UPDATE 12/19: Welcome to readers finding this feature because of my Sunday Spotlight column.
ORIGINAL ENTRY: Just in time for the holidays — and perhaps soon enough for last-minute shoppers — I revisit one of my favorite Beehive recurring features: The Beehive Book Club. The last time I ran this feature I explained it this way:
Books are amazing, aren’t they? I’m in awe of them because they can be portable little worlds, all compact and self-contained, that you can drop into at any time. It enthralls me when a book wraps me up in its comfy little world as if I’m breathing its air, smelling its smells, feeling its vibrations, knowing its characters. To me, it’s the tone of a book that really sells it: If, when I’m away from a book, I actively anticipate and even crave crawling back between its pages, then it’s a winner for me.
I envision this occasional series as kind of a “virtual” club of people bound together not so much by common titles but simply a love of reading; I tell you what I’m reading, and you tell me, and we get a sense of satisfaction by knowing there are other people out there who love text in an image-based world. If you share your thoughts with me by Thursday morning, I might be able to work them into my upcoming Sunday Spotlight column.
I plowed through a lot of books between the end of August and today, and a couple of titles really stand out for me. One is Robert Reich’s “Aftershock,” a political/economics commentary that hit the bestseller list , and I’m going to start with that at the top of my list. The upshot of this extremely depressing book: The inequity of income levels between the rich and poor in this country has reached its widest point since right before the Great Depression.
Reich, the former secretary of labor under President Clinton and an outspoken liberal economist, writes that the share of total income going to the richest 1 percent of Americans peaked in both 1928 and in 2007, at over 23 percent. Indeed, he writes, some economists are starting to wonder if income inequality can CAUSE depressions.
For a brief, glorious era in this country’s history following World War II, middle-class America actually made great strides, Reich writes. But in the last three decades, the middle class has been relentlessly chipped away at through the demise of progressive taxation, the outsourcing of American jobs, the explosion of pay for Wall Street types, the stubborn refusal to invest in infrastructure. Reich makes a compelling argument to the very wealthy: Don’t support the reduction of income equality because it’s the moral thing to do, but support it because pretty soon the middle class won’t be able to buy enough stuff to keep the economy rolling.
To me, it’s the extension of the public-health analogy that I like to use when discussing the interconnected bonds of society. It doesn’t matter how wealthy you are, or how big a wall you can build around your house, or how segregated you can make yourselves from the lower classes: If your city is swirling with contagious diseases, no one is immune. You as a wealthy individual have a vested interest in maintaining a certain level of public sanitation/health – if only to make sure that you yourself don’t fall sick. I think you can say the same thing about our economic interdependence. If income inequality continues to increase, you’ll produce a couple of reactions: 1) people simply won’t be able to afford to buy enough to keep the economy purring; and 2) if it gets really bad, the poorer classes will feel so uninvested in the system that they’ll turn to desperation.
Some of the other books I’ve recently read or listened to on CD:
** “The Year of the Flood: A Novel” by Margaret Atwood. Once again, Atwood provides a delicate, hypnotic, dreary view of the near times ahead: an Earth that is used up and left for ruin. I read “Oryx and Crake,” the kinda pre-sequel to this, so many years ago that I forgot the specific characters, but certainly the curiously chilly warmth of the setting and conceit stays. In this terrible near future, the privileged few live in safe enclaves while the disenfranchised masses huddle in dangerous slums. The police have become the state, in collusion with giant corporations, and the most lucrative trade is genetic research, as new products and life forms are invented without regard for environmental consequences.
Against this backdrop is a religious cult known as the Gardeners, which preaches of a “great flood” that will soon cleanse the Earth. We follow two characters: Toby, a woman fallen on hard economic times who winds up working in a “SecretBurgers” franchise (no one knew what sort of animal protein was actually in them: the “counter girls wore T-shirts and baseball caps with the slogan ‘Secretburgers! Because Everyone Loves a Secret’”) and is rescued by the Gardeners; and Ren, a young woman whose capricious mother drags her into the cult, only to yank her out several years later and launch her into a life as a pole dancer.
