2014-11-22

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. W. W. Norton, 2010.

Brains are plastic, and make and erase connections based on need and use.

Reading has changed from puzzlingoutwordsandmeaningwithoutbenefitofspacingandpunctuation at the dawn of writing to consuming headlines on the Internet. This has changed the way our brains work to the point where we can no longer concentrate for more than a few minutes at a time.  Reading a longer work from beginning to end is now a difficult task, because our brains expect to be interrupted often. In other words, we are now consuming a long tail of disparate information pieces, but unable to explore it in enough depth to engage our brains in real thought about any of it.

Do you believe this? I better go online and check it out. BRB.

So as software gets smarter and returns results related to what we're looking for, two things happen: 1. We stop thinking, because the software does that for us (think: point-of-need help, tailored internet search engine results,) and
2. we never see the other results, so therefore they don't exist - or, at any rate, are lost to us. The software filters what we see, based on prior searches, and our field of view gets narrower and narrower.

Carr's work is rife with references to research, and there are more than 30 pages of citations at the end of the book. Whether you agree with him or not, the evidence is compelling for his description of a major change in the way people interact with technology and the Internet: "As we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence." Scary.

2014-07-26

Pearl of China: a novel, by Anchee Min. Bloomsbury, 2010.

Willow is almost a street-child; she steals and begs under the direction of her father in order to eat. By chance - and quite reluctantly - she becomes friends with the missioner's daughter, Pearl, and the rest of this fictional biography of Pearl Buck follows.

Willow never existed; but by creating this fictional lifelong friend, author Min provided a vehicle for an outsider's view of the circumstances of Pearl's life in China. The narrative follows them from childhood to old age.

Although the facts may be adjusted and the reviews are mixed, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the missionary experience of Pearl's father and the rest of her family, and about the characters that brought the religious assimilation to life. It reminds me of Kinsolver's Poisonwood Bible, and also of Brooks's Caleb's Crossing, which both also explore missionary zeal.

Min lived through the times described in the setting - Mao's rise and fall - and eventually emigrated to the United States, where she lives today. Like Pearl, her works are banned in China, and for the same reasons. They depict a reality that is uncomfortable.

2014-06-07

The Art Forger: a Novel, by B. A. Shapiro. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2012

A bold plot to copy art works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner art museum and sell them as originals ... it could have been a standard-issue novel, but in fact, it is much more. In addition to the forgery plot, there are a couple of romantic sub-plots, and a great deal of information about how paintings were made long ago, and - more surprisingly - about techniques used to artificially age forgeries and make them pass all the tests normally used to detect them.

This novel is based on a real incident - the still-unsolved theft of works from the Gardner museum - and adds an interesting side-story of Mrs. Gardner's "relationship" with the painter Degas. I was less interested in the stories of the characters than in the processes of painting, forging, and antiquing art.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. Crown Publishers, 2010.

In 1950s Baltimore, Henrietta Lacks knows there's something wrong inside her. Poor, and facing racist laws regulating medical care, the cancer grows and finally kills her. Unbeknownst to her or her family, cancerous cells from her cervix were harvested, cultured, and sold to researchers. They were unusual in that they didn't die after 3 generations, as all other harvested cells had done. Due to their genetic uniformity, longevity, and aggressive growth, researchers were able to use Henrietta's cells, known as "HeLa," to study polio vaccine, as well as in AIDS and cancer research, effects of radiation and toxic substances, gene mapping, parvovirus, distemper, and papillomavirus research, and much more.

The author uses interviews with family members to highlight the story of the exploitation of Henrietta's family and the HeLa cells. I listened to the audio edition, and was simply astounded by the two-pronged investigation into the privacy and rights of the family, vs. the benefits that came from using HeLa cells in medical research. The research is ongoing.

2014-02-23

Caleb's Crossing, by Geraldine Brooks. Blackstone Audio, 2011.
Bethia's journal entries begin in the 1600s when she is twelve. Her family has moved from the mainland to an island off the coast of Massachusets, and her father, a preacher, is homeschooling her brother, Makepeace. Bethia performs chores in the same room and easily absorbs the rhetoric, Greek, Hebrew and Latin lessons her older brother cannot grasp. When it becomes obvious she knows more than him, she is banished during lessons, and uses her new free time to explore the island.

