Monday, March 30, 2009

"One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" by Ken Kesey

Summary: Nurse Ratched runs her ward in an Oregon mental institution with an iron fist until McMurphy, a gregarious fighter, intentionally gets himself sent to the ward to avoid jail work duty. McMurphy makes it his mission to uproot Ratched's authority and awaken the submissive patients in the facility, including "Chief" Bromden, a giant half-Indian who has for years pretended to be deaf and dumb (and who narrates the story).

Musings: Going in, my only familiarity with the story was a vague picture of a grinning Jack Nicholas in a mental institution-- although I'd never actually seen the movie version. The book contains many of the tropes typical of stories about older institutions: pervasive abuse, electro-shock therapy, lack of respect of patients, and patients who are far less sick than they are treated.

Although the motifs and plot are basic, the story is engaging. From the start, McMurphy is the classic rebel, challenging Nurse Ratched and her reliance on structure and control. Nurse Ratched is the epitomic villain who cares more about order than improving the lives of her patients. Her authority comes from belittling the patients and making them reliant on her rules to survive, but McMurphy changes all that. His brazen defiance of the rules begins to encourage the other patients to also stand up for their rights.

The story, however, does not reach the a classic happy ending of total authoritative upheaval. McMurphy is successful at giving the other patients the courage to stand up for themselves, but McMurphy can only take them so far; at some point, each patient must be willing to independently become a rebel and break out of the bonds the label of "crazy" has tied around him. Some are successful; others are not. Nurse Ratched is wounded, but she is not gone and is likely unchanged.

In breaking up the "machine" of the institution, McMurphy must give all of himself. He is unable to step back and show restraint, even though the personal cost is severe.

In some ways the novel reminded me of the studies done by Milgram. People will obey, even when they disagree with the order, because it is easier to follow other people and blame them for their problems than face the difficulty and consequences of being responsible for their own actions. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest argues that it is worth challenging the institution but that such challenges are not easy and are not always successful.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

"Slaughterhouse-Five" by Kurt Vonnegut

Summary: A fragmented telling of the life of Billy Pilgrim, an American prisoner of war during the bombing of Dresden in World War II, an optometrist, and an alien abductee.

Musings: I read this book as assigned reading in high school although I remembered close to nothing about the book itself. In fact, when I added Slaughterhouse-Five to my "potential books" list, I believe I was thinking of Fahrenheit 451, not Vonnegut's novel (A "so it goes" is probably appropriate here).

As I read, I kept thinking what I must have missed back in high school. I really enjoyed the book and am looking forward to reading more Vonnegut, but I can't imagine I appreciated the book as a teenager.

From the beginning, Vonnegut demonstrates that war is not glorious. Soldiers are not heroic or special. War is not even horrifyingly brutal, at least on the surface. It is meaningless. It creates apathy and disinterest. It makes the anticipation of life and the pointlessness of death equally unaffecting. It is this that makes war so terrible.

Slaughterhouse-Five is a mishmash of snippets in time. From the Tralfamadorians, the alien abductors, Billy learns that time is not linear, but instead every moment in time always exists, like a series of photographs. Although this is supposedly a reassuring thought in death, because everyone's alive in other moments, in practice it means life is not worth the effort. If everything that will happen is already in existence, then there are no real choices to make and ability to change one's circumstances.

The tiny "chapters" of the book make it a quick read, and the non-linear timeline is not confusing. The science fiction aspect of the novel allows the reader a glimpse into how much Billy's experiences have fractured his mind into a machine attempting to fit together his empty pieces of experience. Vonnegut works himself into the novel on a few occasions, throwing in an "I was there," which reaffirms the very real events used as the basis of the novel.

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Lost Paradise" by Kathy Marks

Summary: Marks, a journalist, recounts the recent "scandal" and court cases on the tiny, isolated Pitcairn island. Pitcairn, under British rule and containing only about fifty inhabitants, was recently wracked with allegations of widespread sexual abuse of young girls by the adult men on the island. The book covers Pitcairn's founding and history, development in the 20th century, the recent trails, and the outcomes of those trials.

