Saturday, November 20, 2010


I miss Michael Crichton.  I miss seeing his newest book come out and wondering what current science topic he was going to tackle.  I miss reading it and being sucked into a world where dinosaurs, aliens or nanomachines exist.  And threaten to take over the world, naturally.  I miss chuckling over the fact that his books were marketed as thrillers when they were really science fiction, which meant that people who scorn sci-fi were inadvertently reading it.  Hee hee.  Any time an author I like stops writing, I feel sorry for myself that I don't get to read anything new by them ever again.  Selfish, I know.

Imagine my delight when a review I read compared Laurence Gonzales to Crichton.  It's an accurate comparison.  Gonzales' book Lucy was really similar to Crichton's book Next, which both have to do with transgenic species.  Next is about two animals with human genes, but Lucy is about a girl who is half human, half bonobo ape.  Bonobos look like chimpanzees and are endangered animals found only in the Congo.  Lucy's father is a scientist who lived in the Congo for years and decided it was his mission to bring the human race to its next level of evolution.  In other words, he was kinda crazy.  Lucy is found after another scientist, Jenny Lowe, comes to rescue Lucy's father when violence breaks out in the jungle.  Her father was killed, unfortunately, but Jenny takes Lucy back to England with her to find Lucy's remaining family.  Guess what?  None are found.  You know, 'cause Lucy's mom is an ape.  Nobody knows that, other than Lucy, until Jenny reads the journals that Lucy's dad meticulously kept over the years.

Lucy is an articulate, intelligent and well-educated young woman.  Her father spent her childhood filling her brain with more education than most of us get in a lifetime.  When Lucy and Jenny end up back in the U.S., where Jenny is from, Lucy tests out of all her high school classes, but Jenny decides to stick her in for a senior year anyway.  Now that Jenny is in on the secret, they are very intent on keeping Lucy out of the public eye and getting her adjusted to the real world.  This is hard to do, what with Lucy's social awkwardness, sensitivity to sound, super high intelligence and inhuman strength.  How do you keep those kinds of characteristics out of spotlight?

You know it's going to all fall apart and Lucy will be exposed for what she is, and sure enough, it happens.   But when it does, it's interesting how Lucy and her best friend, Amanda, spin it their own way.  They make a video on YouTube, create a MySpace page, blog incessantly about it and basically protect Lucy through public exposure.  She becomes a celebrity and by it, the government doesn't easily nap her for the proverbial tests in a laboratory.  You know that's going to happen too, but for a while she is protected by her celebrity.

The creepy parts are when the government decrees that Lucy isn't human, even going as far as to pass a law defining her existence as animal, not human.  Her treatment when she is captured is horrible and upsetting and would be cruel if she was truly just an animal.  Even the letters she gets from fans are creepy.  From marriage proposals to death threats, it was unnerving to read people's reactions.  Yet, Lucy handles it all so well.  So well, in fact, that I started to get a little annoyed that Lucy never gets mad.  She's just a little too perfect.  It's like Gonzales is trying to drive the point home that Lucy is better than the rest of us, that being who she is makes her more human.  But being human means getting mad or frustrated or acting badly sometimes.  And Lucy never does that.

Even though this book is science fiction and therefore filled with improbable situations, I kept wondering what would happen if scientists were able to create transgenic people.  This isn't a new topic.  The Isle of Dr. Moreau is an old book, after all.  And I mentioned Next.  And any book where people hate someone or something that's different.  Oh man, I'm not going to even start on a list of books on that topic.  This isn't a new idea, is what I'm saying, and probably Lucy isn't even the best book on that theme, but I still liked it.  It keep me riveted and by the time I reached the climax of Lucy's escape, I couldn't stop turning pages.  I love Crichton's books, but I never felt compassion for his characters like I did for Lucy.  It's got flaws, but overall, I still liked it.  How human of me.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


The best way for me to get the heebie-jeebies is to watch the news.  I consciously avoid knowing what is going on in the world.  My husband's job is to bring to my attention anything I need to know as a concerned citizen.  There is way too much horribleness out there and my brain gets too full with it and makes me sick.  For instance, I can't handle any news stories about abductions.  It's my worst nightmare so I avoid reading about it at all costs.  With that in mind, I have no idea why I read Room by Emma Donoghue.  The premise was fascinating which is all I can say to explain myself.

Room is told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack who seems like a perfectly normal little boy.  He loves Dora the Explorer and spaceships made out of cardboard, hates green beans, and plays imagination games with his Ma.  The difference is that he and his mother are prisoners inside a tiny room built into the shed belonging to their abductor.  Ma, whose name we never learn, was kidnapped as a young college student and has spent seven years in the room.  She has created as normal a life for Jack as possible, telling him stories, teaching him reading and math, having a routine to their day.  When the creepy night time visits from Old Nick, her abductor, happen, Jack is tucked away into a closet where Nick cannot see or touch him.  Ma wants to protect Jack from him at all costs.

Jack has never left the room and as far as he knows, there's nothing out there.  His whole world is the room and the sun that comes in from the skylight.  It's obvious that Ma has worked on escaping over the years.  She has a bad wrist from one attempt and she and Jack play the screaming game once a week.  Old Nick is too thorough, however, and they are stuck.  But shortly after Jack's fifth birthday, Ma comes up with an escape plan and Jack is the key.

