Saturday, November 26, 2016

Fiction | A Logical Guide to Finding Love

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November's book club selection was a lighter tome—The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. I binge-read the entire book the Sunday before our meeting, and my ability to do that—the fact that it was such a light and quick read—made me question what kind of discussion we'd be able to pull out of this book!

Our main character is Don Tillman, a genetics professor with a slightly odd personality. His life is ruled by organization and structure; he follows the same routines daily and weekly, and he approaches life from an analytical, straightforward perspective. Unfortunately for his love life, this same perspective has never been very successful with women. When a departing friend leaves him a letter that contends he'd make a wonderful husband, Don decides it's time to find a partner. Why couldn't he find a wife using the same methodical approach as a research project?

Thus Don launches The Wife Project. By designing a thoroughly detailed 16-page questionnaire, Don figures he has created the perfect methodology to weed out the incompatible and find his perfect partner. It's a surprise to him, then, when one potential applicant named Rosie fails his compatibility test miserably...because she's the one that he can't seem to stop thinking about.

When, early in the story, his friend and fellow professor, Gene, has Don cover a lecture for him on the topic of Asperger's syndrome, it suddenly becomes very clear to the reader that this, essentially, is describing Don. [But whether Don picks up on these pointed similarities, we remain uncertain.] Though we, the reader, did not have much time with him prior to this revelation, establishing that Don is a narrator with a different way of thinking immediately changes our experience with his story. He's not your typical narrator; he tells his tale almost entirely devoid of emotion. It's a refreshing and entertaining perspective because it's such an uncommon one. In many instances, Don's logic does seem to make complete sense—and don't emotions tend to over-complicate most situations anyway??

This character that is so unused to emotional interactions, though, is in for a world of change as he builds a relationship with Rosie. Uncertain from the beginning of the nature of their relationship, Don distracts himself from such a looming question by delving into her own project of figuring out the identity of her real father. It's just the kind of study that absorbs Don's attention, using a standard method, substantive data, deductions and conclusions. In the meantime, though, Don's way of thinking begins to shift; he's loosening his hold on his routines, and his life is becoming increasingly unpredictable, almost without him realizing it.

Fortunately for the sake of our group discussion, we have an outgoing, agreeable group, so conversation was never an issue, despite this story being lighter fare. In the pop culture realm of stories of autism, we decided this was one told from a more comedic, character perspective as opposed to a dramatic, situational one. [We determined The Big Bang Theory employs this perspective as well.] Having established that we all enjoyed the story, our group was able to delve deeper into specific scenes that chronicle Don's story, discussing the author's storytelling choices and critique all the other pieces that make the story tick. It turned out to be a lively, engaging conversation, and though the story itself lacks any heavy, heady discussion points, it still has plenty to, enjoyably, consider.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Fiction | Falling for a Dead Man

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As I've been reading broadly for the past two years for the (2015) Book Riot Read Harder Challenge, I've had to tackle some genres that I read rarely, if ever. That is, after all, the whole point of such a challenge—to read outside your comfort zone! One of my remaining categories has been the "romance novel," not because I have anything against romance novels but rather because I had a hard time deciding which sub-genre I wanted to read. Historical? Chick-lit? Do I look for personal plot appeal or go for a true classic of the genre?

I opted for the classic—something that is, according to pop culture & literature, truly representative of the romance genre. Having shelved books for years at the public library, I'm familiar with names, so I picked one from the depths of my memory - Jude Deveraux - and consulted Goodreads for what is considered her pinnacle work.

And that's how I got to A Knight in Shining Armor, Deveraux's 1989 bestseller that tells the story of the lovelorn Dougless Montgomery.

Our heroine is vacationing in England on what was supposed to be a romantic getaway with her surgeon boyfriend, Robert. Forever failing at love, Dougless has convinced herself that he's a good catch, worthy of her love, though it is painfully clear to us, the reader, that Robert is entirely the wrong guy; he is manipulative, controlling, patronizing—so much so that the romantic vacation, during which Dougless was hoping for a marriage proposal, has unexpectedly turned into a family one that includes Robert's brat of a teenager daughter. Any sense of romance dies swiftly when, after a nonsensical argument, Robert jilts and abandons Dougless at a rural church where she's left wallowing in yet another romantic failure, praying for a knight in shining armor to save her from the despair.

Imagine the surprise when a handsome man suddenly, miraculously appears and introduces himself as Nicholas Stafford, Earl of Thornwyck, the very name on the statue against which Dougless shed her plentiful tears. (Naturally; this is a romance!)

It's questionable who is more confused in this scenario—Dougless, whose heartbreak and frustration turn her romantic sensibilities into practical ones, assuming there's a perfectly rational explanation for this strange man suddenly appearing and claiming to be an Earl who died in the 16th century; or Nicholas, a man who heard a desperate plea for help and now finds himself in an unfamiliar world that is centuries more modern than his own.

