Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Manhattan Beach

by Jennifer Egan
Scribner     2017
448 pages     Historical Fiction

Wow! I just wrote "historical fiction" for a book in which much of the plot happened during my lifetime. That was a rude awakening!

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan is a New York story, but not the kind of New York story that we are used to reading. It is an extremely well-researched novel based at the harbor and navy yard in Brooklyn in the 1930s and then, again, during World War II. (Just for clarification sake, I wasn't alive during the 1930s, but I was born during WW II.) 

There are three main characters, with others on the periphery. The primary character, Anna Kerrigan grows up during this time frame. Her father, Ed Kerrigan, appears, disappears, and then reappears in her life. Dexter Sykes, a wealthy nightclub owner with mob connections, plays a pivotal role in the Kerrigans' lives. They all appear together in the book's  first scene, on a wintry day on Manhattan Beach in Brooklyn when Anna is 11 and her father has business with Sykes. While other characters have influence in the plot, the book is not about them. Although you don't connect the dots right away, the pivotal scenes happen in Dexter Sykes boathouse at his beachfront home on Manhattan Beach.

Anna grows up before our eyes. As happened to many young women coming of age during the war years, she gets an industrial job at the boatyard. She counts and packages parts for the warships that are being constructed at the naval yard, but what she really wants to do is to be a naval diver. Through the help of her boss, she has a successful tryout with a diving company, and because many of the former divers have joined the navy, she gets a job working underwater on ships being repaired.
She finds her identity in her work, and Egan emphasizes how all the characters' identities are wrapped up in their work. We understand this, because for many, if not most, of us, our identities are our work. Much of the narrative focuses on the work, and we learn in detail the work of the diver, including all the mechanisms that go into the 1940's diving outfit.

Family relationships are relatively meaningless to the plot of Manhattan Beach. Family members wander in and out of the plotline, because family is not the story that Egan wants to tell. Ed Kerrigan's reaction to his multiply-handicapped younger daughter is extremely complicated, and he can't deal with his emotional reaction to her. When the daughter dies, Anna's mother leaves Anna on her own in the city and moves back to her family in Minnesota. When her mother leaves, she thinks of Anna: "It was hard to imagine her lonely; she was so self-contained." She hugs her fiercely "trying through sheer force to open the folded part of Anna, so deeply recessed." Dexter Sykes barely knows his wife and children, so caught up he is with his work. Anna's aunt, a minor character, returns to prominence in Anna's life at the end of the novel as Anna deftly solves the major secret in her life. 

Another prominent aspect of the novel concerns the secrets that people keep. More than once, a character says to another: "We will never speak of this again." Here is another example of text about keeping secrets. Anna is thinking of her work friend Nell. "Nell was not a good girl. Her secrets weren't for Anna to know, and this made her feel easy in Nell's presence—released from a scaffolding of pretense she'd been unaware of maintaining with other girls." We also realize that it is the secrets we keep that hold us back, and only when we release the secret are we able to move forward. Anna's secret is potentially devastating and crippling, but she and her aunt solve it in a forward-moving, life affirming way. 

The sea is central to everything that happens in the novel—from Anna's career as a diver, her father's second career as a seaman, to Dexter Sykes' boathouse. "Eddie had never noticed how much of his own speech derived from the sea, from 'keeled over' to 'learning the ropes' to 'catching the drift' to 'freeloader' to 'gripe' to 'brace up' to 'taken aback' to 'leeway' to 'low profile' to 'the bitter end' or the very last link on a chain." The naval yards and the bars and restaurants that surround the docks are areas that we have seen in novels of other cities, but seldom seen in a novel about New York. At the end of the book, Egan discusses her research and the amount of time she spent learning about the war, boats, naval yards, and diving. It is impressive.

Egan won a Pulitzer Prize for her quirky and innovative novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I adored, but I was not expecting to read a similar novel when I picked up Manhattan Beach. because I had read that she had returned to a more conventional novel format. At the same time, I can report that the novel is powerful and effective, a classic in structure and subject. Both reviews in the New York Times are immensely complementary. One reviewer called it "a dreadnought of a World War II-era historical novel, bristling with armaments yet intimate in tone." He calls Egan a "witty and sophisticated writer." A review was also on the front page of the Times Book Review. That reviewer says that "this is a novel that deserves to join the canon of New York stories."

I also read a great Egan interview in The Wall Street Journal. Here's what I love the most about this novel. By returning to a classic genre, Jennifer Egan has again been innovative. What will she do next?