If you're going to read the book, I don't want to spoil how they successfully escape.  Their time spent in the room is only the first half of the book and in some ways, their recovery and celebrity after they escape is more gut-wrenching.  Jack has many developmental problems from having spent his entire life inside such a small space.  He has no long-range vision and his spatial reasoning is seriously messed up.  His skin is extremely sensitive to sunlight and just being outside is overwhelming to him, with all the wind and noise and environmental newness.  But he is bright, an avid reader and quick to catch on to his new surroundings.  Part of his problems with being out in the world is that the room was his home and he wishes that Ma would take them back there.  Ma is repulsed by his insistence that they go back and I couldn't help sharing her feelings, but I could understand why Jack wanted to go back.  It's the only home he's ever known and he was happy there.

In part of their celebrity status, Ma agrees to a tv interview.  She has worked hard to protect Jack from the media, but realizes that an interview could help save some money for his education.  The exchange between her and the interviewer was fascinating, especially what questions she is asked and how she reacts to them. I found myself cheering Ma on, internally defending her actions during what must have been horrific conditions.  When Ma loses her temper and stops the interview, I don't blame her one bit.

I found Room to be simultaneously fascinating and awful.  It wasn't graphic, probably because it's told from Jack's perspective, but the whole basis of the story is like something out of a nightmare.  As Jack finds more out and learns more about his mother, you can't help but mourn his innocence that is ripped away from him.  The way that Donoghue ends the book was perfect and I'm glad she didn't do it any differently because it felt like natural closure.  I'll never read this book again because my heart can't take it, but I'm not sad I edged out of my comfort zone a few feet to give it a try.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Picture Bride

Several years ago my husband and I made a trip to San Francisco.  We had a fabulous time, especially eating all the sourdough bread and dungeness crab we could, but also sight-seeing and enjoying the beautiful weather in August.  We toured Alcatraz and then Angel Island, which is like the Ellis Island of the West Coast.  It was fascinating and shocking.  There I learned that during WWII, Japanese Americans were put in detainment camps for fear of their association with their mother country.  The conditions were horrible and they were imprisoned even when they had their citizenship.  I couldn't believe it.  How had I never heard of this before?  It completely opened my eyes.

A few months ago, my book group read Picture Bride by Yoshiko Uchida.  It's the story of Hana Omiya, a young woman whose family arranged for her to marry a man in San Francisco.  Hana is one of hundreds of picture brides who came to the United States during that time.  She travels from Japan in 1917 and there meets her fiance, Taro Takeda, an Oakland shopkeeper.  Hana was lead to believe that Taro was a prosperous man, but in fact, his shop barely makes enough to get by. Taro is a kind-hearted person, though, a very devout Christian and a conscientious student of English.  Instead of joining the ranks of houseboys and laborers, he worked hard to acquire his shop and make a life for himself.  Their life is far different than what Hana was expecting, especially since she came from a formerly wealthy family in Japan, but Hana is clever and resourceful and quickly adapts.

Unfortunately, racism against Asians in that area was normal at the time and Hana and Taro and their church community deal with it constantly.  Hana, an educated woman who could have been a teacher in Japan, ends up doing housework.  Taro's shop flourishes with Hana's influence, but Taro resents that she's better at his job than he is.  Everything Hana does for Taro is done with a light touch, partly due to his pride, but also because Taro doubts Hana's love for him.  Hana once loved his best friend, back when they were first married, but nothing ever came of it.  I don't want to paint these people in a bad light, though.  They love their daughter, Mary, serve selflessly at church, use their money carefully and find a form on happiness in a land that doesn't want them.

Mary, their daughter, is much more American than Hana and Taro are.  She worked hard at school, had friends and immersed herself into American culture.  Her relationship with Taro is good because he speaks English well, but Hana never really learned to speak as well as Taro and Mary and that put up a wall between mother and daughter.  When Mary leaves home, it isn't a surprise when she pulls away from her parents and disconnects from their lives, but it's heart-breaking.

Whew, I'm only half-way through the book here!  When World War II began and the bombing of Pearl Harbor occurred, suspicion towards Japanese-Americans escalated.  When the government starts rounding up and interning the Japanese, Hana and Taro are included.  Their experiences in the internment camps are painful, mostly because they really happened.  The author based this entire book on her family's experiences.  Yoshiko Uchida was the daughter of Japanese immigrants who were interned at the same locations in the book. Uchida was given permission to be released and return to graduate school, but her parents were kept in the camps.  The conditions at the camp near Delta, Utah were awful and I was astonished over and over again how the government treated people who were citizens.  The people are able to find small joys, like the wedding of a young couple or reuniting families, but in general, they are stuck in horrible conditions with no end in sight.

This book was exquisite and painful, showing how people can be utterly debased and still prevail.  There were beautifully tender moments that filled my heart.  I'm so glad that Uchida told her story, that she was able to share an important part of history, and that my book group picked to read it.  It's through stories like these that we are able to understand history and become better people through it.