Dougless learns of Nicholas' tragic backstory—one involving betrayal, treason, and premature death—as she helps this 16th-century earl navigate the 20th-century world. Naturally, she figures out that this impossible man is exactly who she has been praying for, and the two are inexplicably drawn together by forces that defy logical explanation and are more powerful than either can comprehend. Deveraux isn't easy on either of her main characters, forcing each of them into the time period opposite their own to continue the story and learn more of the puzzle surrounding Nicholas' sudden appearance and his tragic future. This juxtaposition of time ultimately highlights the depth of these two characters—their strengths and weaknesses. At the novel's opening, I very much found Dougless to be a major pushover but with pluck hidden somewhere underneath. As the story evolves, though, so does her character as circumstance demands a more bold, independent woman. (Though, I mean, she could still use a lot of work on the feminist front.)

So what we've got here is not only a love story but a time-traveling one—and I love time travel stories! In terms of the steamy scenes, this is definitely a romance low on that spectrum, so though yes, it's totally a romance, it feels more like an adventure based around a love story. Super fun to breeze through.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Nonfiction | A Secret Town, A Secret Mission

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For my most recent book club meeting, I got to delve into some nonfiction for the first time in a while! The book was Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan. This one has some local appeal; Oak Ridge, located just north of Knoxville, is a familiar locale to Tennesseans and, in the decades since WWII, has earned some tourist notoriety for its one-time secret status. Plus, the book group I joined skews older, so many of our readers had personal memories attached to this story, as well.

Imagine this scenario: You're living in 1943 in a nation embroiled in war, which permeates every piece of daily life. You've just finished high school or college, and with your brothers overseas fighting for your country, you have few options but to stay close to home and get a job. Then, you get this job offer with a description that could not be more vague. It seems too good to be true—the pay is outstanding and it's supposed to help win the war. Once you've secured the job, you follow the mysterious instructions you were given to take a specific train to a location you've never heard of. And once you arrive to this strange community called Oak Ridge, you settle into a new life, making new friends and doing your best every day at the job you were given. You're not really sure what's going on at Oak Ridge, but it's run by the military and therefore secretive and therefore must be helping the war cause.

This was the reality for the many women Kiernan profiles in this book. The story of Oak Ridge is a fascinating—and multi-faceted—one. This complex created by the US military, originally designed to house 17,000 workers, ultimately became home to over 62,000 individuals. These people all came to Oak Ridge for a job. From them grew friendships, relationships, a town, a community. These people became experts at their job, whatever they were, but only a fraction of 1% of Oak Ridge's residents actually knew their ultimate purpose. It was masked in secrecy, and there were constant reminders that "loose lips sink ships."

It wouldn't be until August 6, 1945, that they would figure out they had spent the last two years building the world's first deployed atomic bomb.

Perhaps now you understand why I said this story is a "multi-faceted" one. Kiernan opted to tell a particular piece of the Oak Ridge story, to view it from one perspective—that of the women whose lives were changed by this incredible reality. In this, I think Kiernan did an excellent job. She uses a handful of women to recollect the Oak Ridge experience; the reader gets to know these women as individuals—their backstories, their motivations, their fears. Through them, we understand how thousands of people united behind a common cause, despite their knowing little about it in the first place!

This is where it gets tricky for me. Naturally, my 2016 perspective is vastly different than the 1943 one of these women. And when viewed through the modern lens to which I am accustomed, this story of Oak Ridge is terrifying!

Kiernan tells this nice, patriotic, feminist story of women doing important work, but can you imagine if we heard this story in present-day terms from some country across the globe?? "Thousands Build Nuclear Weapon in Secrecy!" "Community Brain-Washed Into Building Atomic Bomb!" I understand that times were different. The war was so all-encompassing that "helping to win the war" was justifiable enough reasoning; there was little to question. Further, the mentality was different than it is today—less thirst and desire for constant information, less skepticism, fewer questions. Plus, the mere existence of these opportunities for the women of 1943, when their norms and expectations were so vastly different than today, probably fostered more excitement than suspicion.

And we haven't even touched on the debate surrounding the moral implications of dropping the atomic bomb. That's a whole other part of the story!

For what it is, I think Kiernan's book is an excellent piece of story-telling. She humanizes a piece of history while using plenty of research to create context for the reader. And she is not (and should not be) obligated to, nor responsible for, telling the whole story of Oak Ridge. But having never deeply encountered this particular piece of history myself, it opened up a can of worms

Extra: It's worth noting that our book club discussion was a pretty engaging one. Reactions and opinions seemed to run the gamut. Some women felt the same as me and had many more questions about this whole scenario; others just accepted it for what it was without much questioning. I think it's so interesting, and fosters such great discussion, because the themes go beyond this one historical scenario; it brings into question bigger ideas such as trust and fear, patriotism, society and individualism. A great one for discussion!