Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: Year in Review

Wow, it's hard to believe the year is over.  It's been almost a year since I began book blogging (there will be a post in a week about that!), and I couldn't be happier.  I'll save all my "thoughts about blogging" for my anniversary post.  This post is for those fabulous books I read in 2009.  Many weren't published in 2009, but they were all read by me in 2009.

After much agonizing and indecision, I've created a list of my favorite ten books I read this year.  I've listed them in order, but with the exception of Hunger Games, the order is only mildly meaningful.

My top 10 books read in 2009:
1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
2. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
4. Graceling by Kristin Cashore 
5. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
6. Going Bovine by Libba Bray
7. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
8. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
9. March by Geraldine Brooks
10 Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Total books read and reviewed: 82
Yup, I reviewed every single book I read this year.  Sometimes I was so excited about blogging, I raced through the end of the book (oops).  Sometimes I had nothing to say and only got out a paragraph or two.  But they all got reviewed. Considering I probably read about six books in 2008, this is a great improvement.  I've been thinking over whether I wanted to set a higher to-read goal for 2009, but I'm actually really happy with my current number.  I'll set 80 books as my goal for the next year.

Reviewing has really been a pleasure, as it has allowed me to think more critically about what I'm reading before, during, and after I read.  I've been proudest of those books that I've approached with an eye toward literary analysis (rather than "Ooh, I really liked/hated it").  

Fiction read: 72
Nonfiction read: 10
I'm obviously partial to fiction, but I've been making decent inroads into nonfiction.  I still think I'll stay mostly in the fiction arena, but I'm looking to make about 15-20% of my books nonfiction in 2010.

Adult (meaning non-YA) read: 56
Young adult read: 26
I didn't read much YA when I was younger, so it's been exciting to read some new YA books this year.  I'm having a lot of fun with the fast-paced storylines and interesting scenarios.  I know I don't want to become only a YA reader, though.  There's too many interesting and important things going on in "serious" (I use this term very loosely and with no insult intended) adult literature.  For 2010, I want YA to make up no more than one third of my read books.

On a random note...
I always get excited when someone with more clout than I agrees with something I've said.  I was reading a New York Times article ("Books You Can Live Without," Room for Debate, 12/27/09) on how to get rid of excessive books (a problem I'm discovering, for the first time, that I have).  Anyway, the author David Matthews had this to say about the books he's getting rid of:
On to fiction. Delillo’s “Underworld” can go, because a book can be long, or it can be boring, but it shouldn’t be both. Marquez’s “A Hundred Years of Solitude” makes the scrap heap, because it would take precisely that combination of circumstances before I could be bothered to finish it. Bye, bye Jamaica Kincaid — assigned 20 years ago by a comparative lit professor — you will always be homework to me. Soon, my bookshelf is lean. All muscle and bone.
See posts on A Hundred Years of Solitude and Annie John.  Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

"Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood

Summary:  This post-apocalyptic novel follows Snowman (formerly Jimmy), who appears to be the only human left among a strange group of human-like people called the Crakers.  The naive Crakers understand nothing of the world that was, and Snowman has created a mythology to explain the world to them even as he struggles with existence himself.  In flashbacks, Snowman relates the events leading up to the catastrophe (or grand plan) that wiped out most of earth's human population by describing his relationships with a childhood friend named Crake and a former child prostitute, Oryx. 

Musings: I've read Oryx and Crake before, but since Atwood's new novel, The Year of the Flood, relies on the premise of the former, I wanted to reread the book prior to checking out her new one.

There is such a deluge of post-apocalyptic literature around now that much of the problematic society depicted in the novel does not seem unique.  This is not a criticism, but rather a note on how commonplace these types of dystopian societies are to readers.  The world Jimmy relates in flashbacks is consumed with physical appearance, sex, making money, and control (among many others) and uses deception and manipulation to achieve its goals, regardless of the cost to real people.  Atwood's novel goes a step further, however, by depicting not only the evils of this society, but the evils of choosing to correct this society.  Atwood's book asks whether remedy can be made within an inexorably flawed species or whether, to correct current problems, humanity must begin from scratch.

Unlike other dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels, the protagonist of Oryx and Crake is not a brave and determined hero seeking to carry on or enact change despite the overwhelming odds.  Snowman is alive--not particularly by choice--but he has little purpose in life.  As the novel progresses, the reader sees that his attachment to the Crakers gives him some goal, but even Snowman realizes that the people have little need for him.  Snowman muses, clearly thinking of his own situation, "Can a single ant be said to be alive, in any meaningful sense of the word, or does it only have relevance in terms of its anthill?  An old conundrum of Crake's" (Atwood 371).  Snowman exists without any clear or noble reason of why he does so.

The three main characters of the novel--Snowman, Crake, and Oryx--are important foils to one another.  Crake represents logic without morality; Snowman signifies the struggle between emotion and reason.  Oryx, the primary female character, is an object for both men, which is emphasized by how little the reader knows about her.  For Crake, Oryx is an object of logic; for Snowman, an object of emotion.  In neither is she a real person.

Atwood is skilled at filling her worlds with rich descriptive detail.  The bits of the story are pieced together slowly, as the novel introduces the reader to questions, answers the questions, and raises new and more difficult ones by the time the novel concludes.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"The Titan's Curse" by Rick Riordan

Summary: While Thalia, Annabeth, Grover, and Percy are on a quest to recruit two recently discovered half-bloods, Annabeth disappears and the group meets the goddess Artemis and her Hunters, including the icy Zoe.  When Artemis also goes missing, Thalia, Grover, Percy, Zoe, and Bianca (one of the new half-bloods) go on a quest to rescue her and help save Olympus once again.

Musings: Reading this book has cemented for me the idea that I need to give myself some break time between reading most books in a series.  While I didn't have a lot of good things to say about Riordan's second Percy Jackson book, The Sea of Monsters, I think that stemmed primarily from reading in directly after The Lightning Thief.  Such back-to-back comparisons make exposing flaws and repetitive structure easy while diminishing the positive qualities.

All of this is probably a roundabout way of saying that I enjoyed The Titan's Curse quite a bit.  The introduction and characterization of Artemis was interesting; Thalia and Zoe brought some new personalities into the series.  Because this novel also drew more on Titan mythology (rather than the Odyssey, which was the basis for much of the previous book), I was less familiar with the stories and more engaged in reading about them.  A "twist" at the end of the book should add the necessary steam to get through the rest of the series.

Some of the most interesting themes in the series are still only half-explored, such as the parent-child relationship between the gods and the half-bloods, and the way in which the evolution (or lack thereof) of gender roles has affected the characters.  Nonetheless, this is a middle-grade novel, so I won't be too harsh.  I'll certainly pick up the fourth book, The Battle of the Labyrinth--in a month or two.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Annie John" by Jamaica Kincaid

Summary:  A coming-of-age novel set in Antigua as Annie begins to mature and become aware of a widening gulf between her and her previously doting mother.

Musings: I teach an excerpt of this novel at the beginning of the school year, but I had never actually read the book myself.  It's a short read, but after finishing it, I'm not sure quite what to think.

One of the things that most befuddled me was my absolute inability to see a real person in Annie.  She seemed strange and foreign--not in a "person from another country" kind of way, but in a non-human kind of way.  Her relationships with her classmates and her mother, while not unusual, still felt odd to me.  I don't know how to describe it any better.

Annie's increasing distance from his mother and conflicting feelings of devotion and hatred I imagine are typical of many teenagers, but they also were confusing to me.  I've always had a good relationship with my mom, even as a teenager, so perhaps I just can't empathize with the situation.

Annie's mysterious illness which leaves her bedridden for months (?) signifies the book's leap into a kind of magical realism.  I assume there has to be a lot of symbolism there, but the cloud of confusion that followed me through the book didn't let up.

Kincaid has a unique style that is both straightforward and imaginative.  Her novel explores the ways in which mothers and daughters grapple for power and understanding while often failing to achieve both.  Nonetheless, I don't think it's a book I appreciated as a stand-alone read; it would probably work better in a literature classroom.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"What the Dog Saw" by Malcolm Gladwell

Summary:  A collection of essays by Gladwell, originally published in The New Yorker, in which he uses quirky stories and facts to explain ideas related to psychology, statistics, and similar social fields.

