contain this virus. It’s not terribly exciting. The strain found near D.C. is the Ebola Reston virus, which is a boring or “ugly” strain, being non-pathological in humans. Preventing an outbreak of Ebola Reston involves a lot of businesslike meetings discussing mission protocol and a lot of Hazmat suits. Preston also breaks the rules of nonfiction writing in this section, opting to write it like a piece of horror fiction instead of reporting the facts. Several times he includes pages of exposition where a scientist accidentally exposes himself to the virus, only to…not contract the virus. Here, it’s almost as if he realizes the staunched possibility of an American Ebola outbreak is rather dull, so he must create storylines even where there are none.

Regardless, The Hot Zone is impressive mostly because Ebola itself is so impressive. Beautiful or not, it is a single strand of RNA that codes for a mere seven proteins that can, in the worst ever outbreak, kill 90% of those infected. We are fairly powerless against it. There is no vaccine. We’re not even sure where it comes from, though fruit bats are suspected to be the natural host. I think that in a cruel, sadomasochistic way, we humans—only those safely away from the African rainforest, curled up reading on their couches—like to be reminded that for all our complexity, for all our medicines and computers and precautions, there are still things that we cannot control, things that, rather, can possess our cells to control and destroy us.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

30933Blurb:

The most nostalgic and reflective of Evelyn Waugh’s novels, Brideshead Revisited looks back to the golden age before the Second World War. It tells the story of Charles Ryder’s infatuation with the Marchmains and the rapidly-disappearing world of privilege they inhabit. Enchanted first by Sebastian at Oxford, then by his doomed Catholic family, in particular his remote sister, Julia, Charles comes finally to recognize only his spiritual and social distance from them.

Review:

I never quite understood what people meant when they mentioned “Catholic Guilt,” but by God, post-Brideshead Revisited, now I know!

Waugh’s novel records the dissolution of a prominent English Catholic family in the period between the world wars. In some ways, it’s just another entry in the long list of English novels about noble families failing to adjust to a new, more egalitarian era. But the Flyte family is Catholic, that atavistic, traditional Christianity that outdates even the oldest and purest English family, and it is not the new ways of the 20th century but this ancient faith that destroys them. It is especially, and almost certainly unintentionally, ironic that religion ruins the Flytes, seeing as the text seems to encourage Catholicism. The best way to make converts out of readers is probably not to show four Catholic offspring descend to depression, alcoholism, and loneliness… but okay.

I don’t confess to knowing much about religion—the only time I entered a church was to be baptized—so perhaps much of Brideshead Revisited was lost on me. In that way, the mostly secular reader will empathize with the protagonist. Charles is an outsider to the Flyte’s way of life and cannot understand how every family conversation returns to religion. Nor could I. But that’s just it—to a non-believer, faith is absolute crock; to a believer, faith is the end and beginning. Non-believers can see how Catholicism brings the Flytes to ruin; the Flytes, however, either cannot see it or see it and decide not to care.

The story takes several abrupt turns. Told in three parts, it is comical, quiet and hopeful, and then, quite suddenly, eager to proselytize. The writing is soft and beautiful, very nostalgic, since Charles recounts the demise of the Flytes from a removed future where he is no longer a part of them. Again, the singular focus on religion distanced me from the story, but its principal ideas ring true regardless: we like things that connect us to something even if they hurt us.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

12712435Blurb:

Winn Van Meter is heading for his family’s retreat on the pristine New England island of Waskeke. Normally a haven of calm, for the next three days this sanctuary will be overrun by tipsy revelers as Winn prepares for the marriage of his daughter Daphne to the affable young scion Greyson Duff.  Winn’s wife, Biddy, has planned the wedding with military precision, but arrangements are sideswept by a storm of salacious misbehavior and intractable lust: Daphne’s sister, Livia, who has recently had her heart broken by Teddy Fenn, the son of her father’s oldest rival, is an eager target for the seductive wiles of Greyson’s best man; Winn, instead of reveling in his patriarchal duties, is tormented by his long-standing crush on Daphne’s beguiling bridesmaid Agatha; and the bride and groom find themselves presiding over a spectacle of misplaced desire, marital infidelity, and monumental loss of faith in the rituals of American life.

Review:

If you dissected the pages of Seating Arrangements trying to locate its literary heart, you’d find nothing bloody or moving or living but instead a cold, hard machine that transmits keen social analysis and psychological insight but nothing emotional or affective. Which is, perhaps, the point. Just look at the title—Seating Arrangements—it’s about a marriage, a celebration of love uniting of two people, but the title has reduced it to the behind-the-scenes mechanics required to organize such an event.

This novel follows several empty-chested blue blood WASPs preparing for the wedding, but at its core it’s about Winn, the patriarch of the Van Meter family, a man who values sons more than daughters yet only has daughters, who values various country club memberships more than the kind devotion of his wife, and who decides to have an existential crisis the weekend of his daughter’s nuptials. Winn is a stiff character for whom I could not summon one iota of empathy, therefore I was never quite invested here. There were big moments, like an exploding whale, that kept me reading, but I didn’t care how anything turned out.

