I’m dropping this at 35%. After the polar bears and second rape of a child, I’m done. The sample dazzled me when I read it: rich language, dark, and a favorite subject (whaling, remote places). I’d thought I was in the mood for it, having recently gone on a bit of a vengeance binge. But the language became too much; I don’t need to constantly know how nasty everything smells. As I read I realized this would be one of those books that is about how ugly people are. Current events are reminding me of that enough.
This is the second novel in a row I’ve read (after Enchanted Islands) that’s written as a sort of memoir from the perspective of an older person looking back. I’m not overly fond of traditional memoirs and wonder if this may in part account for my less than enthusiastic reaction upon finishing.
What this book does have going for it is a charming, somewhat unreliable narrator. Her asides and style as a storyteller often delighted and amused me. Mary is a naive girl at the start, and as an adult seems not much wiser. As a reader you may arch your brow at the gaps in her knowledge or what lies beneath her personality quirks (e.g. as a woman in her 50s at the end, she has developed a kind of fetish for reverends, owing to her first love, explored throughout the book). Mary is so plucky (and often critical of others) that I assumed she was still a child when the story began (in fact, she’s a young lady already).
Returning to what I’m describing as memoir-ish–and an author’s note explains that Mary’s father was a real person, if not the whole family–there’s only so much narrative thrust to the story. The plot advances in short chapters interspersed with others that give some background to the characters and to whaling. Essentially, Mary relays an account of a particular whaling season in Australia, most significant for her because she meets her first (and only romantic) love.
The novel was pleasant enough to read, but I needed something more and was also left confused by the end. Why end on that moment?
Because I’ve been living under a rock since the election (as in, not using Facebook or watching national news on television, though I’ve been FB-absent longer), I did not know about the Women’s March on Washington until it was happening. I’m especially aggravated with myself because of course there are sister marches across the country and around the world, and I could have participated here in Milwaukee. Instead, I watched a live stream, instantly on the verge of tears listening to the various speakers and seeing the crowd, an inspiring, comforting, empowering vision.
What could and can I do? I can write.
I teach at a women’s college and remind myself periodically how lucky I am to be working with women of various ages, backgrounds, and races. It is one way I consider myself to be contributing in some small but hopefully felt way to women’s lives, including my own. My college also has a history of activism; one of its core abilities is Effective Citizenship, and each year there’s a Community Day where students and staff participate in community service. Teaching mainly first year students, one of my responsibilities is to help make them aware of how they can become involved on campus. A representative from Student Services comes, and one of the things he talks about is opportunities to volunteer in the community. The past few years I’ve personally felt compelled to serve beyond teaching and kept a volunteer booklet for myself. Spring and summer are less busy times for me, and I hope to choose an organization and volunteer soon.
But before a teacher or volunteer, I am a writer. My poems are feminist, and I’ve been trying to get my manuscript/doctoral dissertation published for the past handful of years. I wonder if, in this post-Obama, pro-conservative climate, my writing might have a larger readership amongst the many who are angry, as I and my poetry are.
I’ve had newer poems waiting in the wings, but haven’t written anything in several months. The worldwide marches have given me a kick-in-the-pants, and with the live stream as accompaniment, I finally set about organizing some scattered notes for a poem or group of poems.
I don’t write overtly political poems, but I write what is otherwise silenced in me, either by my own fears or by others. I’ve been unsure how to go about my life in this new reality, but writing is one thing I can always do. Writing, sharing, reading, feeling less alone and frightened but never less angry.
What a hot mess. Judging from reviews on Amazon, I’m in the minority with that opinion, but I found it difficult to follow protagonist Frances Conway’s arc through the story. There’s a huge gap between her 16 and 50-something year-old selves, decades briefly highlighted, and the two did not connect for me. Frances/Fanny goes from naive teenager to something of a resigned spinster in few pages. I never quite caught up from that whiplash.
The novel spans Frances’s whole life, from child of Jewish immigrants in Minnesota, to Chicago with her best frenemy, Rosalie, to a farm in Nebraska, then onto California where she works at the Office of Naval Intelligence peri-WWII and is eventually asked to marry officer Ainslie Conway and move with him to the Galapagos Islands, where there are an awful lot of Germans (an awful lot for such a small, wild place), to engage in spycraft. The book’s title indicates that this period will be the story’s focus, but it comes in much later than expected. The first third or so of the novel therefore feels like it’s treading water as we follow Frances and Rosalie’s friendship, their “break-up,” and reunion years later in San Francisco. I wish the book had been either larger, to more fully explore Frances’s journey, or shorter, narrowing in on the time on the Galapagos.
I never came to care much for any of the characters or to get a grip on Frances and her shifting emotions. Add to that some cliche prose (though, judging by the highlights, often the very moments other readers found profound) and bizarre, unbelievable (even when true) additions to the plot, such as FDR’s non-appearance of an appearance and the fact that, oh, by the way, Frances wrote some books (Enchanted Islands is based on a real person who did in fact live on the Galapagos and write about her time there, a fact which I learned only after completing the novel and doesn’t excuse the haphazard way in which her writing is introduced), and you have a novel that I periodically considered dropping. Each time I’d think, “But I’ve already read this far, and I want to get to the Galapagos,” or, “I want to see how this spy stuff plays out and what happens with Frances and Ainslie.” I should have trusted my instincts and quit after the second eyeroll.