The setting and time period is the same as “Oryx and Crake,” just that Atwood tells the story from the points of view of different characters. We get to see how Jimmy the Snowman came to be, along with his best friend, Crake, who invented a new race of genetically altered humans (with big blue penises). Same ending, too, though not one I consciously recognized as I crept up on it.
Atwood’s technique is effective, though I found the forced coincidences a little annoying, especially with the way that Jimmy keeps popping up. More appealing is the dystopian setting and storyline, in which the “great flood” turns out to be a manufactured plague that goes out of control and wipes out most of humankind. I liked the solitary nature of the first half of the book, when both Toby and Ren – stuck separately away from the carnage – believe they might be the only human left on the planet. The sense of isolation, and also failure, that stems from that scenario is like a constant warning nudge against all of us.
** “Liza of Lambeth” by W. Somerset Maugham. One of Maugham’s slighter novels, definitely, and nearly formulaic. Liza is a romp of a young woman living in a working-class London neighborhood, the life of the party, with a good factory job and a nice regular feller hankering to settle down with her. But she’s tempted by an older married gentleman who moves onto her street. The sparks fly between them, they can’t keep their hands off each other, the neighbors start gossiping, and pretty much she falls as far as she can go. (She dies in childbirth.) I kept waiting for more of the nuance and empathy that Maugham demonstrated in his far more textured “Of Human Bondage,” but it never really came.
** “The Wind-Up Girl” by Paolo Bacigalupi. In an apocalyptic future, the often-prophesized “contraction” that everyone is always warning about in our present age – the breaking point when we use up all our cheap oil and can’t grow enough food – arrived long ago. Calories are as precious as gold, the combustible engine has been driven into obsolescence because of a lack of fuel, and most countries seal themselves off from each other to prevent the spread of terrifying diseases wrought forth by genetic engineering. Big beasts called megadonts provide the brute force in factories, and the Japanese have even cloned a version of humans called “wind-ups” with perfect skin and amazing reflexes but with a distinctive stop-start-stutter motion.
Against this grim world backdrop, the city of Bangkok still thrives – albeit with human-powered pedicabs and huge pumps to keep the rising ocean at bay. The lives of key characters intersect: Anderson Lake is the representative of a multi-national “calorie company” trying to get his hands on new strains of grain; a principled lieutenant named Jaidee leads the “white shirts,” the regulatory body trying to keep dangerous genetic imports out of the country; Chinese immigrant Tan Hock Seng, now part of a scorned class, tries to remake his lost fortune; and Emiko, the titular character, longs for a world in which wind-ups have control over their own destiny.
All this is spun out in a richly layered, beautifully cohesive world in which Bacigalupi evokes the colors, smells and textures of the city. In a preface the author notes he was “trapped” for several days in the city because of the SARS epidemic – no flights out – and he started wondering what it would be like to be permanently stranded there (without electricity, no less) while obsessing over a contagious disease. His command of the harsh setting thrusts the reader face-first into his world, and you can feel the hot, sticky pulse of the city. It’s this thick, bruising atmosphere that stays with you as you read the book – but not so much the plot contortions, which include a palace revolution and a potential romance between Anderson Lake and Amiko. (Unfortunately, we lose track of Amiko for too long a stretch in the last third of the novel. And the author does have a tendency to perhaps pile on more atmosphere than he needs at times.) But beyond some overwritten plot gyrations, the key here is tone. It isn’t a pretty message. Overall, the book is a strong, intriguing look at a future that seems increasingly plausible.
** “America America” by Ethan Canin. A tenderly written, musing work that tackles the 1970s political scene. But this shrewd and incisive work isn’t brash enough to be considered a Great American Political Novel. It’s almost as if Canin’s nuanced characterizations and soft, elliptical storytelling style – which involves complex chronological threads wrapped around each other as various revelations slowly percolate – just doesn’t match the brute tone needed to truly capture the messy American political process.
