Storytellers always have a reason for telling a particular story. That reason may be simple entertainment (ala the pop lit thriller du jour) or it canStorytellers always have a reason for telling a particular story. That reason may be simple entertainment (ala the pop lit thriller du jour) or it can be more English major-y (e.g. wanting to articulate man's inhumanity to man).
Jodi Picoult's reason for telling this story seems to be because it is on the bleeding edge of law, medical science, and ethics. That makes for an interesting law school case study or a great episode of Law & Order. But it does not necessarily make for a great novel.
Case studies and episodes of Law & Order are not about people; they're about precedents, conflicts, loopholes, and intriguing logical or ethical dilemmas. Yes, there can be intense pain and sadness, but ultimately the "story" being told is one of decision making, adjudicating. Truths about the human condition are not being plumbed.
My Sister's Keeper thinks it's about people and the human condition, but really it's just a glorified episode of Law & Order.
The novel's setup is intriguing because it's clearly a difficult lose-lose situation. Here Picoult excels at presenting the situation and all of its associated pain. But our expectation of storytellers--at least my expectation of them--is that they must do more than just present the situation; they must help us make sense of the situation, extract meaning from it. But Picoult cannot and does attempt anything beyond presentation.
Now of course not every storyteller provides answers. It could be argued that the greatest works are those that are open-ended. Can any sane person ever truly understand Col. Kurtz? Is Iago's motivation ever made perfectly clear? Exploring the depths of madness and darkness is fascinating and terrifying--as much as we want to look away, we can't.
But exploring a lose-lose situation in which the people you love most will be devastated no matter the outcome is just pure pain. Cheap slasher flicks force characters to agonizingly choose which of two loved ones will be sacrificed. It's cheap because there is no solution and there never will be one--and everyone knows it. In other words: it's a storytelling dead end, unless you concoct some way out of the impossible choice.
In a sense, that's all Jodi Picoult has done here with her story, but she's intentionally painted herself into a corner from which there's no escape. Pure pain on one side, pure pain on the other. There's no greater meaning or lesson to be had from the novel, other than the decision that is rendered by the judge on the story's legal/ethical challenge.
That's why it's nothing more than a glorified episode of Law & Order.
So if you like Law & Order and you like banging your head against the wall just to experience the pain of it, by all means, go ahead and read this novel.
Pain and misery is part of the human condition, but the best storytellers give us a deeper insight into that pain and misery or--even better--how to live with that pain and misery.
Jodi Picoult has crafted a clever and topical situation that our families and courts will have to deal with sooner rather than later, but that alone doesn't make for notable storytelling. She isn't interpreting the world for us; she's merely presenting us with a sticky problem that most of us have been lucky enough to not have had to have thought about yet.
Also, I think she's a bit of a hack. Her reliance on metaphor in EVERY chapter becomes so obvious, repetitive, and annoying that I began picturing her at a "How to write a novel" community college class that suggested "insert a metaphor!" as an assignment. Having learned that one tip, she then dropped out of the class and it is now the one and only trick in her writer's bag.
Her characters are just real enough to be believable, but burdened with hack writer-esque "character" forced upon them to give them something to do. There's nothing wrong with a firefighter dad who's also an avid astronomer, but that's really all he has as a character. You can hear hack writers thinking, "hmm, he's a dad and he's a firefighter, but I need something else to make him more interesting... hmm... ooh! Astronomer! Yeah, that's all poetic and stuff!"
I know how this works because I've been guilty of the same thing when I've created characters. Characters created by hack writers have features grafted onto them (the crass lawyer who has a service dog even though he's not blind!) that are supposed to "make" them interesting. But all this does is reveal that the writer doesn't understand that it's WHO the person is that makes her interesting--not what she does, what she has, or what her hobbies are.
The firefighter dad waxes philosophic about the stars because Picoult has grafted that onto his character--but NOT because such philosophizing is a natural outgrowth of who he is. The attempt to make him interesting, to make him multi-dimensional, only exposes how one-dimensional his character really is.
I definitely won't be reading another Jodi Picoult novel, nor will I see the movie adaptation of this novel that's about to come out.
And I definitely do not recommend it to anyone else.
Pure pain. No answers. No greater understanding of the human condition. No reason to read it or see it....more
But I stand by my summer of physics reading order:
1. The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Gary Zukav 2. A Brief History of Time,Definitely lives up to the hype.
But I stand by my summer of physics reading order:
1. The Dancing Wu Li Masters, Gary Zukav 2. A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking 3. The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene
--with an optional step 0 that should precede Zukav:
0. Zen and the Art of the Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig (but only read the first 2/3 or so)
The reason for this order is that Zukav does the best job of explaining the major revelations in physics from Copernicus to Einstein on through to quantum mechanics. Pirsig's Zen is highly recommended before reading Zukav because Zukav takes a more philosophical view of physics; many of Zukav's abstract concepts come across much more clearly in Zen.
Hawking is the least satisfying of the three, but goes the deepest into Einsteinian general relativity and the cosmic significance of gravity.