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Runaway Species: How Human Creativity Remakes the World

by Anthony Brandt & David Eagleman
Catapult     2017
304 pages     Nonfiction

There used to be a test to judge which side of the brain you functioned best with—the right side or the left side. The right side is the creative side; the left side the more methodical and scientific. After taking the test at school, the principal lined up the staff based on their scores. Lots of teachers were in the middle of the range; I, of course, was on the far right side of the line and one of my friends was on the far left. As we talked about it at lunch, i commented about how I created whole scenarios with my dolls when I was a child. My left-brained friend said that she spent her childhood organizing her Barbie dolls' shoes by color and category. Both of us used our dolls for creative imagining. The results were different, but no less creative.

The Runaway Species delves deeply into human creativity. Brandt is a musician and composer and Eagleman is a neuroscientist, and their combined research into creativity—of all sorts—is both refreshing and enlightening. The authors introduce us to the process of creativity by suggesting that the work of NASA and the work of Picasso are basically the same. What separates us from animals is cognitive flexibility. "We absorb the raw materials of experience and manipulate them to form something new." We open our eyes, see what is around us, and envision other possible worlds. They also believe that creativity is going to be our salvation going forward as a society.

There are three parts of this creative process—bending, breaking and blending. "We take the raw materials of experience and then bend, break and blend them to create new outcomes." In bending, an original is modified or twisted out of shape. In breaking, of course, it is taken apart, and in blending, two or more sources are merged. Time is spent exploring each of these concepts, and there are remarkable examples both in the text and with photographs. I particularly liked the section on how to design the creative school and the authors' dramatic recommendations about creative opportunities for children. One of the reasons that students of science need the arts is that the arts encourage risk taking and the arts operate "as dynamic remixes of real life." 

 Two examples: My first husband Lee was a science teacher but an extremely creative man. He would always say, "You know what you could do." It could be about a dish I served for supper or the redecoration of a room or the repair of a gutter. It used to annoy the heck out of me. He didn't live long enough to see how his "You know what you could do" played out in his children's lives. However, our oldest son is now a toy inventor, the next son is a professional problem solver, and our daughter is a preschool teacher. "You know what you could do" is the mantra of their lives.

Then—my daughter said that she thought her 4-year-old was just scribbling when he had a paper and crayons. Then she realized that he was drawing a couple of figures on the paper and creating an entire script involving those figures. The scribbling was the action happening to the figures. He was bending, breaking and blending.

My husband and I read The Runaway Species aloud to each other. We found it so inspiring. He said, that it helped him understand the "strait-jacket of the politically correct" and how that strait jacket curtails creativity. I had never thought about how creativity in science and the arts are intimately connected. These are the major take-aways from our reading.

The book received a star rating from Kirkus Reviews. They said "The book is astonishing for its simplicity in explaining the threads that link creativity in the arts, sciences, and technology." Kirkus calls it "essential—and highly pleasurable" reading. We recommend The Runaway Species. It engendered a tremendous amount of discussion—our favorite kind of book. Look for it,  It will be published next week.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Born to be Wild: Why Teens Take Risks, and How We Can Help Keep Them Safe

by Jess P. Shatkin, MD
TarcherPerigee    2017
320 pages     Nonfiction
The Shortlist

It was a warm night on Saturday of Labor Day weekend—four days before school was scheduled to start. A 15-year-old without a license drove his family car. His passengers included two girls and two boys, ages 15, 16, and 17.  As the car picked up speed, a police car turned on its siren and started after them, but soon turned the siren off and slowed down. The kids were going too fast—more than 100 miles per hour. Suddenly, the car veered off the road and struck a tree. Before the police officers could reach them, the car exploded. All five occupants of the car died immediately. The community of Kalamazoo has been in mourning for a month now. My adopted granddaughter knew all five kids—one was a distant cousin.

As any parent of a tween, teen or 20-something knows, adolescents take risks. In fact, those aged 12-26 are hard-wired to take risks, but how do you combat these natural impulses? In Born to Be Wild, Jess Shatkin brings more than two decades' worth of research and clinical experience to the subject, along with cutting-edge findings from brain science, evolutionary psychology, game theory, and other disciplines -- plus a widely curious mind and the perspective of a concerned dad himself. 