Musings: I was drawn to this book by the review in the New York Times ("Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective" by Steve Pinker, 11/7/09).  Although the reviewer Pinker was highly critical of Gladwell's populist psychology, broad generalizations, and simplification (and errors) of terms, the descriptions of the types of stories present in What the Dog Saw just sounded so darn interesting that I wanted to read the book anyway.

I was familiar with some of his stories (having a monthly period while on birth control isn't necessary; the only thing traditional interviews predict is how well the interviewer and interviewee get along), but Gladwell still had many interesting anecdotes and histories to tell that I had never heard of.  The comparison of early hair dye commercials provided a look at developing feminism; a discussion of the uselessness of criminal profiling was relevant considering the current proliferation of those type of TV shows.

"Million Dollar Murray," an essay on solving homelessness, was especially fascinating.  It poses some interesting questions about how we define a "solution" in this kind of situation and what, morally, we are willing to do to achieve the most effective solution.  On a "feeding my righteous anger" note, what I probably liked most about this essay was its affirmation that mandatory yearly car emissions testings do nothing to curb emissions.  I grew up in a state that didn't require emissions testing, and I now live in a state which forces me to pay $70 a year for this ridiculous service.  I was sure it was just a ploy for increasing money to the government and auto repair shops.  I was right.

"Something Borrowed" addresses plagiarism.  This is a topic that I think about a lot as an English teacher.  I routinely catch students blatantly plagiarizing (in fact, I used to have students write book reviews on independent reading books, but the plagiarism was so rampant that I gave up the assignment), but Gladwell raises some interesting questions of derivative work versus plain old copying.  I used to do some web design, and I'd often use other images or sites for inspiration.  Sometimes I'd manipulate the original image; other times I'd use the original concept as a starting stone for my own work.  It was occasionally a murky line for me--where does plagiarism become transformative, and thus, original?  Gladwell makes a compelling argument for views on plagiarism in writing being extreme and, perhaps, unnecessarily damaging.

"Connecting the Dots" addresses the famous axiom: "hindsight is always 20/20."  This article discusses our reactions to terrible events after they happen.  The tendency is to look back at the event, see the "clues" that led up to it, and place blame for someone not "putting the clues together" in order to prevent the tragedy.  I'd always felt investigations into things like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, for example, have been emblematic of our desire to place unwarranted blame. This has always struck me as an emotional, rather than a logical, response to a tragedy.  People look for God, and they look for a scapegoat.  Gladwell points out that our inundation of information makes it difficult to predict many events.   I'm absolutely no Bush supporter, but I don't blame him for not predicting 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina (I just blame him for his response afterward).  Bad things happen.  In trying to assign guilt after the fact and stop every possible kind of disaster, we take attention, time, and money away from things that can be helped.  Plus now I can't bring a normal bottle of shampoo on a plane.

However, some essays missed the mark or made broad suggestions without realistic methods of implementation.  "Most Likely To Succeed" addresses the tricky question of how to hire good teachers.  His proposed solution involves following a financial industry model in which many people are hired, then vetted out through a competitive process over a period of years that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.  There are too many gigantic flaws in this plan that I won't even bother to go into them.

At times the messages even seemed contradictory.  The same essay, "Most Likely to Succeed," recommends doing away with tenure and hiring superstars; the essay "The Talent Myth," about Enron, criticizes hiring super stars and praises companies that hire on seniority and focus on the organization rather than individuals.

One of the things Pinker does praise Gladwell for is Gladwell's skill at the essay form.  Gladwell is a very talented persuasive writer, even if reading so many of his essays in a row exposed the same basic structure and form to each (most funny to me was the appearance, about one third of the way through each essay, of a brief description of a primary expert: Suzy Expert is a well-dressed woman of forty with a shock of blond hair and freckles... or the like).  Gladwell has a great quote to end his preface, which I found especially applicable to my teaching of writing:
Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade.  Not the kind of writing that you'll find in this book, anyway.  It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be. (xv)
 Of books recently that have made me think, question, and want to discuss issues further, What the Dog Saw is at the top of the list.  I don't buy all Gladwell says, but the book certainly engaged me in thinking about his suppositions.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"The Lost City of Z" by David Grann

Summary: In the early 20th century, much of the world was still unexplored (at least by Western civilizations), and the Amazon was one dangerous and unknown area that attracted explorers looking for adventure, fame, and treasure.  One famous explorer was Percy Fawcett, who was known for his determination and single-mindedness; he believed the Amazon was once home to a large and complex civilization, the "Lost City of Z."  After many successful expeditions into the Amazon, Fawcett and his two fellow travelers (his son and his son's friend) suddenly disappeared, never to be heard from again.  Since then, many people have been lured to the Amazon in hopes of finding the truth of Fawcett's end.

Musings: In the age of endless information and interconnectedness, it's easy to believe that all portions of the earth have been thoroughly observed and categorized.  Even isolated villages often have frequent contact with the "modern" world and technology.  Yet The Lost City of Z not only brings us to a time when much of the world was unknown, but it also questions our basic assumption that all that is out there has already been discovered.

During the time of Fawcett's career, exploration was a glamorous and exciting field to much of the world.  I had chuckled at the "quaint" adoration of exploring depicted in Up (the movie clearly drew on stories like Fawcett's for its premise), but Grann shows just how alluring and intriguing this field was.  Just look at the current proliferation of science-fiction and fantasy series.  What's more exciting than the unknown?  And the ability to go "where no man had gone before" just by traveling to another continent?-- how tempting.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, that so many people would risk their lives attempting to explore such dangerous areas as the Amazon.  Grann does an excellent job in detailing Fawcett's and others' journeys into the Amazon, acknowledging both the appeal and the inherent dangers.  These were trips when many people frequently died or disappeared--from illness, disease, animals, insects, dangerous Indian tribes, accident--yet more continued to attempt such quests.

Fawcett is an intriguing character.  He believed fully in himself and his quest, shunning any kind of comfortable life (and his family) in pursuit of his dream.  He was so convinced of his own invincibility (he rarely became ill or injured during his trips), that when he disappeared in 1925, it was almost impossible to believe he was really gone.  No wonder that so many have gone after him.

I typically stick to fiction, but I am really glad I picked up The Lost City of Z.  Weaving history and interviews into a compelling narrative, biography, and personal odyssey, Grann allows the reader to also journey through the excitement of the unknown.  Unlike some nonfiction books, the pace was fast and the information rarely was dull.  Fawcett never located the "Lost City of Z," but Grann also offers new archeological evidence that a large civilization may have existed in the Amazon after all, raising the question of what else we have yet to discover.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Specials" by Scott Westerfeld

Summary: Tally has been changed again; this time, she's a special and one of the Cutters, a distinct group of specials led by Tally's former friend Shay.  Tally likes being a special, but she's sad because her boyfriend, Zane, is still only pretty and damaged by taking from the anti-pretty drugs.  Tally and Shay pull off a daring stunt in hopes of making Zane a special, only to find they've set off unrest and fighting among the cities.

Musings: I had really liked Pretties and so decided to go straight into Specials.  I don't know if it was the timing or the book itself, but I really had some problems with it.  The story was interesting, but I hated Tally.  She was cool as an ugly, annoying but growing as a pretty, and obnoxious as a special.  She's accused of being ego-centric, and it's true.  She thinks of nothing but herself and her desires, and I really didn't think she'd changed by the end.  She wants to change Zane because she's repulsed by him "only" being a pretty and not a special, but at the same time, she's madly in love with him and uses him as her motivating source throughout the book.  I couldn't understand her absolute devotion.  I understood her choosing Zane over David in Pretties, but this passionate love seemed out of place.

The egotism continues at the end of the book, when Tally decides she can't rejoin the struggling cities, but instead she will act as their "watch dog" and keep them from destroying the environment (somehow along the way she became a nature freak).  And who is she to be guard for them all?  Who is she to decide what the reforming cities can and can't do?  She's made more mistakes and caused more problems than anyone.

I was frustrated throughout much of the book, which kept me from enjoying most of what happened.  Tally's snooty view of everyone else filtered to me as well, so that by the end I not only disliked Tally, but I could care less about the other characters and their attempts to rebuild society as well.