With Zukav covering quantum mechanics and Hawking covering gravity, we are now ready for Greene whose superstring theory unites quantum mechanics with gravity.
It's not an easy read, but it's not extraordinarily difficult either. I found it very enjoyable to read half a chapter or so in each sitting. He breaks up his discussion into easily digestable chunks, with multiple section headers further subdividing his chapters.
He tells a compelling and exciting story, though the latter third of the book gets increasingly difficult. The problem is twofold. First, the physics moves further and further from our ability to visualize and innately understand--we can intuitively "get" a black hole, but we cannot intuitively understand a multidimensional cavity within a 6-dimensional clump of space-time.
The second problem is that even if we could visualize a 6-D space, we can't see the relevance of it. Most of the core findings of superstring theory come out of these 6-D spaces. His discussion necessarily becomes one of mathematical proofs (though he does it without the math--he expertly talks us through the basic concepts with very little math lingo). The proofs in and of themselves are interesting, but can hardly compete with the cosmic significance of Hawking's black holes and wormholes.
Greene puts in a heroic effort to convey the significance of each proof and does keep things interesting. But ultimately a big part of the book reads something like the following (with artistic liberties):
"We know that there are 7 flimflams in the universe. This proof shows that the oogy-boogy inside the foobar has three whatsits. The math is extremely complex, but what we've been able to determine is that the three whatsits cause the foobar to generate 7 flimflams--exactly what experimental data confirms!"
You get a little caught up in the excitement, but then immediately say, "uh, sounds cool, but so what?" The "So what?" does eventually come at the end and is worth arriving at, but you'll have to be patient and ride through all the revelations of whatsits and foobars and oogy-boogies that seem almost meaningless until you finally arrive at your destination.
This is not a weakness of Brian Greene's writing. This is the inherent challenge of discussing superstring theory.
In Wu Li, Zukav gave us a taste of quantum mechanics and its many, many mind-blowing oddities, but the realm of quantum mechanics is still just barely accessible to our minds and our imagination. No, we'll never see a quark with the naked eye, but we kind of get what it's all about. We can invoke a naive view of it as a building block for protons and neutrons, which, in turn, are the building blocks of atoms that we're all familiar with from high school chemistry.
Quantum mechanics is the weird reality that underlies the world as we know it. But superstring theory is the even weirder reality that underlies quantum mechanics. It's just so far removed from our experience of reality.
But weird as it is, it does seem to be getting us closer to understanding the fundamental nature of our universe--and perhaps even universes--and, more abstractly, it's just cool to marvel at how intelligent and clever human beings can be.
It's worth reading, but if you're going to read it, do it right; follow the sequence outlined above....more
After reading Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters (a '70s-era hippie take on the "new" physics), I must say that re-reading Hawking was a bit of aAfter reading Gary Zukav's The Dancing Wu Li Masters (a '70s-era hippie take on the "new" physics), I must say that re-reading Hawking was a bit of a disappointment.
Despite Zukav's annoying hippie tendencies, he does a really good job explaining the breakthroughs in physics since Copernicus all the way up to quantum mechanics. Hawking, on the other hand, is much less thorough and as the material gets more complex, he opts to not explain things at all. For example, he discusses his work on a mathematical model of the universe that avoids singularities, but his explanations don't help the reader to understand anything deeper about the universe. One suspects that his work is only interesting because it makes the math easier. Good for him and good for science, but as a lay reader, I couldn't care less.
Hawking is still worth reading though. He covers massive gravitation and its effects (i.e. black holes) in much more depth than Zukav and that stuff is just freakin' cool.
It's a shame that A Brief History of Time is so brief. I read it in about two days and I'm no speed reader. It definitely helped that I'd already read Zukav so I could breeze through a lot of the earlier concepts.
I'm continuing my summer of physics with Brian Greene's The Elegant Universe now. It's looking very promising....more
This is probably as good as a physics-for-the-layman book can get. But that doesn't mean it's perfect. Far from it, in fact.
The strength of the book iThis is probably as good as a physics-for-the-layman book can get. But that doesn't mean it's perfect. Far from it, in fact.
The strength of the book is Zukav's review of the history of physics. He does a good job setting up and explaining the major breakthroughs so that you, the reader, can appreciate their significance in pretty substantial ways. That's quite a feat. His clarity gets weaker as he starts to go into the weirder aspects of quantum mechanics though. At times he's so eager to jump to the scientific and philosophical ramifications of quantum mechanics that he sprints past the reader's understanding. I re-read and re-read and re-read passages until I finally saw that he had left out certain points that would have made things much more comprehensible, had he been more careful.
The biggest flaw in the book is his hippie obsession with his Wu-Li metaphor. At times it's elegant and beautiful, but more often than not it's annoying and overblown. He's too eager to yammer on about particles acting as if they were conscious, ties between quantum mechanics and telepathy, and on and on. He's not a scientist so he's free to make these leaps of imaginative fancy, but I was constantly rolling my eyes whenever he started to wax philosophic about some new wrinkle in quantum mechanics.
