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Book Review: The Foundling by Ann Leary

Image of a digital book cover. A blueish greenish gloom settles over a vista of the tops of connected buildings with one light glowing in one window.

It’s 1927, and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle thinks she’s found her way to independence and success when she starts working as a secretary for a woman doctor at a remote institute for mentally disabled women. But not everything is as it appears to be at Nettleton State.

Summary:
It’s 1927 and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle is hired to work as a secretary at a remote but scenic institution for mentally disabled women called the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing AgeShe’s immediately in awe of her employer—brilliant, genteel Dr. Agnes Vogel.

Dr. Vogel had been the only woman in her class in medical school. As a young psychiatrist she was an outspoken crusader for women’s suffrage. Now, at age forty, Dr. Vogel runs one of the largest and most self-sufficient public asylums for women in the country. Mary deeply admires how dedicated the doctor is to the poor and vulnerable women under her care.

Soon after she’s hired, Mary learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is one of the inmates. Mary remembers Lillian as a beautiful free spirit with a sometimes-tempestuous side. Could she be mentally disabled? When Lillian begs Mary to help her escape, alleging the asylum is not what it seems, Mary is faced with a terrible choice. Should she trust her troubled friend with whom she shares a dark childhood secret? Mary’s decision triggers a hair-raising sequence of events with life-altering consequences for all.

Review:
I read Ann Leary’s contemporary fiction The Good House last winter (review) and was excited to read her new one and further intrigued to see it was a piece of historic fiction. In spite of being very different from that piece of contemporary fiction, this book lived up to it quite well with richly imagined settings, complex and flawed characters, and an honest depiction of alcohol.

The author discovered this aspect of history – the forced institutionalization of women deemed “feebleminded” in the 1920s for the express eugenics purpose of preventing them from having children – while researching her own family genealogy. (Please be aware that “feebleminded” is a pejorative in modern times. In the 1920s, it was a term used clinically to classify patients.) Her grandmother worked briefly as a secretary at such an institution. The author was made curious by the name of the institution and thus the research that led to this novel was borne. Read more about her perspective on the research process, connection to her family, and the history of this treatment of women.

One of my favorite aspects of Leary’s writing is the characters. She’s not afraid to let them be flawed. In this case, the flaws are partially a reflection of the flaws of the times and partially innate to the characters themselves. No one in this book is perfect, and yet you find yourself rooting for them anyway. It can be difficult from a modern perspective to understand why Mary’s initial reaction to the asylum is positive. Or why she doesn’t trust or believe Lillian right away. But this book does an eloquent job of showing why that is, for personal and societal reasons, and letting Mary grow and change on her own.

Another strength is in making the horrific problems clear without dwelling on them in a gratuitous way. By the end of the book, the reader knows exactly what’s wrong as the asylum, but it remained straight-forward and succinct about it. I dislike it when historical books about difficult issues have scenes that feel like they could have come from a Saw movie. This book avoids that well.

The book also highlights the very serious issues for interracial couples. But there is an interfaith couple for whom the same attention isn’t paid. It felt a bit pie in the sky to not directly address the issues facing a Jewish/Catholic couple in the 1920s. Especially when the Catholic half of the couple is serious enough about her faith that she attends weekly Mass and worries about when she can have Confession. This is a level of seriousness about her faith that made me question how she seemed to not worry at all about the issues facing her in an interfaith relationship. Given the attentive detail given to the interracial couple, it felt even more like a weakness.

I was interested as to how the author would handle alcohol in this 1920s historic piece given The Good House is largely about a woman struggling with alcoholism. Alcohol is not the focus of the book, but it is featured in ways that are realistic to the 1920s. In other words, while Prohibition is still in existence during the book, alcohol is pervasive in society. The downfalls of alcohol are well depicted, again, without being too gratuitous.

Overall, this is a well-researched and crafted piece of historic fiction that covers difficult ground with grace. Recommended to fans of historic fiction. But keep in mind the romance is a subplot in this one.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

People flowing through tubes and standing in line.Summary:
In the near-future humanity is increasingly facing over-population and all its consequences.  In reaction to this, most world governments have established population laws and eugenics boards.  In this overly crowded, information overloaded, perpetually on the brink of war society exist Donald and Norman, healthy bachelors who must live as roommates due to the housing crisis.  Donald is a dilettante, an information specialist on reserve to be activated as a spy when needed for the US government.  Norman is a Muslim African-American working his way up the corporate ladder of the most important technology firm in the world–GT.  GT houses the world’s most brilliant computer named Shalmaneser.  The intertwining lives of these two oddly well-suited roommates gradually unfold amid digressions into the lives of those they come into contact with and information from the modern-day philosophies and advertizing.