- See my reviews of book one in the series, Uglies, and book two in the series, Pretties.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"Pretties" by Scott Westerfeld

Summary: In the sequel to Uglies, Tally is back in New Pretty Town, having volunteered to be turned into a pretty so that the anti-pretty mind drugs developed in the Smoke can be tested on her.  Tally remembers little of her time in the Smoke and is otherwise a typical "pretty" until Croy, a boy from the Smoke, shows up with the pills.  Taking the pills with another pretty, Zane, Tally finds herself remembering more of her normal self and taking more risks to stay "bubbly"--not pretty-minded.  Tally and Zane are being watched, however, and must find a way to escape and return to the Smoke.

Musings:  It's been about a month and a half since I read Uglies, so it seemed like the right time to delve into the second of the series.  The book begins with Tally as a pretty, which can be both frustrating and illuminating.  Her change from flighty pretty to serious-minded Tally is enjoyable, even if I could have lived without hearing the world "bubbly" so often.

The romance with David of the first book is replaced with the romance with Zane, a fellow pretty.  The boys are virtually interchangeable, but they do represent a different stage in Tally's life.  When all three are finally brought together at the end I expected the beginning of the ever-popular YA love triangle, but the story moved away from that much more quickly than I had expected.  At first I was surprised at how easily Tally could choose, but her choice made sense.  In the real world, people grow and move on from relationships; a passionate romance one month may mean much less the second.  Only in fiction is the love of one moment the love of a lifetime. 

Like in the first book, Westerfeld begins to raise questions about the nature of humanity and our effect on our environment.  All societies presented in the book--New Pretty Town, the Smoke, and the "savages"--have both positive and negative traits.  Not one represents an ideal society, and it's unclear which, if any, is best.  I'm hoping this idea will be explored further in the next books.

After reading the What is the What (which was excellent, but lengthy and requiring some effort), Pretties was the perfect book.  It was quick, fast-paced, and fun to read.

- See my reviews of book one in the series, Uglies, and book three in the series, Specials 

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"What is the What" by Dave Eggers

Summary: A fictionalized account of the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan.  Told in flashbacks from Valentino's current struggles in Atlanta, What is the What follows Valentino's childhood in Sudan, exodus from his country, and life in refugee camps before being relocated as an adult to the United States.

Musings: I was vaguely familiar with the story of the "Lost Boys" from news programs and a documentary I watched a year or two ago.  Nonetheless, I'm glad I took the time to read a detailed and personal account of one person's experiences.  Although not representative of what everyone went through (nor, exactly, what Deng experienced), the book provides an engrossing look at the challenges facing Sudan and the challenges of growing up displaced.

One of the most interesting questions the book raised for me was what exactly can be done for people like Deng.  Relocating to the U.S. has some benefits, but not the success, wealth, safety, and care that had been imagined.  Nor does living in America (at least on the surface) help rebuild Sudan.  As an adult, Deng struggles between taking care of himself and taking care of his family and countrymen; between life in America and life in his homeland.

The majority of the book focuses on Deng's flight from Sudan and years in refugee camps.  Above all, the story is one of survival and perserverance, even at life's darkest hours.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

"Going Bovine" by Libba Bray

Summary:  Cameron, a teenage boy without much in the way of interests or motivation, learns he has mad cow disease, and quickly ends up in the hospital, fading fast.  Then Dulcie, a punk angel, enters his life, and convinces him and a dwarf friend to go on a crazy trip around the country, searching for the mysterious Dr. X in order to cure Cameron and save the world.

Musings:  I'd heard a lot of good things about Going Bovine, but I really didn't know what to expect going in.  I was sold on the first page, however, when I met the narrator Cameron, and his sarcastic humor.  When talking about the obnoxious football-star-turned-religious-motivational-speaker (after an injury), Cameron notes: "Anyway, [the speeches] get him laid, I hear.  Doing the horizontal mambo with sympathetic cheerleaders is, apparently, a-okay in God's book, and it doesn't upset your spine like football.  Of course, now he's dating my sister, Jenna, so I'll just be flipping on the denial meter for that one" (7).  Cameron was a fabulous protagonist.  Like most teenagers, he was neither a total victim or a total instigator.  Some things in his life sucked, but he also set himself up for failure.  He let apathy be his default mode rather than risk being disappointed.  His growth throughout the novel shaped the story, and he felt like a real person.

The novel was hilarious, and weird, and random, and funny, and touching all the way through.  In a book with a hypochondriac dwarf, a garden gnome inhabited by a Norse god, and evil in the form of the United Snowglobe Wholesalers, you can't go wrong.  On top of that, the novel addresses issues like sex and sexuality, drug use, and death without insulting teenagers' intelligence and without any "message."

I read it while on the plane and at my in-laws' place for Thanksgiving and had a great time.  It's the perfect book for people who like darker humor and the absurd.

Update: 10:02pm (a few references to minor spoilers)

When I wrote my review I had just returned home from Thanksgiving break and didn't really think about the book critically.  I still loved reading it and would recommend it, but I was looking over some reviews and was struck by one person's comments about the character Dulcie.

Dulcie is an important character in the book who initially spurs Cameron on his journey.  However, as this reviewer pointed out, despite appearing frequently throughout the novel, Dulcie is not a person in her own right.  Her purpose is to support Cameron and allow him to achieve his fantasies: she's a wizened guide, an object of sexual desire, and a damsel in distress when necessary for Cameron's odyssey, but she has no personality in her own right.  We learn nothing about her and nothing about what she wants.  Cameron's male friends, Gonzo and Balder, are striking and interesting individuals.  But the sole primary female character is identified by her wings and smell, not her character.  Angela at Bookish Blather wrote an interesting post a week or so ago about "blank page heroines." These "blank page heroines" support the male figure without having any thoughts or desires in their own right.  Dulcie would fit right in.

Angela and the authors of some of her source material speak of books in which women want to insert themselves into this "blank page heroine" role (i.e., Twilight).  However, Going Bovine is a little different.  I don't know if girls would want to be Dulcie; she's almost too blank, despite her sexual desirability, to want to emulate.  However, I don't like this idea that women "sidekicks" can't be real people.  Throughout the book, Bray has the reader question what about Cameron's journey is "real."  If it is, in fact, all inside Cameron's head, then he's recreated a male fantasy: awesome and loyal male sidekicks and girl who is cute, nag-free, and sexually available.  That may be true to adolescent males' fantasies, but in a book that portrays Cameron as learning how to "truly live," it's problematic.  It skews my feelings about him a bit, and it's bothering me about an otherwise wonderful book.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

"Notes from a Small Island" by Bill Bryson

Summary: Bryson aims to travel through England, making notes about the towns and cities he stops at along the way.

Musings:  First, a confession: I didn't finish this book.  I made it to page 270, which means I read 85% of it, so I decided that was sufficient enough to blog about (I remember hearing somewhere that, on Broadway, if 85% of the seats are sold, it's considered a sold-out show.  That may be entirely false, but I'm employing the idea here.).  I kept thinking it was stupid to not finish; after all, I'd come so far.  But, despite it being a perfectly fine book, I just wasn't enjoying myself.  Also, I'm unaccountably thinking and writing like Bryson, which probably isn't a good thing.

Notes from a Small Island was part of my new foray into nonfiction.  Looking back, I'm not exactly sure why I decided to integrate more nonfiction into my world other than because I thought I "should."  But now I have a bunch of nonfiction books to read, so I'm stuck.

Bryson has a light and humorous tone, which is the main appeal of his novel.  His complaints and observations about British customs and his random asides were by far the best part of this book.  Take this section, which cracked me up:

[complaining about the dashboard in a rental car] In the middle of this dashboard were two circular dials of equal size.  One clearly indicated speed, but the other totally mystified me.  It had two pointers on it, one of which advanced very slowly and the other of which didn't appear to move at all.  I looked at it for ages before it finally dawned on me--this is true--that it was a clock. (141)

However, beyond some amusing anecdotes, not enough happens to make the book interesting.  As someone who has visited England, but is generally unfamiliar with its locations, I had no "knowing smile" to crack when he discussed a town.  Bryson does basically the same thing in each place in England: shows up, finds a place to stay, has tea, hikes around town, has dinner, has drinks at a pub, goes to sleep, gets up, takes a bus to somewhere else.  The exact same routine takes place in each town, and I got tired of hearing his description of the beautiful walks and his complaints about the architectural decline of the towns.

Perhaps this just wasn't the most appropriate Bryson novel for me.  Some parts really were enjoyable, but I found myself skimming more and more and not really listening to what he had to say.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Dystopias and YA Authors

I've had, if I may use a cliched non-word, a booktastic weekend.  I received the plethora of books at NCTE, attended some interesting workshops at the convention, and just returned from a great YA author book signing.

