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A woman in my book club spent ten minutes of a recent meeting trying to convince all of us to read Howey’s novel. Her suggestion was shot down because the book is too new and, therefore, difficult for people to acquire (I spent nearly six weeks on the waitlist for one of the sixteen copies at my public library). I decided to read it based on her effusive praise and her statement that her brother and her cousin, neither of whom are readers, read this book in two days and have not stopped talking about it.

In Howey’s dystopian world, men and women live in silos tolling their days below or above ground depending upon their role in the community. The “uppers” live in the top part of the silo serving as the mayor, sheriff and deputies, or in the IT department while the “mids” – so-called because they living in the middle of the silo – work as doctors, nurses, or on one of the hydroponic farms and those on the lowest floors work in the mines or in the machinery shop. The later rarely make the journey up to the top of the silo unwilling – or, more likely, unwelcomed – to take in the view at the top of the desolate, acidic landscape outside through the single window. A window onto a shattered city that must be cleaned and maintained to prevent erosion from the environment outside the silo’s walls; a task that falls to those accused of treason against the silo for no one has ever survived a cleaning. While no one has ever refused to clean when they get outside the silo’s walls, Holston, the first to volunteer to clean, is determined to be the first to do so.

The greatest intrigue of this novel is the setting in which it is placed, and I have to applaud Howey for taking something as mundane as a grain silo and turning it into something so imaginative. I do object to the idea that the silo is located in Atlanta, Georgia given the resources used to maintain the silo and the jobs that provide said resources, but it is minor detail in the face of a highly-detailed, highly-structured society created by Howey. While the novel appears at first glance to be a critique of environmental degradation, it is actually a thorough critique of technology and its ability to distort perceptions of reality.

The novel is broken into five parts and each part gains a new main character – Holston, the sheriff of the silo; Jahns, the silo’s mayor, and Marnes, her deputy; Juliette, a mechanic promoted to sheriff; Solo, who I cannot describe without spoiling the novel; and Lukas, a IT worker. The shift in focus is difficult to appreciate at times; I began to care about one character only to be told I must care about another right away. The sense of loss becomes an unnecessary drag on the narrative and was never replaced by the hatred or fear I was supposed to have for the villain of the novel because of how much of a caricature he was. He could not have been more obvious if was he twirling a handlebar mustache.

Fairly well paced, the novel moves forward through a series of events with cleanings of the window (and, therefore, the silo) demarcating the end of several sections of the novel. It becomes an intriguing question of who will be next and why that I found myself racing towards that eventually unfolds into what happens when someone refuses to clean for the first time. More information about the past of the society – how and why it was founded – begins to open up to the reader, and I ended up enjoying those chapters more so than the ones covering life outside the silo. The novel, thus, goes through a series of ups and downs in terms of enjoyment, particularly when a whole slew of characters are introduces at the end with little resolution, and I’m sure I will pick up the next two books in the series in the new future.

Book Mentioned:

  • Howey, Hugh. Wool. Simon & Schuster, 2013. Print. 509 pgs. Omnibus edition. ISBN: 9781476735115. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Simon & Schuster. Retrieved: September 28, 2014.

Subtitled “The Death and Life of an American Small Town”, Methland is based on Reding’s reporting in the agricultural town of Oelwein, Iowa from 2005 to 2007 and makes the connection between the decline of the family farm, the slashing of wages at meatpacking plants, and the rise in the use of meth. In the afterward of my edition, Reding explains how people are eager to reject the idea small towns can be plagued by drug abuse to same the extreme (or, even more so) than urban areas and, therefore, are unwilling to make the connections Reding makes or channel resources to the problem.

Reding frequently inserts himself into the story – a staple of narrative non-fiction – but this is not his story. The addition of his past, his family’s immigration to the area, and his return to the St. Louis area as though he is a prodigal son is meant to convince the reader that he has credibility to tell this story. Yet this constant interjection has the counter affect as I began to wonder why I should care about him, particularly since his only interaction with meth was with his interviewees. I was born in the same area as Reding; does that contribute to my credibility as a reader of this tale?

Given my interest in the rise in industrial agriculture in the United States, I was quite surprised and then quite curious by the connection Reding makes between meth and the decline in the family farm. Desperate people without hope or job prospects turn towards the highly addictive drug because (a) it is, apparently, quite the upper, (b) it allows them to perform their low-wage, long-hour jobs without pain or complaint, and (c) it is relatively easy to make at home or on the back of a bicycle. He also makes the connection between the hiring of illegal immigrants at meatpacking plants or in agricultural fields and the distribution of meth across America from Mexico. This connection seems rather suggestive lumping people desperate to escape poverty with the violent drug war they are often trying to escape, and I needed him to interview someone other than the locals who blame Mexicans as a source.