Review:
What is most memorable and striking about this book is not so much the story, although that is fairly unique, but the way in which it is told.  Brunner does not simply tell the main storyline, he also immerses the reader into the world the characters live within.  To that end, the main storyline (continuity) is interspersed with chapters focusing in on minor characters (tracking with close-ups, essentially short stories), plunging the reader into the middle of the advertizing of the time (the happening world), and works of importance to the world (context).  The result is that, although it takes a bit of work to get into the book, in the end the world these characters exist in is much more vivid and clear in the reader’s mind, thus allowing her to more fully understand the characters.

Sometimes this method of writing is a bit difficult to read, of course.  For instance, one chapter takes place at a party, and Brunner simply streams all of the conversation together as you would hear it if you were at the party yourself.  You catch snippets of bits of different conversations taking place, but never an entire one all at once.  It’s the most immersive party scene I’ve ever read, but also took me an inordinate amount of time to get through.

It was also refreshing to have one of the main characters in a futuristic scifi book be a minority.  This in and of itself made Stand on Zanzibar a unique, interesting read, and I believe Brunner did a good job portraying both Norman’s struggles with still prevalent racism and presenting him as a well-rounded character.

The major themes of the book, beyond the incredibly meta presentation style, are the very real threat of the loss of privacy and the dehumanization of dependence upon artificial intelligence.

The dehumanizing affect of overpopulation is evident in the language employed by the characters early on in the book.

Not cities in the old sense of grouped buildings occupied by families, but swarming antheaps collapsing into ruin beneath the sledgehammer blows of riot, armed robbery and pure directionless vandalism. (page 52)

These are no longer human cities.  They are crawling ant-piles.  The vision of piles of swarming ants is simply not a pleasant one.  This concept of humanity as a pest is carried even further in a poem from one of the context chapters entitled “Citizen Bacillus,” which begins:

Take stock, citizen bacillus,
Now that there are so many billions of you,
Bleeding through your opened veins,
Into your bathtub, or into the Pacific
Of that by which they may remember you. (page 115)

Not only is this poem taking into account the increasingly suicidal tendencies of the human population in this future society (something that is seen in the animal kingdom when a population becomes overcrowded), but it also is blatantly calling humans a bacteria (bacillus).

The book repeatedly addresses through vignettes, samples of books of the time period, and the lives of the main characters that overpopulation leaves people without enough room to think and figure themselves out in.

True, you’re not a slave. You’re worse off than that by a long, long way. You’re a predatory beast shut up in a cage of which the bars aren’t fixed, solid objects you can gnaw at or in despair batter against with your head until you get punch-drunk and stop worrying. No, those bars are the competing members of your own species, at least as cunning as you on average, forever shifting around so you can’t pin them down, liable to get in your way without the least warning, disorienting your personal environment until you want to grab a gun or an axe and turn mucker. (page 77-8)

In the book “turning mucker” is when a person inexplicably loses their mind and attacks strangers near them.  This happens increasingly throughout the book.  Thus Brunner’s main point that humans are our own worst enemy is repeated throughout the book.

Added on top of this is the fact that artificial intelligence is outpacing humans.  The characters literally cannot keep up with the information overload.  They have nightmares about it.  They simultaneously depend on the computers and dread them.  When one goes awry, they hardly know how to continue on, but simply flounder around.  Chad Mulligan (one of my new favorite literary characters) sums it up eloquently:

What in God’s name is it worth to be human, if we have to be saved from ourselves by a machine? (page 645)

Thus, Stand on Zanzibar through postulating an overpopulated future that is overly dependent on technology demonstrates the very real dangers humans pose to ourselves if we outpace either our own minds or our environment’s ability to house us.  It is a brilliant read for the meta-literature aspect alone, but the content is also challenging and thought-provoking.  I highly recommend it to scifi fans.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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