The last convention workshop I went to yesterday was on dystopian and apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic fiction.  My book interests generally veer in that direction, although I've been complaining recently about overdosing on the doomsday.  Nonetheless, I was excited to hear other teachers talk about the books they've taught.  I'd read probably three-quarters of the books they recommended, and my current curriculum doesn't really allow me to teach dystopias, but I did come away with some books I hadn't heard of that I'd like to try.  These include:
- The Wave (Strasser)
- The City of Ember (DuPrau)
- The Running Man (Bachman, really Stephen King)
- The Long Walk (Bachman/King)
- Feed (M.T. Anderson)

This afternoon I went to a small independent bookstore called Children's Book World, which featured a book signing with a bunch of popular YA authors.  A portion of the proceeds went to support the Philadelphia Library System (definitely a worthy cause).  I'd heard of nearly all the authors present, but was especially excited to meet Steve Kluger, the author of The Last Days of SummerLast Days has been a summer reading book for our 9th graders for several years, and the kids absolutely love it.  I've heard wonderful things about his new novel, My Most Excellent Year, which I purchased.  He was super nice.  I also had Wintergirls signed by Laurie Halse Anderson and Leviathan signed by Scott Westerfeld.  Although Uglies is the only Westerfeld novel I've read so far, Leviathan looks really interesting.  Had a nice conversation with him about the use of illustrations in that book.

I had a wonderful time, and the authors and staff of Children's Book World were all enthusiastic and welcoming.  I have far, far too many books to read now, but I can't wait to start!

Friday, November 20, 2009

NCTE Rocks My World

Today I attended the National Council of Teachers of English Convention for the first time.  I was pretty excited to have a chance to attend some workshops on a wide array of topics, although I'll admit the enormous size and scope of the conference was pretty intimidating.

The morning at the conference was going well, and as I was reading the program, I noticed ads for several publishing booths indicated there were free books available.  I decided to head over to the big exhibit hall when it opened, hoping to grab a book or two.

What I found astounded me: rows after rows of publishers giving away FREE BOOKS!  I was in heaven.  I'm a big stickler for borrowing from the library and friends, so I never purchase novels.  As I result, my own book shelves are pretty skimpy (especially for an English teacher), so I'm always thrilled when I can add something to my collection.

Primary lesson I learned: there is no madness like scores of English teachers diving for literature.  It was crazy, and awesome, all at the same time.  I first assumed the books were likely to be random novels no one has heard of, but I was surprised by the quality.  In the end, I left with fifteen books including:

- The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness (yes!)
- Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
- The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti
- The God of Small Things by Arundhati Ray

I got a stuffed owl from Cliff Notes too! Many of the other books are YA, especially with dystopian themes (guess I'm never going to escape it!).  Some look interesting, some less so, but I'll lend them out to my students and ask them to give me a review.

I'm heading back to the convention center tomorrow for the second full day of the convention.  I think my freebie shopping is over, but I'm looking forward to a number of workshops.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

"The Glass Castle" by Jeannette Walls

Summary: A memoir of Walls' life growing up poor in the American southwest and West Virginia.  Raised by parents who believed in extreme self-sufficiency, Walls' family lived a transient life, often living without adequate housing and food.  The book focuses largely on her parents, who managed to raise intelligent and (largely) successful children while failing to live a traditionally successful life themselves.

Musings:  I've heard of this book for quite awhile, but it wasn't one I had actively sought out.  But, I was looking to take a YA break and also bring in more nonfiction to my reading list, so this seemed like a good choice.

I typically have a difficult time with "rough childhood" and/or abuse memoirs because I find that their sensational stories are often used to cover up poor writing.  While I may sympathize with what the writers experienced, I can't read a story that is more "abuse porn" than literature.  Fortunately, Walls writes her story in simplistic and engaging prose that acknowledges her life's struggles and successes without becoming maudlin.

The story was still challenging for me most of the time, primarily because I felt such loathing for Walls' parents.  Although they are to be credited with raising intelligent children, I primarily saw them as narcissistic losers more interested in themselves than their family.  This is not a story about poverty despite parents' best attempts otherwise.  It is a story about a family in dire poverty because the parents are unwilling to consider others' needs before their own and sacrifice petty wishes for the broader good.  Individualism taken to a dangerous extreme.  The parents are not abusive by normal standards--they provide love and encouragement to their children and do not hit their kids--but their lack of physical care for their children is all the more egregious because of it.

Fortunately, this story has a happy ending.  All but the youngest child are immensely more successful once they move to New York and are able to live without their parents stealing their money and irrationally destroying their opportunities for success.  In fact, I felt my hatred for the parents lessening once the children were thriving and the parents were more nuisances than serious hindrances.

There are certainly many messages in here, but I reacted too strongly to the characters to consider them very deeply.  I'm glad I read the book, but I don't know that I enjoyed it.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

"Sea of Monsters" by Rick Riordan

Summary: In the second book of the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series, Percy finds himself drawn into trouble again as he's attacked on his last day of school.  Escaping with the help of his friend Annabeth (from book one) and a new friend, the giant and powerful Tyson, Percy returns to Camp Half-Blood.  There he learns that the camp is in trouble, and he and his friends must again embark on a quest to save the camp and their friend Grover.

Musings: I probably wouldn't have jumped straight into the second Percy Jackson book, but I didn't have anything good from the library, so I started anyway.  Riordan is nothing if not consistent, and the second book in the series follows the same structure and plot as the original.  It unfortunately also shares the same flaws, which I was perhaps more aware of as I'd just finished the first book and was expecting them.

This book takes a lot from the Odyssey.  I like the breadth from which Riordan takes his mythological history, but at the same time, in this book I felt the references were more repetition than invention.  It's one thing to cleverly weave mythology into a modern young adult adventure, but it's another to repeat essentially the same stories with a young adult hero instead of the original mythological characters.  The characters' experiences with Circe and the Cyclops, especially, felt dull for this reason.

A young adult audience (at least pre-9th grade) might be familiar with basic Olympian mythology, but likely would not have read the Odyssey yet, so they probably wouldn't have experienced the same feelings I did.  I'm typically not a "know your classics!" stickler, but if Riordan's offering nothing new to the stories, I find it a little disheartening to know kids are reading a parody without knowing the original.  In fact, in class last week, we were reading book nine of the Odyssey together (the Cyclops episode) and when we got to the "Nobody" name trick, one student exclaimed, "Oh, that's from Percy Jackson!".  No, that's from Homer.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

"The Lightning Thief" by Rick Riordan

Summary: Percy Jackson has been expelled from the many private schools he has attended.  Between his problems with dyslexia and ADHD and his propensity for attracting trouble, he's finding he doesn't fit in with any school.  However, as Percy's life becomes increasingly in danger, he begins to learn about his origins and connections to the Olympians of Greek mythology.  It turns out the Greek Olympians are real and alive, and Percy is the son of one of them.  Percy joins other demigods at Camp Half-Blood and is soon on a quest with a daughter of Athena, Annabeth, and a satyr, Grover, to discover who has stolen Zeus' thunderbolt.

Musings: I'd heard about the Percy Jackson series from my students for a couple years; it always got brought up when we began our Greek Mythology unit prior to studying the Odyssey.  However, it wasn't until this year that I had a large contingent of students who had read and followed the series.  The Lightning Thief came out in 2005, so it would have been timed perfectly to arrive with my current students' emergence into middle school.  After their hearty recommendations, I began the series myself.

The Lightning Thief is written for a middle-school audience (the hero is a sixth grader), so some of the fantasy elements were a bit (and understandably so) juvenile.  Nonetheless, I enjoyed this classic adventure story with a mythological twist.  The continual references to mythology are fun, even if they're glaringly obvious to someone familiar with the material (anyone who knows the Odyssey would know better than to enter a hotel called "Hotel Lotus").  The kids' mistakes were also a little too dumb, even for middle schoolers (even a 12-year-old knows that if someone offers food and a warm place to stay for free there's danger ahead), but such mistakes kept the story going along at a brisk pace.

I enjoyed the primary characters and their relationships with the gods.  Riordan does a nice job exploring what the relationship between a half-blood son and an all-powerful god would be like.  It's a world in which the gods maintain power despite no mortals believing in them, and I liked the way Riordan worked that into the story.

