What It Takes to Be Human I could not put the book down until 2:30 a.m...a wonderfully paced and beautifully written story about a young man who is com...moreWhat It Takes to Be Human I could not put the book down until 2:30 a.m...a wonderfully paced and beautifully written story about a young man who is committed to an insane asylum by his (obvious to me) insane parents. There he has to hang on to his sanity while being experimented on with truth serum (sodium pentothal) or insulin injections, followed by relentless and devious interrogations. There is, as well as the criminally insane, a population of conscientious objectors and others whose chief failing seems to be hailing from German or Japanese, Chinese or Russian ethnic backgrounds. Communists and even a Mac-Pap veteran of the Spanish Civil War are memorably included as well as gay men, including former soldiers who are now being punished and "treated". The research is skillfully integrated and may serve as an eye-opener for some readers as to who exactly decides who the criminally insane "element" is and who has the power to put people away without a formal, legal link to the outside world. There is, as we fear, one particularly abusive staff member because there almost always is at least one sadistic bully in the workplace, and/or, in institutions like prisons and asylums with few objective eyes checking in to monitor and punish such behaviours.
Here we have a possibly unreliable narrator whose main ally on the "outside" is a beautiful dipsomaniac who clearly identifies with Sandy Grey as a man the same age as her own son, missing in action in Europe. She gives him a how-to writing guide, paper and pencils and Sandy begins his study of another inmate from an earlier time whose files he has discovered, those of an immigrant Scotsman wrongly accused of murder and summarily executed after a hasty and controversial trial. This case has very clear parallels to his own situation, as he is incarcerated with the threat of lobotomy, cold water hoses, experimental electrocution, castration and other horrors if he doesn't present his own sanity well enough to the attending doctors. And of course, he does go spectacularly off the rails from time to time. Who wouldn't?
It was truly gripping to follow the ravelling and unravelling of young Sandy's mind as he grappled with his own synthesis of reality vs the presentation of reality he had, on good advice from other inmates, to conjure up for the doctors and the Board. If the ending seems a little too neatly tied up with a bow, it's also an intense relief to this reader to know several of the outcomes did come to pass and justice was achieved at last! I'd recommend this for military history buffs, medical personnel and other writers who want to enjoy an interesting novel structure, deeply imagined characters, great Canadian and international historical research and the pleasure of a terrific story, very well-told.
This is a wonderful novella. As I have been paid to write a review of it for the summer issue of BC Bookworld, which has not appeared yet, I won't do...moreThis is a wonderful novella. As I have been paid to write a review of it for the summer issue of BC Bookworld, which has not appeared yet, I won't do a review here. Suffice to say, I do highly recommend it.(less)
The thing that struck me most about this book, with the wonderful title, subtitled: A New Zealand Story, is that the author, an academic, wears her cr...moreThe thing that struck me most about this book, with the wonderful title, subtitled: A New Zealand Story, is that the author, an academic, wears her credentials lightly and writes beautifully. Her synthesis of South Seas colonial history and her personal journey to fulfill a PhD, marrying and raising a family with a Maori man, and finally, with a perfectly paced whammo, her own ancestor's pivotal role in the US West is so skillfully done that the book reads like a historical novel in two parts. Which is not to say that it is melodramatic, not in the least. It is impeccably researched, as the selected bibliography indicates, and it is that rare thing, the work of a renegade academic who is not a raving ego on the rampage! Early in her career as a grad student, there are attempts to curtail her curiosity, her urge to include more; more of real life, in her own life and in her studies, rather than sticking to a narrow thesis. For this unerring search for the truth of things and the complications of life, then and now, we should all be grateful readers. Wonderful book!(less)
Saara's Passage by Karen Autio, a contemporary Canadian writer, is the second in a well-written, impeccably researched trilogy which features young te...moreSaara's Passage by Karen Autio, a contemporary Canadian writer, is the second in a well-written, impeccably researched trilogy which features young teenager, Saara Maki, a recent immigrant with her family from Finland to Canada in the early years of the last century. Autio's characters are vivid 3-D creations, each one, adult or child, deeply imagined and with distinct voices. The use of dialogue is true to the era, incorporating Finnish words, and is especially good, at least to my ear, but I grew up with two immigrant parents in a rural community of immigrants so I think I am attuned to voices in this way and appreciate pitch-perfect notes when I hear them, as in this book. Another strength is the weaving of weighty issues like the sinking of the Empress of Ireland (a central fact of the first book in the trilogy), Saara's experience of what we now know as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after surviving the sinking, the hardships faced by immigrant men and the effect on their families when they tried to form unions to resolve dangerous and exploitative workplace issues,the devastation caused by tuberculosis in Canada and the long and imperfect methods of treatment, the struggle for immigrant children to adapt to schools with English as a second language... all these issues are central and substantial but are woven skillfully into the narrative itself.