VAGUELY SPOILERISH DISCUSSION OF ENDING (BUT NOT REALLY, IN MY OPINION):
Despite my indifference, the story hummed right along and I was particularly enjoying Shipstead’s sharp eye for human behavior until the disappointing ending. Shipstead spends the entire book critiquing the vacuity of American “aristocracy,” mostly by skewering Winn’s desperately devolving attempts to recapture youth and meaning. She lowers his character more and more but at the end, Shipstead grants him the opportunity to redeem himself by escaping his soulless family life and depraved WASPy social set. It felt disingenuous and inauthentic. I’m not against redemption narratives; in fact I kind of love them. But Winn is characterized throughout as unredeemable, a man who has made all the wrong choices without knowing it and is just beginning to feel something—guilt, regret, anger?—about his unbalanced life ledger. I wanted him to suffer for it! The way Shipstead writes him, he deserves to suffer for being a simple and simpering man, a man who wants to have an affair with a hot young blonde but cannot even rally himself to consummate this desire.

The ending, therefore, feels a bit neat. I would have preferred a more ambiguous or even blatantly dark ending for these characters. But oh well, I’ll forgive Shipstead this and give her second novel, Astonish Me, the old college try.

3 out of 5 stars

Review: The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman

16045140Blurb:

Writer Nate Piven’s star is rising. After several lean and striving years, he has his pick of both magazine assignments and women: Juliet, the hotshot business reporter; Elisa, his gorgeous ex-girlfriend, now friend; and Hannah, “almost universally regarded as nice and smart, or smart and nice,” who holds her own in conversation with his friends. When one relationship grows more serious, Nate is forced to consider what it is he really wants.

In Nate’s 21st-century literary world, wit and conversation are not at all dead. Is romance? Novelist Adelle Waldman plunges into the psyche of a flawed, sometimes infuriating modern man—one who thinks of himself as beyond superficial judgment, yet constantly struggles with his own status anxiety, who is drawn to women, yet has a habit of letting them down in ways that may just make him an emblem of our times. With tough-minded intelligence and wry good humor The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. is an absorbing tale of one young man’s search for happiness—and an inside look at how he really thinks about women, sex and love.

Review:

Although our brains are identical at birth, by our 20s boy brains have been masculinized and girl brains feminized, even if we grew up in the most liberal of households, and inquiring minds, like mine and Adelle Waldman’s, want to understand these differences. Boys and girls are taught to approach the world in fantastically different ways, so dating, that ritual where we, along with our socially acquired differences, interact most intimately, can become a disaster real fast.

For example, a quick google search for what men are looking for in a girlfriend brings you to this top 10 list which includes “She lets you be a man” and “She respects you.” A lengthier female equivalent, 21 Things To Look For In A Boyfriend, includes “He loves your laugh, even your ugly laugh” and “He knows your favorite dish at the Thai place is. He knows what movie you two watched on your first date. He knows the blanket you love to curl up with when reading.” If we take these articles to represent societal standards, it is abundantly obvious how incompatible the “average” man and woman’s dating goals are. And so dating is this fraught, often bloody battlefield simply because boys and girls taught to approach sex and relationships differently.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. depicts the inevitable dating explosion that arises when two people cannot overcome this cultural indoctrination. It’s especially interesting because the protagonist, Nathaniel P, a budding Brooklynite writer with a book deal (did I mention he has a book deal? Because Nathaniel P. wants everyone to know he has a book deal), is aware that social forces have influenced his utter romantic failures, but he’s so weak that he cannot rid himself of these nefarious influences to find Truth and Happiness in a relationship.

Nate is one of the most frustrating and brilliant characters I’ve encountered in a while. He’s the prototype of a white, urban, intellectual male with heaps of liberal guilt. He has this guilt, yet he lacks the guts to surmount it. He knows, for instance, that men and women are equal intellectually, and regrets that a misogynistic culture refuses to acknowledge that, but then he wonders which male academic his girlfriend is quoting when she makes a particularly salient argument. And thus Nate wallows. He thwarts himself, searching for ways to be unhappy because he doesn’t believe he has a right to be happy nor does he even know what would make him properly happy.

The closest he comes to discovering happiness is his relationship with Hannah, also a brilliant young writer, though without a book deal (Nate would like you to know that Hannah does not have a book deal, though he, Nathaniel P, does have a book deal). Unlike his previous girlfriends, Hannah actually challenges Nate. Their relationship is intellectually demanding, and Nate, misogynized subconsciously since birth, fears this. He fears the equal he recognizes in Hannah. Therefore he sabotages their relationship, even though it’s the only thing that brings him real, unfiltered, incandescent joy instead of mere contentment.