On one of her forays, she encounters an Indian boy who, over time, becomes a friend and gives her the name, "Storm Eyes." When her father takes this boy, Caleb, into the household as a student as part of his mission to convert the heathens, the family's way of life is turned upside down. And when it is time for Caleb, Makepeace and others to be sent to the mainland to continue their education, Bethia is indentured to the school's headmaster to help defray the cost of tuition. How she deals with these changed circumstances that alter her life forever is the subject of  the rest of her journal.

This title has some similarities to the author's Year of Wonders: a female narrator with a strong character, lust for learning, and a stubborn streak. Add a disruptive sequence of events, then watch the resulting chaos erupt and settle.

The narrator's measured, yet emotional, reading conveys the frustrations, joys, griefs, and questions Bethia expresses privately in her journal, as one tragedy follows another in this harsh land. I found her stilted enunciation distracting at first, but I believe it was in character - written language is more formal than spoken language, after all. This book might also appeal to teens, despite its length.

2014-01-03

http://www.saclibrarycatalog.org/record=b2230566*engMargot, by Jillian Cantor. Riverhead Books, 2013. 

So, what would have happened if Anne Frank's sister had survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and come to America?

This first-person tale explores this outcome. The premise is that in the Annex, a romantic relationship grew between Margot Frank and Peter. They conspired to take new names and meet in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, after the war,  marry, and raise a family. Margot is now Margie Franklin.  She is passing as a Gentile legal secretary, hiding her identity and her prison camp tattoo under a cardigan sweater, and calling directory assistance regularly to search for any sign of Peter.

Like Life of Pi, Before I Go To Sleep, and The Double Bind, the borders between fantasy and reality blur and shift. In this case, layers of the Holocaust experience are revealed little by little, as the author probes the feelings, memories (repressed and not,) attitudes of Philadelphians towards Jews, and attitudes of American Jews towards European Jews. The relationship between Margie and Anne is brought into sharp focus when the film Diary of Anne Frank is released, triggering guilty memories surrounding Margo's escape from the prison camp.

It's clear from the outset that this is pure fiction, but it provides Cantor an opportunity to understand her culture, and brings attention to the motivation of some Jewish people to put that part of their lives behind them in America, the Land of the Free.

2013-12-27

http://www.saclibrarycatalog.org/record=b2228005~S51*engFeed, by M. T. Anderson. Candlewick Press, 2012.

It is a hundred years in thefuture, and people no longer walk around with their faces in their mobile devices. Instead, everyone has implanted chips that stream their feeds 24/7: news, entertainment, advertisements, chat... Google and Wikipedia are always available.

For a lark, a group of friends decides to go to the moon for the day, but it turns out that "the moon sucks." Titus, the main character meets Violet on the moon, but she heretically resists the feed and, by actually having original thoughts and opinions, becomes the catalyst for the events that occur when the feed becomes corrupted.

This is a satirical, hyperbolic and frightening look at what could happen if the only information you get is what you've selected for your feed, and what your "smart" feed thinks you will like, based on prior choices. The dialogue captures teen conversational style accurately. It's a topic also covered more seriously in Eli Pariser's The Filter Bubble.

2013-11-30

The Song of the Quarkbeast, by Jasper Fforde.  Harcourt, 2011.

Because I enjoyed the author's Eyre Affair, I decided to try this teen fantasy, which is the second title in the Chronicles of Kazam series.

Magic is finally on the rise after a period of decline, and the two major houses are in a struggle to control it. One house, Kazam, is being managed temporarily by a gutsy teen Orphan, due to the enchanted absence of its real administrator. The other is nefariously engaged, with King Snodd's help, in rigging the competition so as to give control of all magic to the throne.

The plot is thin - but OK. The punniness is rampant, with character names like Youthful Perkins, Tiger Prawns, Half Price and Full Price, Boolean Smith, and Daredevil Nuttjob, and a setting called The Ununited Kingdom. The tension around the magic building contest isn't really tense, and the comedic mingling of the trappings of traditional magic (flying carpets, levitation, invisibility, turning to stone) with modern conventions like electricity, microwave ovens, cell phones, can be jarring at times. It would probably appeal to younger teens, both boys and girls, who get a charge out of puns, snarkiness, and wordplay.