The other thing that grates is that he thinks the book is very funny. He even writes in the introduction that he's amazed and so pleased with how funny the book is, that it is, in fact, funnier than he is in real life. Mr. Zukav? It's not funny. His humor is cloying and totally unnecessary.
Still, if you're interested in the history of physics--from Newton to Einstein to the birth of quantum mechanics--this is the book to read. But oddly enough, I'd recommend that you read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as a primer to this book. Zen covers a lot of the difficult philosophical underpinnings that Zukav has integrated into his book. And Zen is a better introduction to those ideas.
This summer, apparently, will be the summer of physics. I've figured out a logical progression:
0. (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) 1. The Dancing Wu Li Masters (history of physics + good discussion of Einstein + good intro to quantum mechanics) 2. A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking (deeper discussion of Einstein's space-time + intro to quantum gravitation) 3. The Elegant Universe, Brian Greene (superstring theory of quantum gravity)
To some degree each of the three physics books cover the same ground, but Zukav excels at surveying the history of physics and at describing Einstein's three important contributions. His intro to quantum mechanics is good enough, but that will be covered in more detail later.
Hawking rushes through the history of physics so you really need Zukav as a primer. But Hawking then goes much deeper into the implications of general relativity's space-time. I'm halfway through it now and it's pointing towards a unification of general relativity with quantum mechanics (aka quantum gravitation).
I began reading Brian Greene's book but realized that Zukav and Hawking really must come first. Greene also surveys the history of physics but does so briefly. His discussions of general relativity also aren't as robust as Zukav or Hawking's. And since string theory is the "final" theory, it really should come last anyway....more
This is straight-up mystery writing that is reasonably intelligent and efficient, but accessible to younger readers. It's more Law & Order (i.e. pThis is straight-up mystery writing that is reasonably intelligent and efficient, but accessible to younger readers. It's more Law & Order (i.e. plot-driven) than it is character-driven. The whole thing reads like a drawn-out logic puzzle and isn't too concerned with storytelling or character.
I enjoyed the mystery, but it was so convoluted and contrived that I couldn't say that I found the novel all that compelling....more
The book is amazing, but in all honesty you really don't have to read all of it. The last 1/4th of the book is much less interesting and intellectuallThe book is amazing, but in all honesty you really don't have to read all of it. The last 1/4th of the book is much less interesting and intellectually stimulating than the first 3/4ths. Read it and think about the ideas and reflections it has to offer, but don't feel compelled to finish it....more
A short, lively read that uses simplicity to lay bare some really poignant and complex realities. The narrative voice is amusing and appealing, and thA short, lively read that uses simplicity to lay bare some really poignant and complex realities. The narrative voice is amusing and appealing, and the story he has to tell flies by (it only takes about 2.5hrs to read).
My only gripe is that a few too many things go Junior's way. He's got a hard life but this reads almost like a fantasy. In fact, I was expecting some big depressing reveal at the end that nothing had improved in Junior's life and that the entire narrative was nothing but his wishful thinking/daydreaming....more
Don't go into this thinking it'll be Harry Potter and will be thrilling and compelling to kids and adults alikLook, it is what it is: Young Adult lit.
Don't go into this thinking it'll be Harry Potter and will be thrilling and compelling to kids and adults alike. It won't be.
It's an enjoyable read that could be well-suited to advanced junior high readers up to average sophomores and juniors in high school.
Why do people love to hate this book?
Well for starters the protagonist and narrator, Bella, is kind of an insult to our post-feminist sensibilities. Yeah she has the occasional strong, intelligent moment but for the whole book she's basically just staring into Edward's eyes and feeling her heart flutter. Over and over and over again. She's so weak-kneed she may as well be wheelchair bound.
And I suspect that some readers--women in particular--will be reminded of some awful young romance (junior high?) in their own past that was embarrassing and silly and had them acting like Bella. So while you're scowling at stupidly smitten Bella, you're also reliving sad moments of your own adolescence and working up a bit of self-loathing or even pain.
We want Bella to do better than we did when we were young and dumb and unable to control our emotions. But she can't--she's just as pathetic as many of us were and we resent her for it.
So then should we praise Stephenie Meyer for writing such a true-to-life pathetic heroine? No. Bella is just too pathetic to carry us through 400+ pages.
The other problem is that Bella makes for a dry narrator. Meyer's "voice" through Bella reads more like a screenplay than a novel--and no one has ever accused a screenplay of being a piece of literature.
Again, Meyer does do a good job of situating us back in high school and capturing the thought processes of a 15-year-old. If I met Bella in real life, I think I'd find her enjoyable enough. But I do not think I could sit and listen to her tell me about her love life for five hours. She's just not interesting enough to merit that kind of attention.
Twilight is being made into a movie and I hope the filmmakers do a reasonably good job. This story is much more suited to being a 2-hour movie than a 5-hour read.
We talked about how we might incorporate this novel into a high school English class. Our unanimous opinion was that we would not devote class time to reading this novel; there's just not enough meat there.
However, I would consider showing the movie adaptation in order to get into a discussion of how fate and free will operate differently in this story than they do in Romeo & Juliet (which is at the crux of what we're doing in my Methods of Teaching English class)....more