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After wasting two evenings on a book I could not get into (One Part Woman — unlikeable characters, glacial plot), I turned to another Europa Editions book: The Hazards of Good Fortune by Seth Greenland. It’s a page turner, unlike many of Europa’s titles. In fact, last night I put my iPad down and tried to go to sleep and then tossed and turned for a long time, wondering what was going to happen and why the main character couldn’t see what was happening.

This book has a LOT of moving parts. It’s mainly the story of Jay Gladstone, a very wealthy real estate magnate and NBA owner, and how his life — and all his good fortune — falls apart. But woven into Gladstone’s story are many smaller stories, casting a bright light on a number of unsavory aspects of modern American society.

There’s an ambitious DA who wants to run for governor and makes decisions on two cases of white men killing black men based only on her electoral calculations, and not on justice. There is a ridiculous, expensive liberal arts college where people create their own majors and children play at being revolutionaries — until it isn’t play anymore. There is media that is out only for the sound of its own highly amplified voice, regardless of whether the stories it reports are true in any way. There are callous, spoiled rich wives, conniving family members, a hacker for hire, a radicalized ex-con Imam, overpaid athletes and the entourages they support. There is racism, anti-semitism, and all the other tensions and biases our culture holds around gender, sexual preference, class, power and its lack.

Jay Gladstone is a pleasingly complicated character, but he’s a man who truly tries to be good, and for a fair bit of the book I was waiting for him to be vindicated. Yes, he’s a little pompous, and a little too sure of his own position in life, and he blunders around making things worse, but it seems like his being brought low might have caused a transformation. Readers, however, don’t get to see what happens when he hits bottom, for reasons I can’t explain without giving too much away. Still, watching him fight to hang onto life as he knows it is a challenge (I found myself telling him to wake up and stop being stubborn), given that his rotten, conceited, dishonorable, selfish cousin seems to get away with his most grievous transgression.

A villain worth despising, a hero who isn’t perfect but makes the reader want to root for him, some terrific supporting characters you’ll love to love and hate. The frothy world of the rich and influential, with enough regular people to draw a contrast. It’s a novel Jane Austen could love — full of references to culture and society and brimming with the vagaries of human nature.  I enjoyed it, even though I thought the end was a little rushed, and a bit of a let down. But overall, a smart, sharp-eyed, entertaining, engrossing story.  Just don’t read it right before bed, or you’ll be mulling over which twists and turns Gladstone should have seen and what he could have done differently until late into the night.

 

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This week I finished a couple of inter-library loans, each about a prominent woman whose work was of the highest caliber but whose accomplishments are always discussed in terms of their gender. Marie Curie is one of the greatest scientists of all time, Chiyo-ni is one of the greats of Japanese literature. Each is generally spoken of as a woman who exceeded expectations, not just as an accomplished person.

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Falloutby Lauren Redniss, is a beautiful book, a graphic biography with cyanotype art, a glow in the dark cover, and more than the usual life story of Marie Curie. Redniss portrays Marie & Pierre’s great love for each other and for their work, Marie’s second Nobel prize and the scandal around her relationship (as a widow) with a married colleague, the redemption of her reputation as she provided dozens of mobile and field x-ray units during WWI, and her post-war celebrity, as well as the incredible legacies of her life, including children and grandchildren who became prominent scientists.

Through art (including a custom font she created for the book) and text, Redniss also explores the “fallout” of the Curies’ work: nuclear weapons, radiation treatment, and nuclear energy, including interviews with a victim of Hiroshima, a man who grew up watching bomb tests in Utah, and a scientist studying Chernobyl, photos of mutant flowers growing near Three Mile Island, and an interview with a couple who regularly visit a radon spa in Montana. It’s a lovely, moving, thought provoking, and fascinating book.

Chiyo-Ni: Woman Haiku Master by Patricia Donegan and Yoshie Ishibashi is part biography, part anthology of a hundred of Chiyo-Ni’s haiku, arranged by season, as well as examples of her haibun (prose with haiku, a form made famous by Basho’s Narrow Road to the Deep North) and renga (linked forms, where two or more poets write haiku to form a longer work). Chiyo-ni published two poetry collections (a rare feat at the time) and her work appeared in a stunning 120+ anthologies in her lifetime (1703-1775). She became a Pure Land Buddhist nun at age 52, and her poems are known for their enlightened clarity. She wrote one of her most famous,

a hundred gourds
from the heart
of one vine

at age 24, when a Buddhist master asked her to compose a poem on sankai, “desire, form, and nonform.” As the story goes, he was stunned when she spontaneously wrote the gourd poem, which illustrated that “everything arises from the mind.” But, in her time and ours, she’s been called a woman poet, not just one of the greatest poets in Japanese literature. Do we call Basho a man poet?

I am intensely curious about why human beings feel the need to label each other and why women are viewed as doing something especially remarkable if they excel in a “male” field. It still happens today. The Computer Scientist shared this video with me and our teens this week, showing female “geeks” (gaming, comic, and anime/manga fans) who’ve experienced sexist attitudes about their interests, which are already disparaged in mainstream culture (hence the nickname “geeks”).

I just heard a piece on NPR about the Women’s British Open, where Inbee Park could win a 4th major this year (a feat no golfer, male or female, has accomplished). The reporter said he hoped Park would “get her due” if she wins. He went on to note that the LPGA tends to promote “sex appeal” rather than “great golf” and Park isn’t a “glam girl.” Why wouldn’t sports fans be at least as impressed with Park as they were with Phil Mickelson, who finally won the men’s British Open after many attempts? He’s no glam girl either.

Before you hit the comment button, I’m not saying men and women are the same, I know there are differences. But can’t we judge people’s actions and accomplishments on their merits without dwelling on labeling them by gender or race or age or any other label? I’m not sure we’ll ever get to that point, but it can’t hurt to try.

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