Musings: Although this is a case that I had not heard of before, it is clear from Marks' writings that the events surrounding Pitcairn were front page news in England and New Zealand for many years. The story is immediately sensational. Pitcairn is probably the remotest inhabited island in the world and despite being under British rule, has been more or less left alone for its two-hundred year existence. It was originally founded by British pirates who mutinied and founded a society with Tahitian women. Pitcairn has long been depicted as a Utopian island free from the evils of modern society.

The stories of abuse that come to light are pervasive. Nearly half of the adult males on the island and many men now living elsewhere were accused of sexually assaulting young girls. Nearly all the Pitcairn women related stories of abuse. Nearly all had been assaulted regularly by more than one adult.

I was surprised at first to see Marks writing with such unabashed assurance of the men's guilt, but it quickly became clear that Marks was writing in response to the widespread support and justification of the men's actions during the trial.

Nearly every victim blaming myth appears throughout the trials. The girls wanted it (even though some were as young as seven). The girls were naturally promiscuous (despite the girls reporting their fear and pain). Early sex was a cultural norm (even though it usually involved young girls being forcibly raped by adult men, not two consenting young children).

The case is certainly a difficult one from the beginning. Britain had mostly ignored Pitcairn and there is a way in which it seems unreasonable for Britain to suddenly seize law and control. British officials lamented the lack of policing on the island, but for a group of fifty, it hardly seems necessary. Nonetheless, it is clear that abuse was happening yet quietly tolerated.

The book details the difficulty of prosecuting cases of sexual assault, particularly in closed communities. Marks points out that although a mother might have been raped, and her daughter might have been raped, her husband, brother, father, and sons had probably also been accused. Who does the woman side with, then? The women who came forward about their assaults were ostracized and derided.

The men received laughably light jail sentences and today continue to live out a relatively normal life in Pitcairn.

The book has a naturally interesting story, but in the details the telling can get tedious. I wish Marks had spent more on her time in Pitcairn during the six-week of trials. Marks does address some of the common "excuses" for what happened and also takes time on who should be blamed for the abuses.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

"Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan

Summary: Nick and Norah, two high school seniors, are thrown together at a club late one night when Norah agrees to be Nick's "five-minute girlfriend" in order for Nick to avoid his ex-girlfriend (who he's still in love with), Tris. From there Nick and Norah are thrown together for a crazy night around New York City where they learn to move past their hangups and fall for each other.

Musings: Although I'm a fan of young adult fiction, this probably isn't a book I'd pick up on my own. But, on a whim, my husband checked it out from the library (we'd seen the movie last year, also on a whim), and he really liked it and insisted I read it.

Nick & Norah is through and through a teenage novel, which does not necessarily make it bad. Each chapter alternates from Nick's to Norah's point of view, and both characters are full of obscenities, pop-culture and music references, and intense teenage self-reflection. Nevertheless, the characters felt more real than others I've seen in teen-oriented entertainment. Like most high schoolers, they aren't hopelessly geeky (falling on the floor when a girl approaches) or super cool (i.e. football players in movies). They are normal people entering a confusing and new relationship while still working over their past relationships.

I can't imagine their experiences coming close to what most "ordinary" teenagers go through (really, who lets their teeange children spend all night--literally until 6am--carousing around New York City?), but that's probably part of the fun.

The book satisfyingly brings two likable people together in a quick novel that is full of fun sexual tension. It wasn't a great book for me, but I can see it being engaging for high schoolers.

"The Hunger Games" by Suzanne Collins

Summary: In a post-United States world, the Capitol rules its twelve outlying districts with a firm hand, especially since the rebellion (which was harshly squashed) of the thirteenth district some seventy years before. In the poorest and least respected district twelve, Katniss feeds her mother and sister by sneaking outside her district’s borders to hunt with her friend Gale. Once a year, for entertainment and to remind the districts of the Capitol’s strength, the Capitol holds a lottery where one girl and one boy from each district are chosen to participate in the Hunger Games—a fight to the death where only one person leaves victorious and alive. When Katniss’ sister is chosen, Katniss volunteers to go in her place. Katniss, along with the boy contender from district twelve, Peeta, try to stay alive in the deadly Games.