The book is structured into parts based on the year in which Reding is reporting on the problem, and I wonder if it would have helped the cohesiveness of his argument if he structured it thematically rather than linearly. Threads were often dropped because the next interview on the topic was performed in 2007 and the narrative is still stuck in 2006. His arguments might have felt more complete if they were more tightly grouped together rather than strung out from year to year.

Did I learn a lot from this book? Oh, yes. Big Pharma developed a mirror-image version of pseudoephedrine, a major ingredient in both meth and cold medicine, making it impossible to use for meth production, but the product was in not in use at the time when Reding was writing this novel. I’ve become accustomed to handing over my ID when purchasing cold medicine at the pharmacy, but I had no idea that companies like CVS and Target refuse to deny a sale as they would underage alcohol purchases. Seems to me preventing “smurfing”, the process whereby people are hired to travel around a city purchasing as much cold medicine as possible, begins and ends at the checkout counter.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Reding, Nick. Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town. New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2010. Print. 288 pgs. ISBN: 9781608192076. Source: PaperBackSwap.
Book Cover © Bloomsbury USA. Retrieved: September 27, 2014.

John Thigpen, a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, traveled to Kansas to meet the bonobos — Sam, Bonzi, Lola, Mbongo, Jelani, and Makena — learning to communicate with computers and in American Sign Language for a study on language acquisition at the university’s Great Ape Language Lab. Intrigued by both the bonobos and the scientist who cares for them, John has begun to write his human interest piece when he learns the lab was bombed soon after he left the campus.

Isabel Dunan, the lab’s lead scientist, is in critical condition at a local hospital, the Earth Liberation League is claiming responsibility saying they wanted to liberate the apes for torturous lab experiments, and the university has secretly sold the traumatized apes to an unknown buyer. Isabel is desperate to find the bonobos — her only family — and John is desperate to tell the story, but his wife is pulling him towards Los Angeles as she chases down an unlikely dream, his editor is looking for any excuse to fire him, and the whole world is glued to their television screens watching the missing apes star in a new reality show were they order take-out, have copious amounts of sex, and sign for Isabel to come take them home.

Ethics of animal research and ecoterrorism, an introduction to language acquisition, commentary on the superficiality of Hollywood and the public’s fascination with reality television, marital problems and family drama — yes, Gruen tries to cram every bit of this into her novel and, unfortunately, it becomes too much for this story to carry. The brief mentions of Isabel’s estranged family, which is credited as driving her passion for both the lab and having the bonobos returned to her, are forgotten as Gruen focuses on Amanda, John’s wife, and her struggles to make it as a television writer in Hollywood after her first novel received very little attention upon publication. There is also a subplot of whether or not John fathered a child seventeen years ago and whether or not he and Amanda should have children that distracted from the main characters of the story — Isabel and the bonobos — and the main questions of the novel — who bombed the lab and how will Isabel get the bonobos back?

It is unfortunate that Gruen felt a need to include so many subpar subplots because her novel began with such promise and starred six intriguing, non-human characters I would have loved to learn more about. With so many twists and turns, I had no idea where the novel would end up but I finished it think the book was merely okay and ready to start something new.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Gruen, Sara. Ape House. Read by Paul Boehmer. New York: Books on Tape, 2010. Audiobook. 11 hours, 7 minutes. ISBN: 9781415962770. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Books on Tape. Retrieved: September 26, 2014.

Orphaned at birth by the death of their mother, an Indian Carmelite nun, and the subsequent disappearance of their father, a British surgeon, Marion and Shiva Stone grow up at a mission hospital in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, during the overthrow of the emperor. Raised by an Indian obstetrician and an Indian general surgeon along with the Mother Superior of the mission, the twins grow to love medicine and are given a largely idyllic lifestyle until the revolution begins.

Shiva eventually decides not to attend medical school yet still become a pioneer in the surgical correction of vesicovaginal fistulas while Marion throws himself into an intern at an underfunded hospital in the Bronx. The internship was not Marion’s original plan; Marion is forced to leave due to his brother’s betrayal with the woman Marion loves, who positions him as an enemy of the state, but coincidence leads him to finally meet the man who abandoned him at birth.

I attempted to read Verghese’s novel in June 2011, but could not lose myself into the story or follow the prose of the narrator. I set the book aside about 25 percent of the way through intending to abandon the novel for good. Yet the image of conjoined twins separated at birth from each other and their biological parents in Ethiopia during the 1960s never let me, and three years after my first attempt I plucked the audiobook version of the novel off the library shelf and tried for a second time.