Like in many young adult novels, the characters are not particularly unique or new, and there is an American-centric basis that was a little annoying (Mount Olympus is now located above the Empire State building because the United States is the epicenter of the world).  However, I'll definitely pick up the next book (I don't think my students would let me do otherwise), even though I know that means accepting the reading of the entire five-book series!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

"Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman

Summary: Richard Mayhew is living an ordinary life in London when, out one night on an important dinner date with his fiance, he runs into a girl injured on the street and in need of help.  When he brings her back to her apartment, he finds himself drawn into her world.  Hidden beneath the streets of London, a strange subculture exists separate from London Above  Richard and Door (the girl) begin a journey to find the truth about Door's family's deaths.

Musings:  I picked this up at my school library from recognizing Gaiman's name.  Unintentionally, I also ended up with Good Omens at about the same time, so I was a little wary of beginning Neverwhere since I'd just read another of his books (I try to space out genres, subjects, and authors, if possible, but I've been failing miserably at that recently).  Fortunately Neverwhere was right up my genre alley and was sufficiently different from Good Omens to avoid deja vu.

Although Everwhere possesses some of the random sardonic humor that marks Good Omens, humor is not at the core of the work.  Instead, Everwhere is a fully-fledged fantasy adventure novel full of strange worlds, bizarre customs, and extraordinary characters (notice all the synonyms for weird?).  Although there's not anything particularly new or ground-breaking about the story line (it follows the heroic cycle perfectly-- not that that's unusual), I enjoyed going along for the ride with the warm characters.  You pull for Richard the entire time as life continues to smack him in the face, and he continues to pick himself back up again.  The delightful marquis de Carabas takes some unexpected turns and even the henchmen Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar were fun to be around.

The book has a satisfying and appropriate end, and I missed Richard and Door--a little bit--once they were gone.

P.S.  Just learned that Neverwhere was first a BBC television series before being adapted into a book.  Wow; I don't think I've ever seen literature come from that directions.  Almost makes me feel somehow differently about it all.  It was still a great read, but I think I'm glad I didn't know going in.

Friday, October 30, 2009

"The Knife of Never Letting Go" by Patrick Ness

Summary: In a month, Todd will be a man and will stop being the only boy left in Prentisstown.  When his parents and others landed in the New World trying to start a new life, they didn't realize their settlement would be infected by the Noise.  All the women and half the men died. Now, all the remaining people in Prentisstown can hear everyone else's thoughts, all at once.  The constant Noise that surrounds them is deafening and overwhelming.  When Todd accidentally discovers a girl--and the silence (not Noise) that surrounds her--he finds himself being forced to run from Prentisstown without knowing its dark secrets.

Musings: After reading a number of other reviews on this novel, I had some idea of what to expect and wasn't disappointed.  The Knife of Never Letting Go immediately inundates the reader with secrets and action at a break-neck speed and doesn't slow down right down until the last page.  The choppy sentences, following one line after another, increase the reading adrenaline, which made me physically nervous and excited as I read.  The action never stops, meaning there's really no good place to put down the book for another time.

The speed makes the book draining emotionally, and one death, in particular, had me cursing the "effing" author Ness for several minutes as I grasped for tissues.  I still don't think I've forgiven him, even though I rapidly drank in the remainder of his book.

The book definitely falls on the darker side of YA dystopian lit.  Beyond the deaths and grisly truths of the new society, Todd also finds himself dealing with self-loathing in a way that was scary and real.  He developed more as a character for me than the girl, Viola, but I'm hoping she'll be given more room in the next book.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book; it felt most similar to The Hunger Games although the basic premise of that book attracted me more than Ness's did.  But, that's not to say Knife is not without flaws.  The book begins with a mountain of secrets, and very little is revealed through most of the novel.  When some truth finally surfaces, near the end, it's a little anti-climactic.  Todd narrates the novel, and in an attempt to imitate his "hick" style, occasional words in the narration are misspelled (like "yer" instead of "you" or "conversayshun" instead of "conversation").  I found it distracting rather than enlightening.  One main "bad guy" comes back from the dead so often you'd think you were in a bad horror movie.

Nevertheless, I'm more than willing to pick up the next book in the series, The Ask and the Answer.  Unfortunately my library system doesn't have a copy, so I'll have to get creative.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

"The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico" by Sarah McCoy

Summary: Verdita details her "coming of age" in Puerto Rico. She deals with her burgeoning awareness of sexuality, her ambivalence about her parents, and her desire to look and be American.

Musings: This book was presented (in the inside flap, certainly not the best source of information) as following in the tradition of The House on Mango Street and Annie John. Although McCoy attempts to capture the bildungsroman and lyrical nature of more famous "island" literature, her slim book just doesn't capture the spirit or life of her predecessors.

Verdita goes through the surprises and shock of sexual growth (walking in on her parents having sex, developing pubic hair) in a way that feels done and trite. Her irrational anger at her mother and attachment to her father during this time felt confusing rather than indicative of puberty.

The parents are confusing figures, and it's uncertain what their motivations or feelings really are.

Verdita's beginning awareness of her sexuality and her desire to be "Americanized" are only half-explored, and the hopefulness with which the novels ends (with Verdita traveling to America for the first time) didn't feel in sync with the rest of the novel.

The Time It Snowed in Puerto Rico is a quick read, but it offers nothing new to the genre.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

"Good Omens" by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Summary: The apocalypse is coming, but Aziraphale, an angel of Heaven, and Crowley, a demon of Hell, aren't quite ready for it. They like earth. They attempt to "neutralize" the child anti-Christ with an equal dose of heavenly and hellish influence, but they later find out that due to a baby mix-up, the anti-Christ has been raised normally, with no extraordinary influence at all. An assortment of odd characters, including the Four Horsemen (ahem, Bikers) of the Apocalypse, a prophesying witch, and some witch hunters come together to try to destroy or save the world.

Musings: This book most immediately reminded me of the movie Dogma although the movie came out after the novel was published. The concept of a satiric look on Armageddon in both cases caught my attention, and both works succeeded in delivering a funny and random story that explores some basic assumptions about religion.

The beginning of the book was a little slow for me, and the irreverence was less funny than I had hoped. As the book continued, though, the story picked up steam. I especially enjoyed the comradeship between Aziraphale and Crowley. One of the primary themes of the book is that "good" and "evil" are not so nearly different as they appear, and this message is certainly apparent in the angel and demon's relationship.

The quirky, random moments are the book's funniest, which include Famine's plot to destroy the world through creating fast food that makes a person fat while dying of malnutrition and the Hellhound's reduction to a yapping small dog.

The book has a fast pace and covers a number of different characters, but all the pieces are brought together in a satisfying end.

If nothing else, the book is a great read for lines like this: "He could recall how he and his wife used to go there to spoon, and on one memorable occasion, to fork."

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

"The Tattooed Girl" by Joyce Carol Oates

Summary: Joshua Seigl, a relatively famous author and academic, finds himself in failing health and decides to hire an assistant. In an unplanned moment, he asks Alma, a quiet and mysterious new arrival in town, to help him. Joshua battles his demons as a writer as Alma deals with her past.

Musings: I'm rather new to Joyce Carol Oates, but she appears twice in the 9th grade curriculum - one of the summer reading options is her young adult novel Big Mouth and Ugly Girl, and all my classes read her fabulous short story "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?". I picked this novel up at a book fair that was giving away books, and, enjoying the works above, finally got around to reading it.

To start: this book is terrible. Truly, terrible. Not boring terrible, dense terrible, or cliched terrible- just terrible.

Most of the book repulsed and disgusted me. Perhaps it's supposed to (for what purpose?), but it literally upset my stomach. There is a strong fixation on the body in the novel, particularly Alma's breasts and body odors. Everything was "fleshy." Both men in the novel were constantly thinking about and digesting her body. Objectification of women is certainly not new, but I curdled inside reading the men's descriptions. Not surprisingly, the insecure men blame women for their troubles, then only see women as sexual objects. I would assume we are supposed to be put off by this behavior (ugh, I was), but I didn't see the men being particularly condemned. Instead, their behavior was explored as deep and personal.