Musings: This is the new young adult novel I had been looking for. I absolutely loved this book and finished it rapidly in one sitting. Although parts of the story have certainly been done before (a particular nod, I think, to the well-known short story “The Lottery”), Collins has created a unique world with a unique cast of characters. In writing of Abarat, I complained that Barker engineered a world with no “rules,” which made it a less satisfying universe in which to inhabit as a reader. Collins, on the other hand, has created a believable society that vaguely resembles our own (clearly our penchant for reality TV has not diminished), but is also very different in many ways.

Katniss is a somewhat stupid name, but I thoroughly enjoyed her character. She is smart and aggressive, but because she has been tuned to “survival mode” for so long, she is also much slower to pick up on personal relationships. Her relationships with both Gale (only present in the very beginning) and Peeta are complicated and added an unexpected twist and difficulty throughout the book.

I had read in some review that The Hunger Games was excessively violent for a young adult novel, but I didn’t find that the case at all. The novel certainly does concern young people trying to kill each other, and there are many deaths, but it is not written about in a grisly fashion.

The novel has a quick pace and a lot of action. I wasn’t at all surprised to hear it is being turned into a movie. The novel ends with a large cliffhanger and not the sort of happy ending I had expected. Again, I found myself beginning a book before I learned it was part of a planned trilogy, so now I will have to wait until September to read the next installment.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

"The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Summary: Juliet, a young and chipper writer, begins correspondence with members of the "Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" and learns about their lives during the German occupation of the island during World War II. Written in epistolary form, the novel covers Juliet's relationships with the various members in Guernsey and her friends in London.

Musings: I'm joining a book club and am really excited about it. I've wanted to be in one for a long time, but even though they're very popular right now, I didn't know anyone else my age who was in one. This club includes a college friend of mine, and I knew they had previously read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which I loved. Their book selection for this month was Guernsey. I'd heard of the book before in researching new things to read but had passed it over.

I know Guernsey is a very popular book club book now (probably because it's about a pseudo-book club), and I'm hoping that's the reason this group chose it. Although not a terrible book, it's not a book worth discussion. A middle-aged woman's beach read is probably the best description.

Juliet is supposed to be perky and spunky, perhaps in the vein of Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice, but I found her annoying and dim-witted. All the characters are excessively good and free of conflict, despite the obvious hardships of the War and German occupation. The book moves breezily towards its expected happy conclusion, with nary a obstacle in its way.

The book is not terrible, but it wasn't interesting, insightful, or original either. There are many stories told in the book which Juliet is excited to put into book form. And they are good stories, but this book makes them Disney movies and Lifetime specials rather than literature.

Monday, March 16, 2009

"Reading Lolita in Tehran" by Azar Nafisi

Summary: Nafisi recounts being a professor of English literature in Iran. Nafisi combines her exuberant love of literature with her analysis of the various regime changes and crackdowns on women's rights, in particular, throughout the 1980's and 1990's. She struggles to teach fiction as fiction in a society where religious zealots attempt to eradicate all "Western" or "immoral" influences.

Musings: I initially didn't enjoy this book, primarily because I think I was misled by the inner flap summary. Nafisi (and the book cover) initially frame the book in terms of the small book study group Nafisi organizes in Iran of former students after she stops teaching. I expected the book to be about the book group and the young women in the group, but the book is much more about Nafisi's struggles as a professor and her commentary on the books she taught. The subtitle of the novel, "A Memoir in Books," is a much more accurate title since the book really is Nafisi's attempt to understand her life through literature.

Nafisi is an expert on Vladimir Nabokov, author of Lolita (in fact, her other published book is about him), and her idolization of the author is evident, especially throughout the first section of the book. I wasn't looking to get into critical theory, so I was somewhat turned off by her continual analysis of Lolita (especially since it's been quite a number of years since I read the book). Early on Nafisi emphasizes that she and the other women she discusses are not Lolita, but the book and Lolita's lack of independence is analyzed so often that it's difficult not to see Nabokov's novel as an allegory for Nafisi's situation.

