The Free by Will Vlautin
Leroy is an Iraq war veteran who, after a heartbreaking opening, lies in a coma, with a Sci-Fi story running through his head. Pauline is one of his nurses, who has to look after her father when she’s not at work. Freddie is the night-watchman at the care home that Leroy is in at the beginning of the story, he also works a day job as he is struggling to pay the medical bills for his sick daughter. This book is an indictment against the United States medical system, forcing people into impoverished, desperate lives. It made me very glad that we, in Britain, have the National Health Service, despite all its problems. And incredibly nervous about the fact that successive neoliberal governments here have pushed us closer and closer to the American system. Other folk have expressed that there is hope in this book, and to some extent there is, but the small glimmerings of hope do little to offset the often harrowing lives the book’s characters lead. The fact that they are unremarkable in their desperation is why the hope does little to alleviate things, there is a commonality to their suffering, lack of adequate medical insurance and jobs that don’t pay living wages. All too common situations.
"...the moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the elderly; those who are in the shadows of life; the sick, the needy and the handicapped. " ~ Last Speech of Hubert H. Humphrey
Overall - Excellent, but depressing.
The Enchanted by Rene Denfield
he look in her eyes is of a person who drank from the end of a gun barrel and found it delicious. Her eyes are filled with a strange sort of wondrous sadness, as if marvelling at all the beauty and pain in the world.
A poetic, magic realist book about Death Row? Well yes, a stunningly beautiful read. Denfield herself is a Death Row investigator, and this book obviously draws upon that. The book is set within a maximum security prison, where the prisoners awaiting execution are placed in the dungeon. They wait, often for many years, for the appeals procedure to be exhausted. The Lady delves into the history of the men who are on Death Row, looking to save them from execution. The Fallen Priest offers succour to them. The Warden wonders why people can object to retributive death but not to death by cancer, as he watches his wife suffer the indignities of terminal illness. The twilight world of the institution is narrated by a nameless prisoner, exposing thoughtless corruption, daily prisoner rape, the prison as enchanted place with little men hammering in the walls and golden horses racing underground. This is an exploration of the psychology of crime versus human decency, where beauty and hope contend with horror and despair.
Overall – Beautiful prose, heart rending subject
The Sense of Style by Stephen Pinker
The use of consistent grammar reassures a reader that the writer has exercised care in constructing his prose, which in turn increases her confidence that he has exercised care in the research and thinking behind the prose. It is also an act of courtesy.
Pinker is a cognitive psychologist who has written several books about language. His starting position with this book is that, in being a student of language, he is an enthusiastic reader of style guides. However many style guides are stuck in the past, hence the sub-heading for this book The Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century and so he sets out to correct this. The book is aimed mainly at the non-fiction writer, the academic, the essayist, the popular science writer but does have a wealth of good advice for any writer. The book is oddly structured, three short chapters which feel a little like an extended throat clearing, an extended stream of consciousness about several examples of good writing, and a very good exploration of the curse of knowledge (the fact that academics and scientists should assume that their audience is as smart as them, but maybe not familiar with the subject). There then follow three long chapters – one on sentence trees, that I must confess meant very little to me, a visual way of breaking sentences down into Object, subject, preposition etc, which all seemed a little overly technical and also to break the rules Pinker set down in the previous chapter on the curse of knowledge. The next chapter was better, being an examination of coherence, what every writer should aspire to, that the next three levels of writing, paragraphs, chapters and whole books should work towards a coherent vision. The last chapter examines many rules of grammar in the light of an intellectual war between prescriptivists, that there is an objective right and wrong in the way language is used versus the descriptivists, that language is organic and rules should reflect its actual use. He argues intelligently on behalf of the descriptive approach and demolishes some grammar myths like split infinitves and the use of that and which. This last section is a useful go to reference for any writer.
Overall – A little bit more dry and technical than is necessary, which is ironic as he is arguing that writers should use the classic style to eliminate overly technical and dry prose.