Thursday, May 30, 2013

Union Atlantic--Book Review

Is it possible to think of ourselves, individually, as a composite--like some large organization?   Can we consider who we are as a multi-unit entity that has become because of our history, something so complex that we don't quite have an ability to manage ourselves without, inevitably, messing up.

Are we at once like some of the companies for which we've worked, quirky and conventional; intelligent and clueless; rational and how-could-we-have done-that illogical, ethical and immoral,---with a voracious need to fill the voids that are the result of loss.

And if we cannot imagine ourselves this way, can we at least see our society/communities/cities as such a multifaceted amalgam ostensibly trying to succeed but hobbled by damaged components.

I live in a blue collar town that borders several affluent communities.  My town and a neighboring one regularly hold used book sales out of their libraries.  In the blue collar library the space for the book sale is as large as a nice sized classroom.  When I have been there for the sales, the place has few customers.  In the adjacent white-collar library, the sale is in a basement the size of a double wide.  Go there on the day of the book sale and it is a mob scene.

There seem to me to be four types of critters who go to the basement sales.  The first are used book dealers who see bargains galore, books selling for 2 dollars that they can sell for ten in their establishments. They cart cartons of books out of the place within the first hour of the sale.  Then you have parents with little kids who hover around the children section.  The third group are serious readers. People who gobble books like others eat bananas and read 2 or 3 a week.  These folks will cart bags of books out of the basement. Then there are people like me; folks who read a book, maybe two or three a month.  I typically go the second day of the sale when the crowds have thinned. Last time I went I was looking through the novels section and began conversing with another of my ilk.  She picked up a book, and I told her that I thought it wasn't worth it. And then another which I strongly endorsed.  She pulled Union Atlantic from the stacks and told me I would like it.

I finished it yesterday and it is too bad that the woman with whom I was conversing is someone I am unlikely to ever see again and don't know her coordinates, because I would like to ask her why she liked the book.  I've been trying to make sense out of it since last night and the jury is leaning toward dismissal.

What is the book about?  Tough to answer. By title, it is about a large bank called Union Atlantic.  The book starts and ends in the Persian Gulf,  but most of it takes place in suburban Boston.  A successful banker who came from poverty buys a house in an affluent suburb where his mother used to go to clean.  The banker's neighbor is an eccentric woman who talks and listens to her dogs and, we find out, lost her true love to an early death.  There is a young man who hangs out getting high with his rich kid cohorts, who goes to the eccentric dog whisperer for tutoring and then meets up, inexplicably and incredibly, with the banker.  And there is the brother of the quirky woman who it appears is grounded by a sense of responsibility and a moral compass.  And everybody has suffered some significant loss.

Usually, in a book with several characters, a story coalesces around these characters. Here, the stories while connected to some extent, do not meaningfully coalesce.  And it is from this that I have thought that one might extract from the novel the notion that we are composites of events and histories that might not connect and nevertheless mark out our paths.  And what is common to us all, is some real or symbolic death.

One other point.  I have read many books where the sex in the book is gratuitous.  It is as if the publisher says to editors, "Look, I need 120,000 words, a romance, a compelling plot, and three steamy scenes.  Don't bring me a manuscript without the steam."  The sex in this book--while gratuitous and unconvincing as is the case in many other books--I think is also political.   To explain this would be to reveal somethings that would give too much of the book away. So, if you are interested, write to me and I will explain.

I can't quite recommend the book. It is too disjointed.  The kids and Doug and Nate and Charlotte and Henry and Holland and the Persian Gulf. I don't believe Nate and Doug.  Can't fathom the import of the opening scene in the Persian Gulf.

The author writes well and there are lines that resonate.  My favorite refers to a retired educator, "Toward the end of her years at the school, even her better students had become mere harvesters of fact, unwilling to be transformed by what they might learn."

I like reading books because they often help me think and I might be transformed in some way, by what I might learn.  The idea that we are all disjointed composites like some Union Atlantic multifaceted bank, and our directions, unless we act to intervene, are fueled by loss and flawed connections of our own making is interesting to contemplate and, if it compels us to intervene, then the notion can be edifying, valuable and--who knows--maybe transformative.

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