I was also confused (and, again, repulsed) by the virulent anti-Semitism. There is a huge emphasis on Seigl's "Jewishness," even though he's only half Jewish (on the wrong side) and not practicing. The hatred Alma and Dmitri felt for him as a Jew befuddled me more than anything else. I suppose the virulence is given so much attention to highlight Alma's later growth, but it didn't quite work for me.

Joshua's crazy sister appears in the first part of the book for no apparent reason, then disappears only to reappear randomly and without real explanation.

I started to feel a bit more positive toward the book in the last quarter as Alma and Joshua began to explore some kind of communication. Alma's thought process started to make some sense. Then Oates went and included the most moronic ending (way worse than Farmer's!) that's straight out of a terrible horror movie.

I typically feel more eloquent when praising a book than condemning it, but I do feel like I need to get this off my chest and out of my mind.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

"The House of the Scorpion" by Nancy Farmer

Summary: Matt has always lived a sheltered life with his caretaker Celia, but at an early age he learns he's not human--he's a clone of the powerful drug lord El Patron. As a clone, Matt is reviled by all other members of the Alacran family except the young Maria. Over time, Matt learns the truth about why clones are created, the worker "zombies," and the world that has been created with the land of Opium dividing the U.S. and Aztlan (formerly Mexico).

Musings: This is my second Farmer book after The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm. I hadn't liked that novel much, but her name appeared on so many YA to-read lists, and I'd heard Scorpion recommended by several people, so I decided I'd give her another try. Unfortunately, this one wasn't much better.

Like The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, Scorpion's protagonist is a young and inquisitive male. However, in both books I felt absolutely no connection to the character. Matt's thoughts felt stale, and I truthfully was bored listening to him think. The dystopian society in which Matt is living is presented, but only half-heartedly explored. A miraculous happy ending was annoyingly unlikely, and Farmer throwing in a main character's death in the last few pages hardly added any emotional resonance.

Farmer also failed to explore much of the societal problems she introduces in this book. People fleeing from one country to another are captured and turned into "eejits" (zombies). The eejits are hated by regular people, and Matt feels bad about their situation, but otherwise this slavery is pushed aside.

Even more confusing was the introduction of a socialist-like mentality when Matt is trapped by the Keepers, men in charge of the work-orphanages in Aztlan. The boys are lectured on the dangers of individuality and the importance of group-work ethic. The Keepers' attempts at indoctrination are clearly supposed to be viewed as bad, but the reader is not told why they espouse this message. It doesn't seem like the rest of the country follows it (the few citizens of Aztlan we meet seem like normal, nice people). So why do these Keepers have so much power? Who's giving them the power? Is the government of Aztlan corrupt too (that didn't seem to be the case, but it was barely addressed)? What's going on with the U.S.?

Farmer has tried to create a certain view of society, but too many gaps existed in the world she created for the social commentary to make sense or deliver any message. Despite all the awards, I'm definitely done with Farmer's work.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

"Uglies" by Scott Westerfeld

Summary: In Tally's world, no one is judged on his or her looks because at the age of 16, everyone becomes "pretty." Tally wants nothing more than to turn pretty like her friend Peris (Westerfeld and Suzanne Collins should have a "stupid character name" convention), so she can stop being an "ugly." However, when Tally meets a new friend Shay, Tally learns that some people don't want to be pretty. Soon Tally is in The Smoke, a hidden camp for those escaping the mandatory cosmetic--and other--changes.

Musings: I never would have picked up this book on my own. With a huge teenage face on the cover and a title like Uglies, Westerfeld's novel sounds more like a cliched version of Mean Girls than the dystopian literature it is. So I'm especially glad the reading challenge brought the book to my attention.

Like in most good dystopian novels, Tally's world has many benefits. People are no longer prejudiced against because of their looks, and the new society is environmentally conscious (even vegetarian!). Of course, there are obvious drawbacks. People look and act essentially the same and are manipulated into believing that happiness can only come from symmetry - conformity. Some of the messages (of the dangers of both our current society and Tally's futuristic society) are obvious, but the characters don't feel dull.

I always love a good YA romance, and this book doesn't fail as Tally finds herself falling for David, an "ugly" and lifelong Smoke resident. Unlike in other YA books (ahem, Stephenie Meyer), Tally doesn't agonize over decision to like David very long and their romance is even more exciting (and painful) because of the lies Tally has been forced to tell.

Uglies is the first of a four-part series, so the novel, of course, leaves with a big cliff hanger about Tally's future. I'll definitely pick up the next book in the series, but right now I have to decide whether I'll barrel through the second right away or take a couple weeks off and read other books first.

- See my reviews of book two in the series, Pretties, and book three in the series, Specials

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

YA Dystopian Reading Challenge

I'm brand new to the world of "challenge" reading (and to the world of potentially sharing my reviews with anyone else), but I was so excited by the idea of reading tons of young adult dystopian literature that I thought I'd take the plunge. Thanks to Bart's Bookshelf for inspiring me and starting the challenge.

Books on my to read list:
1. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld
2. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
3. The House of the Scorpion by Nancy Farmer
4. Pretties by Scott Westerfeld
5. Specials by Scott Westerfeld 
5. The White Mountains by John Christopher

I started reading Uglies today and am already excited.

Monday, October 12, 2009

"The Handmaid's Tale" by Margaret Atwood

Summary: This feminist 1984 takes place in Gilead, which, faced with increasing infertility, institutes a perverted and fanatical "Christian" totalitarian regime in which women's bodies are not their own. Offred, the narrator, is assigned as a "handmaid" to a powerful commander; because his wife is "unable" to conceive (the idea that the man could possibly be sterile is heretical), Offred's duty is to have regular sex with him in hopes of becoming pregnant and providing the couple with a child. Offred struggles between her desire for autonomy, her desire to survive, and her stifled physical desires while attempting to maintain a connection (although only in memory) of her husband and daughter.

Musings: I'm a fan of apocalyptic novels and a fan of Atwood. I've read this novel before, of course (likely in college, although I really can't remember), and given the current proliferation of end-of-the-world entertainment, I thought I'd return to a classic. Perhaps one of the scariest parts of rereading the book is that although The Handmaid's Tale was published nearly 25 years ago, the political system it describes seems no further from reality.

The themes and issues brought up in The Handmaid's Tale aren't unfamiliar to anyone involved with feminism or women's studies, but the novel nonetheless presents the protagonist in a complex way that emphasizes the reality of her position. She misses her husband Luke, but at the same time, she acknowledges that much of her devotion to him stems from their forcible separation. She hates her position within the commander's household, but she recognizes it's better than some of the alternatives. She hates the commander's self-righteous sense of benevolence, but his small favors are the only freedom she has. Although women today don't necessarily face the same paradoxes, Offred's experiences still echo the complex and often contradictory feelings women face.

The perversion of Christianity is uncannily similar to much of the right wing fanaticism today and serves to reinforce the notion that "protection" of women and daughters often means subjugation. There are also clear parallels to how Islam has been twisted to justify the oppression of women in Middle Eastern countries.

Unlike 1984, The Handmaid's Tale ends with a message of hope. There's hope for Offred, and an "epilogue" seems to indicate that much of the tyranny present in Gilead eventually passes. Although I appreciated the positive outcome, I wondered what caused the end. Did women regain their rights? The warnings are evident, but the solutions are not.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


I suppose I have an innate need to finish what I start, so I've always felt bad when I've abandoned a partially-read book. A teacher at my high school emphasizes that if you start a book and hate it, put it down. Don't waste time on something you don't enjoy. You'll just end up avoiding it and missing out on the chance to read something you do like. I've been trying to take her advice although I did grudgingly work through some terrors (notably One Hundred Years of Solitude). It doesn't feel right to blog about a book I haven't finished, but I did think perhaps it was worthwhile to mention the rejects and my reason for rejecting them.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie (October 7, 2009)
- I loved Alexie's young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, so I thought I'd try one of his early adult works. Although the themes (and, truthfully, many of the same events and conversations) are the same, this novel, for me, had less poignancy and humor than True Diary. The metaphors and "deep thinking" were hit-me-in-the-head-with-a-frying-pan obvious (particularly in the first chapter, in which two Indians fighting is compared to a hurricaine). I just wasn't interested.