Read this book to observe a promising relationship fall apart because a boy has been taught, blindly and unwillfully, to always prelude every date with “I’m just not looking for a relationship right now.” Read this book if you’re the type of person who hears that line and then asks, “Okay, sure…but why exactly?”

Waldman, in precise, piercing prose, dissects the anatomy of a “modern man” to expose what she calls “a certain type of male thinking.” When she cuts Nate up, what you see is terrifying, and the best evidence that socialized gender norms not only hurt women but men too.

4 out of 5 stars

Review: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand

8664353Blurb:

On a May afternoon in 1943, an Army Air Forces bomber crashed into the Pacific Ocean and disappeared, leaving only a spray of debris and a slick of oil, gasoline, and blood. Then, on the ocean surface, a face appeared. It was that of a young lieutenant, the plane’s bombardier, who was struggling to a life raft and pulling himself aboard. So began one of the most extraordinary odysseys of the Second World War.

The lieutenant’s name was Louis Zamperini. In boyhood, he’d been a cunning and incorrigible delinquent, breaking into houses, brawling, and fleeing his home to ride the rails. As a teenager, he had channeled his defiance into running, discovering a prodigious talent that had carried him to the Berlin Olympics and within sight of the four-minute mile. But when war had come, the athlete had become an airman, embarking on a journey that led to his doomed flight, a tiny raft, and a drift into the unknown.

Ahead of Zamperini lay thousands of miles of open ocean, leaping sharks, a foundering raft, thirst and starvation, enemy aircraft, and, beyond, a trial even greater. Driven to the limits of endurance, Zamperini would answer desperation with ingenuity; suffering with hope, resolve, and humor; brutality with rebellion. His fate, whether triumph or tragedy, would be suspended on the fraying wire of his will.

In her long-awaited new book, Laura Hillenbrand writes with the same rich and vivid narrative voice she displayed in Seabiscuit. Telling an unforgettable story of a man’s journey into extremity, Unbroken is a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit.

Review:

The best way to get you to read this story is to tell you the story. Louie Zamperini is a carefree Californian on the brink of running a mile in less than four minutes and training for the 1940 Olympics. Bombs fall on Pearl Harbor and Louie abandons his dreams to join the military. He becomes a bombardier and completes a few thrillingly dangerous missions in the Pacific Theatre. If the story ends there, it’s already remarkable; it doesn’t. Louie’s plane crashes into the Pacific, and only he and two other men survive. They float on a raft for weeks, avoiding sharks and overhead Japanese fire, only nourished and hydrated by what they can procure with their own hands. Again: if the story ends here, it’s amazing; again: it doesn’t. Eventually Louie finds his way back to land but faces immediate capture by the Japanese. From there he endures years of forced labor, starvation, physical beatings, and mental degradation in various POW camps. And in August 1945 finally: The End.

Amazing, right? And I’ve technically spoiled nothing—that entire story is recounted in the Unbroken’s blurb—yet all you want to do after having this story spoiled is to read the actual story, because sometimes real-life is more incredible than any fiction can ever be. Louie’s story is literally unbelievable, and I don’t use “literally” lightly; it frequently defies the limits of believability but author Laura Hillenbrand, who recounts Louie’s tale with passion and empathy, cites hundreds of interviews, military documents, and newspaper clippings in Unbroken’s bibliography. And you realize, as you turn each page growing more and more horrified: holy crap, this all really happened!

Reading Unbroken I discovered two things about myself: 1. I will read any book featuring shark attacks and life rafts in the Pacific 2. I would die—quickly, painfully, wimpily—in any real-life situation featuring shark attacks and life rafts in the Pacific.

Fortunately I am not the protagonist of Unbroken. All the people who actually lived this experience dealt much better with the situation than I ever could, and their demonstration of human dignity and fortitude inspired my normally withered heart. What I especially appreciated was how Hillenbrand gave voices to individuals other than Louie. His pilot friend Phil, who shares the raft and POW captivity with him, was my particular favorite, mostly for his stoic devotion to his sweetheart back home. Even the “villains” of this story, though Hillenbrand would never be so crass as to classify a real person as a villain considering how grey wartime situations can be, are complexly rendered. Louie’s greatest antagonist, a Japanese prison guard nicknamed “The Bird,” is a towering, terrifying figure, but he still manages to seem human, instead of a simplistic and prototypic symbol for Evil and Other and Enemy.

One word that continually occurred to me while reading Unbroken was miracle. There are so many miracles here, bizarre coincidences that accumulate until you’re a little bit speechless. I was prepared to dislike Unbroken: normally I loathe war books and the only reason I was giving it a go was because my mom and dad repeatedly urged me to “just read it.” If a brief summary of Louie’s story hasn’t already convinced you to read it, I’m going to quote my mom and dad: “Just read it.”

(And if that didn’t convince you, there’s also an upcoming film adaptation slated for Christmas 2014 directed by none other than Angelina Jolie!)

4 out of 5 stars