Corey Sifter is the narrator, and it’s through his eyes that we absorb Canin’s reflections on not only the American democratic process but the idea of social mobility in this country. Corey’s parents are working-class, living in upstate New York, and they – and their son – would likely be destined for a lower-middle-class existence if not for their proximity to a grand and monied family in their town. The Metareys, led by a second-generation patriarch, Liam, lavish their time, energy and affection on this, their community, and because of that they’re held in high regard by most in the community. It’s a portrait of the benevolent rich – sort of an ideal portrait of what we’d like to think people who are born into wealth and privilege would be like in a perfect world. (Rather than just money-hungry, ostentatious oligarchs, say.) Liam Metarey takes the 16-year-old Corey under his wing one summer, offering him a job on his estate, and when the older man sees what a hard and enthusiastic worker Corey is, the boy is eventually absorbed into the family. This relationship is cemented when Liam Metarey arranges to send Corey to a swanky private boarding school. Later, his mother dies of a brain tumor – she knew about it but didn’t tell anyone – and as Corey takes advantage of his fortuitous upward boost in social class, he also finds himself caught between two worlds.
Corey doesn’t actively seek out the immersion in politics that forms the core of the novel. He’s thrust into it because of Liam Metarey, who is one of the most important backers of a presidential candidate named Henry Bonwiller. As one of the U.S. senators representing New York, Bonwiller is a charismatic (and completely fictional) politician who is passionately against the Vietnam War and a fighter for the “working man.” But there’s also weakness of character in the midst of all this strong-leader bravado. Bonwiller gets caught up in a scandal – which seems loosely based on a Kennedyesque Chapaquiddick – that threatens to derail his political career.
All this is seen through Corey’s eyes. (In the major ruminative thread of the novel, set in the present day, he’s now a newspaper publisher grappling with his aging father, rampant growth in his town and an effort to understand the current young generation, as represented by his newspaper’s precocious summer intern.) He’s an interesting character, but there’s something about him that seems passive (which is ironic because he’s such a driven, hard-working individual). I ended up admiring him greatly, but I found myself almost dozing off at the “sound” of his narrative voice. The result is a novel that never really surges but is content to float. As a metaphor for U.S. politics, that’s a little lacking.
** “The Night Villa” by Carol Goodman. I’m not usually one for thrillers, but this uncommonly good romp really grabbed me thanks to its subject matter (the eruption of Mount Vesuvius), story structure (it cleverly alternates between ancient Rome and the present day), strong characterizations (I really got caught up with the narrator, Sophie Chase, a classics professor with a tragic personal past), intriguing historical allusions (there’s a whole story arc devoted to Pythagoras), deceit (a couple of great unexpected twists involving a brutal modern-day Pythagorean cult) and a judicious dose of old-fashioned romance (just who will Sophie end up with – the handsome professor, chiseled ex-boyfriend or sophisticated billionaire?)
The book opens with a shooting at the University of Texas at Austin, where Sophie is working with a graduate student named Agnes competing to work on the Papyrus Project, which hopes to use newly perfected spectrograph technology to unlock the secrets of charred scrolls recently found in excavated remains of Herculaneum. Sophie doesn’t have any interest in making the trip to Italy herself, but when she’s wounded in the shooting, she changes her mind by seeing it as a chance to recuperate – and because her interest is piqued by a reference in the scrolls to a slave girl, Iusta, a resident of Herculaneum believed to have perished in the eruption, whom Sophie has been researching for years.
What Sophie finds instead of a pleasant academic vacation, however, is a seething conspiracy. The author skillfully alternates her story with the ancient one of Phineas Aulus, a fictional historian relating his travels. As the story of the ancient slave girl comes to life, so does Sophie’s own journey – including her still unresolved relationship with her ex-boyfriend, who left her to join a Pythagorean cult. I loved the twists and turns in the book along with all the mythological themes – and while the ending might be accused of being just a little too tidy, “The Night Villa” turned out to be a nice, rousing read.
UP NEXT: I’m almost done with T.C. Boyle’s “The Women,” a peculiar and fascinating read about the wives of architect Frank Lloyd Wright. And a reader has recommended Ian McEwan’s “Solar,” which I’ve requested through the library.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN: What are you reading? Tell me in a comment, as long or short as you want, below.