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho (September 2, 2009)
- Stuck in the library with no specific titles in mind, I came across this book. The fantasy elements and recommendations made it seem like a good choice. This very simply written book has a message - follow your dreams and you will succeed. Trust in omens, which are sent by God, to lead you to achieve your goals (called your Personal Legend). This basic premise (endlessly promoted by self-help books, most recently The Promise) is repeated endlessly, and endlessly, and endlessly. Did you forget you should listen to omens? Coelho reminds you through dull and dimwitted Santiago every page or two. Follow omens! Achieve your Personal Legend! You can do it! Ugh, I'm bored. Let's go ruin someone's self-esteem.

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs (July 23, 2009)
- This book had been on my "to-read" list for awhile. I had heard it was funny and imagined it would be along the lines of a David Sedaris book. Instead, I found a poorly written book (and that's being kind) that was sensational and disgusting for the sake of being sensational and disgusting. Burroughs has not a shred of literary talent, but he does have a litany of outlandish stories. Take this gem of prose (written in response to the young Burroughs walking in on his mother and neighbor sexually engaged together): "I felt like, ick" (86). What skill. Events pop up and out without any continuation, and there is no sense of time's passage (at some point it seemed two years had passed since the book began, but there was no way of really knowing). I never laughed or even cracked a smile. I read about half of the piece of rubbish, but since the book was a laughably easy read, at least I didn't waste too much of my time.

Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunee (May 11, 2009)
- Another book club pick. Kim lives in France with her fabulously rich boyfriend where she enjoys luxurious trips around Europe and impeccable food. Kim spends her days cooking extravagant meals and being very French. But, oh, boo-hoo, Kim was adopted by an American couple when she was three from Korea, and she has identity issues. Every few pages (in between eating truffles and drinking wine), Kim stops to muse about how unhappy she is because she doesn't belong. The concept is interesting (an American raised, Korean girl, living in France), but Sunee comes off whiny rather than contemplative. Stopped reading half-way through.

Firefly Lane
by Kristin Hannah (May 9, 2009)
- I would never willingly pick up this book and did so kicking and screaming when my book club chose it. A 500+ page Lifetime movie, Firefly Lane follows Tully and Kate, your typical contrasting BFFs. Tully is crazy, sexually open, and devoted to work; Kate is solid, quiet, timid, and only wants to be a mom. The book follows their friendship over the decades, throwing in obvious time period references along the way. And then Kate dies of cancer. It's an innocuous enough beach read, but there's nothing new or interesting in the tired story line and characters. Stopped reading half-way through (but skimmed the last three chapters).

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (April 27, 2009)
- This novel appeared on many lists when I was searching for popular current books. I wasn't convinced myself, but it was at the library, so I grabbed it. I don't know that I read enough to really give it a fair chance, but the mystery set-up and plight of the journalist didn't grab my attention.

The Known World by Edward P. Jones (April 2009)
- This was the case of me picking a book largely because it was on many notable book lists. The premise was interesting, centering on a freed slave (paid out of slavery by his parents) who is now a slaveowner himself and "friends" with his former owner. Unique plot, but I found the story terribly boring. I didn't feel or care for any of the characters, and the atrocities associated with slavery and racism felt like annoying plot devices rather than moving commentary. I got about half-way through before bailing out.

by Marilynne Robinson (April 5, 2009)
- I did blog about this one, so I won't repeat what I already said.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

"How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents" by Julia Alvarez

Summary: Following the Garcias' "four girls" and their parents over the course of years, How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents documents the family's life in the Dominican Republic and the girls' transition to adolescence and adulthood in the United States.

Musings: The novel follows multiple narrators and jumps between events and time periods. Because of this, Alvarez develops no linear chronology to the family's lives. Instead, small snapshots of places, ages, and stages are presented.

I liked the subject of this book, particularly the parts that addressed the family relationships. When the stories became intensely personal, following only one adult Garcia daughter and her troubles, I was a little less interested. I also enjoyed the stories that followed the girls as children. Those stories, however, didn't particularly gel with the adult portraits of the daughters. The adult daughters seemed highly screwed up, and although we got glimpses of troubles here and there, I wasn't quite sure what created such dysfunctional siblings.

I find myself increasingly interested in hearing from non-American voices, and I do think Alvarez was a good choice.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

"A Short History of Women" by Kate Walbert

Summary: Covering five generations of women, A Short History of Women presents the thoughts of the descendants of Dorothy Trevor Townsend (a woman who starved herself for suffrage), and Dorothy herself, as they navigate their positions in the world as women.

Musings: I chose this book out a favorable NYTimes review, but I think I need to move away from contemporary "good" literature. Although Walbert writes well, the dreary and incessant brooding self-reflection (Walbert and Let the Great World Spin's author McCann must have taken the same writing class) just felt old. Women are typically granted this behavior even more frequently than men, and as Walbert's novel is narrated almost entirely by women (a husband's point of view is somewhat inexplicably included mid-way through), I almost felt defensive: not all women are unhappy!

I'm in no way an endless bucket of cheer, but I also don't constantly muse on my uselessness and loneliness. Although the first Dorothy died for a feminist cause (well, maybe--the reasons for her starvation never seem quite clear), it seemed to me that feminism was blamed for much of the unhappiness of the future generations. Caroline, a super-successful business woman living the cliched New York City uber-parent life, exists in a fog. Caroline's mother carries on useless transgressions against the government in an attempt to make up for missing the radical '70s movement.

The book focuses primarily on the first three generations of women, and in a book proposed as A Short History of Women, I began to think no younger voices would be heard. The 4th generation gets a few quick chapters toward the end, but the 5th generation, a new college student, gets one page mimicking a Facebook profile. Really? I don't know if this is a statement about technology's influence, or a dig at the current generation's supposed vapidity, or what. Maybe Walbert just wanted to show off how hip she was. I would think modern young women should have some say in all this dreariness.

Walbert also employs the absolutely obnoxious technique of giving everyone the same name (a nudge at the patriarchal history of passing down names? an alliance with Marquez?). I don't care what the point is; it's annoying. I had to refer back to the lineage chart at the beginning of the novel (if you need to include one, your book is not clear) every time I began a new chapter (at least she announced the date and speaker for each chapter). I want to enjoy the book, not keep notes.

The chapters I enjoyed most concerned the oldest generations and their life experiences. The historical content related to suffrage and women's positions was especially interesting. I could have taken a novel just of that.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

"Catching Fire" by Suzanne Collins

Summary: In this sequel to The Hunger Games, Katniss, one of the victors of the Games, is back at home in District 12. Although a winner, life has not become any easier. She finds herself trying to balance her relationships with Peeta (her fellow victor) and Gale (her longtime friend) while attempting to appease the Capitol, still angry over her "defiant" win in the Games.

Musings: I absolutely loved Hunger Games and have been eagerly awaiting Collins' second book in the trilogy. Although Catching Fire was perhaps not as strong as the first novel, I enjoyed being back in the midst of the characters I had grown attached to.

From the beginning, Catching Fire starts off differently than Hunger Games. Where the first novel was almost non-stop action, relatively little happens in the first half of the sequel. Katniss, a star when simply trying to keep alive, is less successful at navigating the new social relationships for her back at home. The Twilight-esque love triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale is overwhelming, and Katniss avoids it by going back to her strength - surviving. I am in love with Gale, but like in the Hunger Games, relatively little is known about him. Although he clearly loves Katniss, he does not pursue it with the same "I'll die for you!" devotion of Peeta. Katniss is simply no Bella and tries to avoid both men's declarations of love.

For many reasons, life in the Games was much easier for Katniss than life at home. In the Games, her only focus was keeping herself alive. With such a straightforward goal, she stayed strong. Back at home, Katniss must begin to decide whose survival is most important. Hers? Her family's? The people she loves? District 12? All the districts? Districts have begun uprising, using Katniss as their symbol of hope, but Katniss herself is not ready to be the figurehead of a revolution.

Katniss appears weaker through much of the first half of the book, even needing Peeta to hold her in her sleep. In the second part of the book, when her immediate survival is again in jeopardy, she is more powerful and confident, but her new position within the country means things are less black and white than she is capable of understanding.

I can't wait for the last book in the series to appear. I want some happiness for the characters -- and, even though it's not a romance, I'm dying for Katniss and Gale to really hook up.

Friday, August 28, 2009

"Things Fall Apart" by Chinua Achebe

Summary: The novel follows Okonkwo, a strong and respected warrior, in his African village of Umuofia and details the cultural customs that shape his and his family’s lives. Okonkwo’s aspirations are checked when white missionaries arrive in the area.