Some thoughts on this book are going to entail spoilers (which I’ll mark), but I’ll first say this was a unique story and point of view: a girl raised and schooled at home by her peculiar, computer scientist father in the ’80s is forced from that bubble when he begins exhibiting signs of Alzheimer’s. Some elements were a surprise, others predictable but mostly worthwhile anyway, as the father’s identity comes into question and Ada, his daughter, seeks answers. The book is written in chunks, some taking place in the recent present, a bit in her father’s past, a bit in the future, but mostly in the 1980s when Ada becomes a teenager.
Non-spoilery elements I enjoyed:
I liked Ada, named after Ada Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer, and Liston, her father’s lab mate and later Ada’s guardian. This novel acknowledges the role women play and have always played in computer science.
I liked how David’s choices in raising Ada stem from the personal; in the beginning, before David’s history is revealed, these choices could feel like poor ones, not abusive but perhaps selfish. Ada does not associate with peers; she has no friends and knows only adults that her father works with. She observes Liston’s boys from afar and only learns of popular culture via Liston and other lab workers. Despite this, Ada still develops the insecurities that go with teenagehood, but on top of that she has insecurities about her insecurities, like she’s letting her father down by wanting the things she wants because she should be above them.
My favorite moments in the story are when Ada first begins attending Catholic school after being unofficially homeschooled by David her whole life. Interacting with her father and adults at the lab, Ada is used to being treated as an adult herself, with worthwhile things to say and contribute to their research. On her first day of school, she’s immediately assumed to be misbehaving or incapable. This says a lot about how we treat children in the education system, whether public or private. I wish we saw more of Ada at school and her transition to making friends. I also wonder how she did academically and what she thought of the work, given that she’s likely operating at above grade level.
Non-spoilery elements I wasn’t crazy about:
Liston’s sons William and Matty felt somewhat generic as characters, fulfilling roles in Ada’s growth, versus Gregory, who is fleshed out (though we don’t see how exactly he becomes like his mother). Besides Liston, the other lab folk also feel indistinguishable until the end when a few are more strongly differentiated.
Though the mystery and reveal of David’s identity is done well, at times it feels like there are too many pieces of the puzzle (the code, the locked filing cabinet, the computer program, the photos…).
Ada’s one of those girls who is attractive, with multiple boys who are interested, but she’s unaware of her appeal. It makes sense given her upbringing, but it’s a familiar type that’s come to drive me nuts. We need more Jane Eyres.
In terms of writing style, my one complaint is that sometimes the author tells you what she just showed you or repeats observations (e.g. David is Ada’s whole world). She should trust her readers more.
I finished this critically acclaimed book while away for the holidays and jotted down a list of likes/dislikes. Short story shorter, I liked it, but what a downer.
The synopsis from amazon:
When brothers Tushar and Nakul Khurana, two Delhi schoolboys, pick up their family’s television set at a repair shop with their friend Mansoor Ahmed one day in 1996, disaster strikes without warning. A bomb—one of the many “small” bombs that go off seemingly unheralded across the world—detonates in the Delhi marketplace, instantly claiming the lives of the Khurana boys, to the devastation of their parents. Mansoor survives, bearing the physical and psychological effects of the bomb. After a brief stint at university in America, Mansoor returns to Delhi, where his life becomes entangled with the mysterious and charismatic Ayub, a fearless young activist whose own allegiances and beliefs are more malleable than Mansoor could imagine. Woven among the story of the Khuranas and the Ahmeds is the gripping tale of Shockie, a Kashmiri bomb maker who has forsaken his own life for the independence of his homeland.
I admired the novel’s intricate structure as it shifts across time and multiple points of view. As a writer, I’m always greatly impressed by such a feat when it is accomplished smoothly and clearly. The different points of view also offer insight into how a victim might become a terrorist or sympathetic to one or his cause, how other victims may become advocates, how someone moderate in his faith might become an extremist, how a terrorist may walk away free and be disaffected even as he commits or aids in more acts of terror. In the case of these characters, often it’s the personal or psychological rather than the political that provides the impetus for violent action. Refreshingly, this novel does not feel ideological.
The prose is also accomplished, and I liked that the author wrote to his best reader; he did not define or explain cultural or religious terms that may be unfamiliar to a white, atheist Westerner like me. I had no problem looking up information for myself.
Despite what I was drawn to in the novel’s craft, I felt the characters were held at a remove, as if I were looking down on them from above. This prevented me from fully connecting with them and the novel as a whole. Without that connection, I finished the story with a feeling of, “Well, that happened.” There was nothing to counterbalance the weight of events, not enough beauty to keep the novel from simply depressing me. At times the metaphor of the titular bombs was also heavy-handed.
I can see what critics admire in this work, but I left it feeling untouched.