Dr. Shatkin illustrates in Born to Be Wild that
  • Adolescents are genetically engineered to prioritize emotions over logic: Teens make risky choices for social acceptance and to avoid emotional pain. If a peer is watching, even a peer they don’t know, adolescents are more likely to take risks. 
  • Teens know that they’re not invincible. In fact, studies have shown that, when teens engage in risky behavior, they often overestimate their chances of being harmed by that behavior.
  • Improving parenting practices and increasing parent monitoring can help halt high-risk behaviors: Shatkin shares Parent Management Training (PMT) techniques that emphasize tactful praise over remonstrations of how not to behave. 
  • Supportive families benefit the brain: Studies show teens raised by parents with low levels of conflict in their homes have less demanding brain reward centers; these teens will engage in less risk-taking behavior because their interpersonal relationships are rewarding. 
Ironically, even though adolescence is a risk-taking time, it is also a time of incredible potential. In Born to Be Wild, Shatkin shows what parents and teachers can do--in everyday interactions, teachable moments, and specially chosen activities and outings--to work with teens' need for risk, rewards and social acceptance, not against it.

Dr. Shatkin believes that the best way to reduce risk taking among adolescents is to focus on prevention before they hit their teen years. He also believes that a calm household, with calm rational parents, can reduce risk taking. I always believed in the "pick your battles" theory, believing that I didn't need to react to everything that my children and grandchildren did or said they were going to do—just the actions that would affect their safety, health, or well-being.

I can't answer the question of why those young people went on that joy ride. No one knows. That is a question that will go unanswered, but I do know that my adopted granddaughter decided that she would wait to get her driver's license until she was 18, rather than now, just after she finished drivers training. A wise decision.

Dr. Jess Shatkin has years of experience in child and adolescent mental health. Born to Be Wild is an extremely valuable book for parents, teachers, and others who work with teens and young adults. I can highly recommend it. I have several teenage grandchildren. Their parents will appreciate reading this thoughtful book.

Dr. Jess Shatkin website.

Law and Vengeance

by Mike Papantonio
SelectBooks     2017
336 pages     Legal Thriller

The author, Neil Gaiman, was quoted as saying, "I like stories where women save themselves." This is definitely the case with Gina Romano, the lawyer at the center of Law and Vengeance by attorney and radio host, Mike Papantonio. Like his previous book, Law and Disorder, Papantonio has created a thriller based on a real court case. Gina practically rises from the dead to avenge the murder of her lawyer friend, Angus Moore, who has saved her life.

Here is a summary of the book. 

Gina Romano is a highly successful trial lawyer with Bergman/Deketomis, a firm dedicated to protecting the public by exposing and penalizing corporate crooks and their allies in government. Well into her thirties, Gina hasn’t overcome the anger and defensiveness resulting from a bizarre and traumatic childhood. As she contemplates whether to marry solid, attractive and loyal veterinarian Bryan Penn or to send him packing, the murder of a friend and mentor, Angus Moore, turns her life into a quest for vengeance. In consort with partner Nick Deketomis, Gina runs headlong into a life and death struggle against weapons manufacturers, a gun rights lobbyist, psychopathic Chicago police, a hi-tech genius assassin, and the U.S. Department of Justice. Still, the most formidable and dangerous enemy she faces is herself.

The scene is set in the prologue with two seemingly unrelated events. A police officer named Kim Knudsen accidentally kills her partner while trying to arrest some gangbangers. Half a world away, soldier Cary Jones tries to keep Afghan terrorists from killing a little boy he has grown fond of, but instead he kills the boy's grandfather. In both cases, there seems to have been something wrong with the gun. 

The lawyers from Law and Disorder reappear, but the spotlight is definitely on Gina. I liked Law and Vengeance better than Law and Disorder and felt that the characters were better defined, although the composition remains clunky and descriptions leave a lot to be desired. It feels like Papantonio realized that he needed to fill in some empty spaces. Some text describes 1500 thread-count sheets, Gina's relationship with To Kill a Mockingbird, and her boyfriend, Bryan, serenading her with "I dream of Gina with the Light Brown Hair" which causes Gina to compare that song with other more famous Stephen Foster songs. The reader wavers between "Oh, for heaven's sake" and Who cares!"  However, when it comes to the lawyers deposing clients, the text is right on point. This is Papantonio's strength, because this is what he knows best.

Here is an interview with the author, Mike Papantonio, in USA Today. Also, here is a review I appreciated from a lawyer, Harry Graff. He says that he found the novel to be strong from a legal perspective, but "struggling with plotting and characterization." 

Mike Papantonio website.