Although I was familiar with the beginning of the novel, I still had to adjust to the style of the narration. Marion is an adult reflecting on his life, and he utilized adult prose and medical jargon to explain his thoughts and feelings at every age and stage of his life, including in utero and during a lengthy coma. He narrates events to which he is not privy — namely, how his parents met and Hema’s time in India before his birth — and often interrupts the most emotionally intense moments of the story to provide a back story for a secondary character. That said, I began to lose myself in the story once I grew accustomed to Marion’s use of language and suspended my disbelief that he would not know the details of others’ lives to the degree he presumes.

At the heart of this story exists a critique of the medical system in America and the donations used to keep the mission hospital open as well as an introduction into the history and culture of Ethiopia. During his internship, Marion learns about the differences in the quality of care between “Mecca” hospitals where the wealthy are cared for and hospitals like his own where money is tight and organs are harvested for patients at “Mecca” hospitals. In the days following Marion’s birth, the reader learns about the misguided donation of Bibles and nameplates over antibiotics and medical supplies by religious people in the United States. It is surprisingly easy to follow and understand the medical jargon, which becomes a character in its own right, as the novel progresses.

And throughout the novel, Marion and the reader learn about how Ethiopia was the only country not colonized by the Europeans, how the emperor attempted to thwart a revolution by encouraging infighting amongst the military, how the doctors and the people they serve fine the fine line between advocacy and treason. Verghese does an amazing job of conveying the passion his characters have for their country to the reader, possibly because this aspect of the novel is autobiographical in nature, and understanding this passion and the history of Ethiopia was easily my favorite aspect of the novel.

The narration of the audiobook by Sunil Malhotra was, quite simply, amazing. He manages to maintain a distinct accent for all the characters indicative of where they were born, including a Texas twang for a Baptist visitor to the mission, without the trace of an underlying accent. I know I would not have been able to finish this book without Malhotra’s excellent narration.

My singular uneasiness about the novel — the reason why I’m not shouting praises from the rooftop — is the treatment of Genet, the supposed love of Marion’s life. The child of a married general and the domestic help of the Stone family, Genet struggles to find an identity for herself and a place in a world where she is educated as though she is Marion and Shiva’s sister but treated with disdain for her illegitimacy and, later, her father’s participation in the revolution. Her mother, Rosina, desperately attempts to hold onto Genet’s paternal ancestry allowing her daughter’s face to be cut so Genet will bare the marks of her father’s people over Hema’s objections. Meanwhile, Marion attempts to cast her as the mother of his future children clinging to the idea that they are soulmates with the rights to each other’s virginity.

When Genet has sex for the first time with someone other than Marion, he throws Genet out of his life and Rosina hires a woman to perform genital mutational on her daughter . Marion’s reaction to Genet, particularly during their reunion later in the novel, is difficult to understand or tolerate, and I am terribly troubled by the implication for the reader that Genet caused the ending of the novel.

Others’ Thoughts:

Book Mentioned:

  • Verghese, Abraham. Cutting for Stone. Read by Sunil Malhotra. New York: Random House Audio, 2009. Audiobook. 23 hours, 44 minutes. ISBN: 9780739382851. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Random House Audio. Retrieved: September 25, 2014.

Subtitled “The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels”, Winston introduces readers to young adults raised in Hasidic (also known as, ultra-Orthodox) Jewish families in Brooklyn, New York who are struggling within the confines of their community and the decision of whether to stay or leave. Winston’s interactions with the Satmar sect, who do not evangelize with the outside community the way the Lubavitch sect does, originated as a doctoral dissertation in sociology.

However, her plans to write about how Satmar women reject feminism were changed after an interaction with a young Satmar woman who stated that the Satmar community has high rates of suicide due to peoples’ desperate struggle to escape. While she could never prove this assertion, Winston did change the focus of her dissertation and begin interacting with those on the fringe of the community who long for greater personal and intellectual freedom than their communities allow.

Unfortunately, this shift in her central thesis lead Winston to believe she did not have to understand either the community she was writing about or why people would choose to stay. She uses terms for different sects of ultra-Orthodox Judaism with different traditions and hierarchical structures interchangeably and while her primary research is strong, she lacks the secondary research needed to create a base of understanding for both herself and for her readers. The book eventually focuses on a singular person, and I felt that Winston began to grow annoyed with her subject towards the end.

One aspect of the difficulty in leaving the community I had not read before was how leaving undermines the marriage prospects of a person’s siblings. Marriage is the most important moment in a Satmar man or woman’s life and matchmakers, who undoubtedly know all the gossip in the community, keep the sexes separate and unable to explain themselves to each other. Thus, the ability to make a good match for both themselves and their family members keeps people from toeing the line.

Book Mentioned:

  • Winston, Hella. Unchosen: The Hidden Lives of Hasidic Rebels. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006 pgs. ISBN: 9780807036273. Source: Library.
Book Cover © Beacon Press. Retrieved: September 23, 2014.
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