Saturday, August 21, 2010

REVIEW: The Good Son by Michael Gruber


Somewhere in Pakistan, Sonia Laghari and eight fellow members of a symposium on peace are being held captive by armed terrorists. Sonia, a deeply religious woman as well as a Jungian psychologist, has become the de facto leader of the kidnapped group. While her son Theo, an ex-Delta soldier, uses his military connections to find and free the victims, Sonia tries to keep them all alive by working her way into the kidnappers' psyches and interpreting their dreams. With her knowledge of their language, her familiarity with their religion, and her Jungian training, Sonia confounds her captors with her insights and beliefs. Meanwhile, when the kidnappers decide to kill their captives, one by one, in retaliation for perceived crimes against their country, Theo races against the clock to try and save their lives.

About the Author


Michael Gruber, in his own words:
I was born and raised in New York City, and educated in its public schools. I went to Columbia, earning a B.A. in English literature. After college I did editorial work at various small magazines in New York, and then went back to school at City College and got the equivalent of a second B.A., in biology.
After that I went to the University of Miami and got an M.A. in marine biology. In 1968-69, I was in the Army as a medic.
In 1973, I received my Ph.D. marine sciences, for a study of octopus behavior. Then I was a chef at several Miami restaurants. Then I was a hippie traveling around in a bus and working as a roadie for various rock groups. Then I worked for the county manager of Metropolitan Dade County, as an analyst. Then I was director of planning for the county department of human resources.
I went to Washington, D.C., in 1977, and worked in the Carter White House, Office of Science and Technology Policy. Then I worked in the Environmental Protection Agency as a policy analyst and also as the speechwriter for the administrator. I started writing freelance at that time, and shortly after being promoted to the Senior Executive Service of the U.S., I left Washington and settled in Seattle. I worked for a while for the state land commissioner, but since 1988 I have been a full-time writer.
I am married, with three grown children and an extremely large dog.

Good To Know

Some interesting anecdotes from our interview with Gruber:
"My first job was writing copy for Classics Comics, which was the best job I ever had. Reducing Tolstoy to thought balloons!"
"I did my Ph.D. on the relation between moray eels and octopuses. As a result of this work, I am one of the few people who have been bitten by both a moray eel and an octopus. Being bitten by a moray is much like catching your finger in a car door. Being bitten by an octopus is like being snakebit. Your arm swells up and turns black."
"I was once a member of a traveling commune called the Hog Farm. I was the cook on one of the buses. My roadkill dumplings were famous throughout the mobile counterculture. I once made eggs Benedict for 14 hippies on the banks of the Rio Grande. Aside from that my life has been fairly dull and no fun at all."
"I have no hobbies. The only thing I do with my time is reading, writing, and research. I walk my dog. I occasionally dig in the garden, but we have a gardener and this tends to upset her. I never unwind, except I get drunk with a bunch of journalists every Friday. Every Wednesday I teach snippets of Catholic theology to people who wish to join the Church."

My Thoughts

A son and mother at odds, never quite connecting. The mother, Sonia, is a Jungian-trained therapist and finds herself kidnapped in Pakistan as part of a group. The son, Theo, is a military soldier determined to rescue his mother at any cost.

I liked this book within the first few paragraphs. I found the writing style to be very comfortable. However there are moments of startlingly brutal truth.
This is one of the crappy old buildings where they keep soldiers who are too busted up to fight but who the army hasn't gotten around to kicking out yet. Peeling paint, black moldy walls, really decrepit; they were supposed to fix all this up but they haven't got around to it yet. Personally, I'm not surprised or shocked. This is how the army is. What surprises me more is that people think they'll get anything different from an organization whose main purpose is to kill people and whose leaders are easily distinguishable from Mother Theresa.
The one drawback is that there were moments when I would get lost in the technical military mumbo jumbo. I'm more a dialogue kinda gal. I guess that's one of the reasons that I like Stephen King so much-- he tends to write lots of dialogue between the characters.

The story really started to pick up, and by page 150 I was wondering where this was going to go. I felt like I was being given insights into a culture that Americans find mysterious and dangerous, and thereby quite a bit frightening.

Something about the character of Sonia didn't sit well with me. Something about her didn't feel real. I never really felt that I "knew" her, but then again her own son didn't really know her. So I guess that made sense. Who was I to know her when her own son didn't even know her?

I disliked most of the scenes that took place in the NSA with Cynthia. Although there were some interesting insights into what I gather was probably a pretty good representation of the inside workings of some areas of government, I found that this took me out of the "real" story. I wanted to learn more of the captive lives of the kidnapped individuals, and I wanted to delve in deeply to the lives of mother Sonia and son Theo. The internal working of the NSA were just a distraction from that.

At one point, this book made a point that had not occurred to me before.
...From Pakistan to Morocco, the Muslims invent nothing, manufacture nothing that anyone wants to buy. Is there a Muslim cell phone? Is there a Muslim car? Is there even a Muslim gun or a Muslim bullet? You know there is not, although you use these things happily enough?
This reminded me of something I've heard before about invention and prosperity. It is said that in times of prosperity invention stagnates. When things are going well, there is no need for development. It is just the status quo. So it makes sense that the Muslim world, where there is enormous material wealth and prosperity for many due to a wealth of oil, there would be a lack of invention and creativity.

This was a pretty good story. I just felt that it was too superficial and technical for my tastes. I would have enjoyed it more had it delved more deeply into the inner workings, thoughts and feelings of the people involved, mainly Sonia and Theo. However this would probably be perfect for individuals who like military stories.

My Rating: 8 out of 10

(My thanks to Jason of Henry Holt Publishing for a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.)

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