This is a book which should be on school library shelves and is also that rare thing, a book which readers aged ten to one hundred and ten can enjoy, especially if they love "olden times", Canadian history or have northern European roots. But there will be many new immigrants who will read this and recognize themselves in this story of a sturdy young girl who puts her family before a starring role in a school play and who tries to do the right thing, hard though that may be. Tuberculosis is far from being eradicated in the world in 2013. Being an immigrant is tough no matter where you end up. Dealing with mean girls at school and having crushes on boys, well, these are timeless or universal themes, are they not?! I highly recommend it.
If you haven't read Mohsin Hamid yet, you are in for a master class in structure, from sentence structure to building characters complete with blocks and open doors to an assured yet risky narrative point of view to the very structure of this slyly misnamed novel itself. Hamid astonishes with every new book. I loved "add book/author link" The Reluctant Fundamentalist as well but in this novel, the born storyteller provides the gritty details of an impoverished young man's journey as the "clever boy" of a poor man's village family to a city gang member of sorts and then, to a self-made man peddling that most precious commodity, water, to become a very wealthy man at last. Yet he does this not by plodding along from point A to point B but by including the reader, the two main protagonists, the urban sprawl of the city - another character, itself - sweeping from point of view to point of view with great panache and great tenderness for the struggles of humanity.
Hamid weaves the reader (picture yourself on the back of an underpowered, speeding motorcycle somewhere in Asia)through the mean streets of an unnamed city and structures this novel along the lines of a business book, a bestselling one eagerly read by young Asian men, most certainly. His chapter titles reflect the advice pertaining to his main character and to us all: Move to the City (I reflected on this as I've had the same advice for becoming more successful as a writer, i.e., move to Toronto, hang out with the literati, stalk an agent like clammy fiends seem to do, etc. ad nauseum & no thanks, Get An Education (did that but didn't like the straight-jacket jobs available to the likes of me...)Don't Fall in Love (woops, did that, tossing jobs aside, fireworks, etc. too), Avoid Idealists (oh heck, clearly I wasn't destined for wealth as nearly all my best friends are fervent idealists of one stripe or another) Learn From a Master (phew, did that one well at least, learning from wonderful masters of writing at a real writing school run by working contemporary writers, Work For Yourselfyes! take the risk, go to the wall, be of service, risk the slings & arrows of stupid, mean people and the accolades of kind, wise people and get out alive Be Prepared to Use Violenceokay, this option doesn't apply as range wars and bookselling vendettas aren't in the same league as Hamid's protagonist Befriend a Bureaucrat hold your nose, only if you must and there are many good souls among them, ground into a quivering pulp by the demands of John Q. Public and his charming wife, Susie Patronize the Artists of Warpossibly one of the best chapters in a superlative book of chapters, required reading Dance With Debtbeen there, done that, didn't like it but some have a higher tolerance of risk than others Focus on the Fundamentals brilliant advice, applicable to those who have lost their wealth or must live on a fixed budget, kind of a Get Smart At Least or At Last chapter before Have An Exit Strategywhich is where we all must get to in as dignified a manner as we can muster.
Oh, and it's also a wonderful love story, an eloquent case study of the pros and cons of family nepotism as a society safety net and a brilliant expose of the inner workings of military/industrial/governmental corruption in Asia. Definitely one of my Top 10 Novel recommendations for 2013.