Nevertheless, I grew increasingly interested in the book as Nafisi moved past Nabokov and into her experiences as a teacher. Unlike Zoya's Story, which took place in Afghanistan but covered many of the same themes, Nafisi's story is told in way that draws you into the characters and the events that happen. Nafisi's life is not a dry retelling of facts, but a woman's struggle to maintain herself and her beliefs. I most appreciated the ways in which Nafisi is open to her uncertainty and compromises. She originally stops teaching rather than be forced to wear the veil, but after several years she is drawn back toward teaching. She must decide whether it's better to refuse to teach on principle (she had said she would never teach wearing the veil) or go back and teach and try to improve upon the education of the young people of Iran.

Throughout the book, Nafisi emphasizes the importance of fiction and our ability to learn through reading. She struggles to make her students understand that characters in novels, like people, cannot be understood one-dimensionally. The rule of the land has labeled people as "good" or "bad," and Nafisi works to counter such simplistic evaluations.

I feel like I would need to read the book again to really have a full understanding all Nafisi has to offer. It's certainly the best book I've read so far to deal with many of the issues of freedom, independence, and women's rights in the middle east.

Friday, March 13, 2009

"One Hundred Years of Solitude" by Garbriel Garcia Marquez

Summary: The book traces six generations of the Buendia family in Macondo as they thrive and struggle in repetitious circles and purposeless existence.

Musings: I consider myself to be a very good reader. A patient reader. I've read through long and difficult books that others gave up, and I've prided myself on finishing nearly all the books I was assigned throughout high school and college. I can usually find something worthwhile in every decent text.

Reading One Hundred Years of Solitude was the most painful reading experience of my life. The book described as "required reading for the entire human race" (apparent moron William Kennedy, NYTimes Book Review) was possibly the worst book I have ever read. I hated every minute spent with this book. Only the glowing reviews and Nobel Prize winning author kept me reading, but I shouldn't have bothered. It was terrible.

I have no idea what is supposed to be appealing about this book. I can appreciate a blend of surrealism with reality, but it seemed to serve no purpose. A book where everyone is named the same thing? I guess it means something, but it was annoying as hell. A book where all the characters do the same things over again and have weird incestuous feelings about various family members... um, I don't even know.

From One Hundred Years of Solitude, I learned that all people are crazy but that their craziness is meaningless. They also have absurd obsessive feelings about love that don't seem remotely human-like. Romeo said love was "a madness most discreet, a choking gall," but his love with Juliet at least seemed grounded in humanness. Marquez must have took the quote to heart. Each generation of Buendias does the exact same things as the previous generation. I think about a billion times the house fell into "total" disrepair and was then super cleaned up by someone else. Also everyone likes to become obsessed and solitary. And live in closed rooms. Or do something else compulsively for their entire lives.

Near the end of the book, a character muses that "the history of the family was a machine with unavoidable repetitions" (425). That may be, but apparently Marquez became that same machine.

In the end, I found no theme, no character, no story, no description that sparked anything for me. Like when you discover a movie you've been watching has been going on for only thirty minutes, not the hours you expected, One Hundred Years was an intolerable continuum of tedium.

Clearly many people think this book is genius. I consider myself intelligent enough to speak thoughtfully on books, but, as I said, I have nothing. Now I'm repeating myself, so I'm going to stop before I become sickened with Marquez's style myself.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

"The Graveyard Book" by Neil Gaiman

Summary: A baby stumbles into a graveyard after his parents and older sister are murdered. Reluctantly, the ghosts in the graveyard decide to raise the boy and protect him from his family's murderer. Nobody Owens (Bod, for short), as he is named, grows up in the graveyard, sharing the life both of the living and the dead as his guardians work to protect him.

Musings: I was interested in Gaiman's writings after seeing the movie Coraline, based on one of his earlier novels. The book is categorized as juvenile fiction, which only shows me how much children's books have developed since I was a kid. I don't know that any books I read as a child began with a grisly triple-homicide, but Gaiman writes a book that is spooky, mysterious, and heartfelt.

Gaiman has fully developed the world of the graveyard in which Bod is raised. Bod feels like a real character who has grown up unsure of himself and his place in the world. Although he has some of the same "powers" as the dead, he is unmistakeably alive, and finds himself wishing for things the living possess.

The story keeps several mysteries running through, including why Bod's family was killed and the identity of Bod's guardian, Silas. Not all loose ends were fully tied up for me, though, and the explanation of the characters' identities wasn't fully satisfying.

