Monday, September 26, 2011

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Set in a post-9/11, pre-Iraq war world, Saturday portrays with startling clarity a day in the life of an ordinary man and the wider world he represents. Using a partly stream-of-consciousness narration, Ian McEwan captures with a keen eye the bittersweet qualities of human relationships and the universal fear of the unknown, thereby crafting a naturalistic depiction of an Everyman—and by extension, a nation—on the cusp of a new era.

The story opens within the bedroom of Henry Perowne, a British neurosurgeon, who, while he wife lays sleeping, witnesses a plane catch fire in the air while he gazes out the window one Saturday morning. This sighting provokes him to contemplate his relatively privileged life and the fragility of it; and so begins an eventful day, which involves, among other things, driving through blocked roads amid a mass anti-war demonstration, playing a game of squash with a colleague, visiting his mother in a nursing home and welcoming his grown daughter back from Paris. Throughout a series of events—some mundane, some out of the ordinary—we get to know Henry Perowne, both through his present actions and a series of flashbacks, and by the novel’s end he becomes as familiar to us as a friend or an acquaintance. At some point he ceases to be words on the page and emerges as a fully-formed human being; a character that readers would easily come to care about.

The familial relationships between members of the Perowne family are portrayed with brutal honesty, which lends a painfully familiar quality to the dialogue among them. There’s the divergence between Henry’s pragmatism and those of his romantic, artistically gifted children (his son Theo is a musician, his daughter Daisy a poet); the clashing of Henry and Daisy’s political views; and the compulsive drinking of Henry’s father-in-law. Yet there exists an undeniably resilient bond between them all, as they are brought together both by causes for celebration and instances of calamity. What I found most moving was the love between Henry and his wife, Rosalind, who remain bonded by their passion for each other after decades of marriage. The glue that holds the family together is indeed the love they share, and their differences as well as their similarities.

Given that Saturday is intended to capture the existential musings of the average man, rather than to tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, at times it seems to lack direction; the narrative may meander, leaving readers wishing for something to pin down to make it easier to follow. Ultimately the well-rounded storytelling and vivid characterizations give the impression that the story continues after the last page has been turned. Despite the frustrations they may have with the narrative, readers will most likely be left wondering what the future holds for the Perowne family, and wishing them well in their years to come.

Honest, intimate and familiar, Saturday satisfies on many different levels, capturing the bigger picture of life as well as the commonplace worries of the working-class family. For an in-depth, nuanced portrayal of the human condition, complete with existentialism, pick this one up and savor the prose while some classical music, preferably piano, plays in the background. This may put a reader in the right mood for McEwan’s narration style.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

As an avid follower of the Jaycee Dugard abduction case, I was eager to pick up her personal account of her 18-year ordeal in the hands of demented kidnapper Phillip Garrido and his wife, Nancy. Unlike the countless news reports and documentaries on the case, A Stolen Life is told in her own words, in her own voice, with a compelling narrative that will leave you breathless.

Jaycee lets readers know right off the bat that this memoir tends to be scattered in thought and disjointed at times, for her memories of the ordeal remain fragmented, and she’s still sorting it out in her mind. Indeed it does jump back and forth in time, and takes readers on an emotional roller coaster from Jaycee’s vivid recollections of the abduction and sexual abuse to the birth of her two daughters to her eventual rescue. Part of the story is told through a series of journal entries, which express a range of mixed emotion from fear to anger to confusion to a longing to return home. Yet no matter where the narration takes us, always consistent is an ebbing and flowing sense of hope to be rescued, as well as an indomitable will to survive.

In addition to details of the trauma she sustained, Jaycee incorporates some pleasant childhood memories into her book, which serve to portray the innocence of her 11-year-old self before her abduction. Her transition from a carefree girl playing with Barbie dolls to a captive sex slave is truly chilling, and her mental and emotional recovery provokes admiration for her resilience and strength.

Jaycee also comments on the failure of Garrido’s parole officers and his psychiatrist to take action when needed; for not monitoring him close enough or getting him proper medical attention, thereby enabling his behavior and allowing Jaycee to suffer. For example, during the many times parole officers did rounds at Garrido’s house, they failed to search the home thoroughly and didn’t bother with the backyard, where Jaycee and her daughters were being kept. The major question underlying all this is why Garrido, a convicted rapist, was let out of prison after already proving himself to be a repeat offender. There’s no doubt that Jaycee’s story has raised some important questions about these systems and will likely inspire activists to push for stricter laws when it comes to providing parole and monitoring former convicts.

Simultaneously hard to read and hard to put down, A Stolen Life resonates with a sense of triumph over unimaginable hardships. There are few more satisfying memoirs out there today, so I advise you to pass on Bristol Palin’s and pick this one up instead. Her story is one that needs to be told.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I am not typically a reader of young adult fiction. It takes an exceptional series—bestsellers such as JK Rowling’s Harry Potter or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials—to catch my attention, and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is certainly one of them. A skillful blend of action, drama, sci-fi and a bit of comedy thrown in, this first book of the trilogy is an auspicious beginning to a well-told and absorbing story.

The book takes place in a dystopian society that was once America, now called Panem, divided into twelve districts of varying social class. Living in the impoverished District 12 is Katniss Everdeen, a bold teenage girl who hunts illegally in a nearby forest to provide for her mother and beloved younger sister, Prim. Once a year, the Capitol chooses two children from each district to participate in the Hunger Games, a tournament broadcasted over the nation in which the children are placed in an arena and made to fight to the death. This year, twelve-year-old Prim is chosen, and Katniss willingly steps in to take her sister’s place.

Part of Collins’ inspiration for The Hunger Games was the Iraq war, and she sought to portray the suffering of children in war zones, as well as corrupt governments who murder civilians as though it were a game. Not only did she succeed at this, but she managed to portray it in a way that’s accessible to children as well as adults. A blend of comedy and sci-fi elements keeps readers entertained despite the violent and tragic outcomes of the Games; therefore the book would appeal to those seeking an action-packed read as well as those who wish to be emotionally absorbed.

What carries the plot forward is Katniss’s character: an engaging blend of compassion and loyalty with audacity and ruthlessness. Due to her instinct for survival, with much of her energies focused towards hunting and gathering, she is inept at social situations and unaware of the emotions of others, as well as her own. Her strengths lie in combat and archery rather than people skills, though she is devoted to those she cares for and makes great sacrifices for them. Indeed, what makes her compelling is that she is flawed, and her stubborn and unforgiving nature makes her all the more human, therefore a more appealing heroine.

As in the traditional fashion of young adult fiction, few characters besides Katniss are given depth of character. The rest are simply meant to serve their purpose in the story, whether it’s to be friend or foe to Katniss, and rarely develop beyond that. Nonetheless, each character fulfills their role to a satisfying degree and contributes to the plot and subplots that make up the gritty portrayal of this unsettling dystopia.

The Hunger Games is one I would highly recommend that parents and children read together, as it provides education by raising the issues of war and poverty, as well as entertainment for people of all ages. Despite being geared towards a young adult audience, it succeeds on many different levels and is ultimately a rewarding read.