Musings: I typically am not following any set path when I chose to read book A, then book B, then book C. When deciding on what book to read next, I’m more often guided by the length or apparent genre of the novel than any concept of the book’s place within other books I’ve read recently. However, I’m frequently surprised to find obvious connections between the books I've recently read, even if I did not consciously attempt to put those books in comparison. This happened with my most recent novel, Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, when I started to pick up on connections to The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm (only after completing Achebe’s work).

As I mentioned in my review of The Ear, The Eye, and the Arm, one of my complaints of that novel was Farmer's lack of exploration of the conflict between cultural traditions and "modern" understandings. In particular, I was upset at how the issue of twins was treated in the book. In Farmer's novel, the kids visit Resthaven, an isolated community that operates outside the modern world and lives according to traditional African customs. When one of the women gives birth to twins, the community attempts to kill one of the twins, believing it to be evil. The twin is saved by the detectives, so serious issues are never really addressed. Resthaven has "authenticity" (recognized by the children and detectives) that the outer world does not, but Resthaven also murders and abuses (by our standards) children. Resthaven's practices are defended as being part of the culture, but can culture be used to defend any practice? If we assign modern judgments to Resthaven, are we simply imposing our own societal standard on theirs? Is there a human moral standard that supersedes individual societies' standards? These are serious issues that are still being considered today (for example, with female genital mutilation).

This issue was addressed, but from a different point of view, in Achebe's novel. Okonkwo's society practices traditions similar to Resthaven, including killing twins (in Achebe's novel, both twins are killed). However, unlike with Farmer's novel, I did not have as strong of a reaction to the murders. In Achebe's work, the reader approaches the world from Okonkwo's point of view, and thus the practices in his community are normalized, unlike in Farmer's book, where the reader approaches Resthaven with the outside view of the children and detectives. I was astonished by how much the perspective had affected my judgment of the act.

White missionaries enter Okonkwo's world and rescue twins left to die, just like the children/detectives did. However, the white missionaries' rescue of twins comes along with the white domination and ultimate subjugation of Okonkwo's society.

What's right?

There is no easy answer. Traditions are strong, and like with most things in the world, the novels seem to say that it is not possible to simply remove those things you dislike without destroying the whole.

Things Fall Apart is told sparingly, and Achebe allows the flat and simple recounting of events to affect the reader without additional commentary. Because of this, the book lacks some suspense or traditional build up of events, but the end result is a more compelling view of one man's life and one village's transformation.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm" by Nancy Farmer

Summary: In a futuristic Zimbabwe, the General’s children, Tendai, Rita, and Kuda, feel stifled by their father’s overprotective and demanding parenting. In search of adventure, the children leave their family home one day and find themselves kidnapped and thrown into darker and poorer parts of the country. The General enlists the help of three strange detectives, the Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, to help rescue his children.

Musings: I appreciated the unique locale of this novel, which is rare to find in YA novels (at least those I’ve read). Although set in a futuristic society (for example, machines magically create food you want, a la Star Trek), the story takes place in Zimbabwe and incorporates many Zimbabwean traditions and customs in the book. Farmer is a white American, but she lived in Zimbabwe for a number of years, so there’s a sense that the book has at least some truth to that society.

I found the book, though, a bit disjointed. I couldn’t quite piece together the society Farmer had created nor did I feel especially connected to the characters. At first, I thought it was because the book was designed for a much younger audience (perhaps late elementary/early middle school years), but I’m not sure that’s the case as there was some more serious subject matter later in the novel.

Perhaps it was because the odyssey of the children felt slapped together rather than following a real journey pattern. The children travel from strange place to strange place, just a step ahead of those searching for them, but nothing seemed to actually happen.

I was most confused by the trio of detectives. In my mind, they were some of the worst detectives ever created. Although possessing strange powers, they were completely inept. I would have written them off as buffoons, but the novel had the other characters react to them in a way that seemed to portray them as admirable and competent. I was unsure what impression Farmer wanted us to have of the men.

The book has some good messages about there being positive qualities in each person, although that message is not fully explored. All ends are happily wrapped up by the end of the novel, despite some serious issues being mentioned, but not explored (for example, cultural traditions vs. modern moralities).

Sunday, August 16, 2009

"Let the Great World Spin" by Colum McCann

Summary: A series of stories narrated by a diverse group of people are loosely connected together by a man's choice to tightrope across the World Trade Center buildings one early morning in New York City in 1974. The stories cover the Corrigan brothers, transplants from Ireland; the mother-daughter prostitutes Tillie and Jazzlyn; and the rich Claire and her judge husband Solomon (among others).

Musings: This book has all the makings of a popular and well-received novel. The characters are fully drawn out and have depth of emotion. The book finds meaning in small events and uses daily moments to delve into the essence of each person's beliefs. For all those reasons Let the Great World Spin is an excellent novel, but for those same reasons it's also one that I occasionally grew tired of.

I have a dismissive attitude toward anyone who thinks too much (perhaps because I spend my days avoiding it and trying to convince my husband to stay away from it). Not that I don't value thinking, but musing too much only ever leads me to feeling down. The same is true of many characters in the novel, who find themselves tortured by the mundane.

It was the constant outpouring of emotion that I found difficult to take in, but I'm sure other people find that moving. Probably the same people who also were taken away by the "beauty" of the plastic bag blowing in American Beauty - really? Take this line, from one of the chapters on Claire, the wealthy woman who is insecure among others and still heavy with grief over the loss of her son in the war: "She cleans out the comb and dumps the strands in the foot-flip garbage can. They say the hair of the dead still grows. Takes on a life of its own. Down there with all the other detritus, tissues, tubes of lipstick, toothpaste tops, allergy pills, eyeliner, heart medicine, youth, nail clippings, dental floss, aspirin, grief" (McCann 74). I'll even ignore the fact that cleaning used hair from a comb merits such weighty language (see feelings on American Beauty, above). Nonetheless the "subtle" inclusion of "youth" and "grief" in the list of trash just irritated me. It was almost as if McCann felt the need to show how talented a writer he was by integrating the prosaic and the profound.

Despite my issues with some of the writing, I truly did enjoy the story. Because we see multiple viewpoints of each character (all the primary characters narrate at least one section and are also mentioned by other characters in different sections), a fuller picture of each person is formed. McCann weaves together the different lives in a way that feels real, not forced, and I felt myself smiling whenever a new connection between the characters arose.

Each chapter was written in a way that clearly portrayed the character's way of thinking and approaching the world. I felt equally for the nervous Park Avenue Claire as I did for the prostitute Tillie.

Fortunately, McCann did not feel the need to end a book filled with so much grief with further sadness. Although no real solace is found in the year the book takes place, the last chapter, occurring in 2006, does show redemption and advancement for those who survived.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

"A Wrinkle in Time" by Madeleine L'Engle

Summary: Meg has been worried about the disappearance of her scientist father, even though her mother tries to stay optimistic for the children. When Meg's genius little brother, Charles Wallace, meets a strange woman named Mrs. Whatsit, Meg, Charles Wallace, and a classmate Calvin are suddenly jumping through space as they attempt to rescue Meg and Charles Wallace's father and save the Earth from IT.

Musings: This is, of course, a classic kid's sci-fi story. I read the entirety of the series when I was young, but I have no memory of any of the books except Many Waters. I had high expectations going in, but little idea of what I would encounter.

Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed. A Wrinkle in Time has much in common with the Chronicles of Narnia, sometimes to the point of being distracting to an adult. Kids are lectured and scolded and respond positively; they are told by adults to "think hard" and discover things; God is somehow present in the fantasy world without seeming to actually do anything to help fight the Evil in the world (at least Narnia had Aslan). I was a little put off by the random God references and the allegories to baptism and Jesus (I think that's what they were).

So much time was spent talking and encouraging the kids to "figure things out" that I missed the fantasy elements. The kids did not feel real to me, especially the way in which Calvin seamlessly integrated himself into Meg's and Charles Wallace's lives.

Perhaps after reading so much modern young adult fiction, this felt wooden. First of all, I missed real kids with sass and nerves. Secondly, Harry Potter had posthumously given away A Wrinkle in Time's ending for me (although, really, doesn't everyone know "love" is the one thing cute little weak kids have against BIG EVIL?).

So I'm bummed that I didn't enjoy it, but I may give the next in the series a chance again anyway.