Nonetheless, it was a fun book to read and had a completely unique storyline.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

"Zoya's Story" by Zoya with John Follain and Rita Cristofari

Summary: A true account of Zoya's childhood under Russian and then Taliban rule in Afghanistan and her work with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), which seeks equal rights for women.

Musings: After I uniformly dissed Does My Head Look Big in This? at our most recent English department meeting, another member of the department mentioned Zoya's Story, a book which he had heard of and thought might share some similar themes to Does My Head. I was a little hesitant to begin the book (not the least because it has a photo on the cover--always a "no-no" for me), but I thought a true account of such recent events could be interesting.

Zoya certainly has a moving story to tell, and I was most interested in her work with RAWA. Although we've heard much about women's oppression under the Taliban, I think less has been said on the women's active resistance movement. It is amazing how much work is being done from Aghani women who are unwilling to give up on their country and future generations.

Unfortunately, the book doesn't live up to the story it has to tell. Zoya's history is related matter of factly, more in the way a highschooler might write an autobiography than a novel (this happened, then this happened, after this happened, etc.). In that way, the book is much more a summary of her life than literature. The dialogue is stilted and designed more to inform an American audience (for example, conversations on religion and Taliban practices) than create a story or give insight into the characters. The brave men and women Zoya discusses are admirable, but they do not feel like living people.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

"Sea of Poppies" by Amitav Ghosh

Summary: Set in 1830's India, Sea of Poppies follows the stories of disparate people who are thrown together on the ship the Ibis. These people include Zachary, a freedman from Baltimore who is assumed to be the son of a rich white American family; Deeti, an Indian woman on the run from her dead husband's family; Paulette, a young Frenchwoman seeking to start a new life; and Neel, a wealthy Indian landowner turned convict. On the ship, former social barriers and pretensions begin to fall away as new relationships are forged.

Musings: First, I must confess: I'm a book cover snob. Whenever I'm near a bookstore, I like to browse the shelves looking for new books to get from the library, and I'm super picky about the books I'll pick up. Photograph on the cover? Nope. Cheesy font? Nope. Neon colors? Nope. So, I must confess that I first picked up this book because of its beautiful cover. Set on a solid persimmon background, Sea of Poppies has beautiful light blue poppies floating onto the cover behind the gold ringed letters of the title.

To that end, I guess I was fortunate that I ended up with a wonderful story. Sea of Poppies is, first and foremost, an exciting adventure story. Unlike the many books recently that meditate on human thought and existence (see previous rants on this topic), Poppies is too busy covering the stories and backgrounds of its many characters to spend too much time on the meaning of life. There are many important characters, but Ghosh takes time to set up each person as an individual with motives and desires. The story trips quickly forward and, despite the obvious hardships for many of the characters, is full of unexpected moments of love and hope that kept me smiling. Things may turn out more or less okay in the end, but the novel does not seem trite. I found myself rejoicing with each character's small success.

Part of Ghosh's talent lies in making so many different characters seem believable and sympathetic. I instantly fell in love with Zachary, who tries hard to prove himself in a new world. I similarly loved Deeti, whose strength and willingness to start anew forms the backbone of much of the book.

The Indian backdrop of the novel (and many of the characters) is really interesting. I know little about Indian culture during British rule, and it was fascinating to see the roles of caste and family in the characters' lives.

The most challenging part of the book is its language. Probably close to a fifth of the words in the book are Indian/British/Chinese/nautical words and slang. Whole paragraphs would go by when I had little idea what was being said (and these certainly aren't words that appear in Merriam Webster's). Early on Zachary makes a comment about the words making sense when you resign yourself to them, and I found this case. Although I certainly couldn't define most of the words independently, when read smoothly in context enough got through.

Only once I had started the book did I see that it is the first of a trilogy. I'm a little disappointed that I'll have to wait to find out more (and this book ends with a big cliff-hanger), but I'll be around for the second.

Monday, March 2, 2009

"Does My Head Look Big In This?" by Randa Abdel-Fattah

Summary: Amal, an Australian-Palestinian girl, decides to begin wearing the hijab (head covering) to her private school in Australia at the beginning of her spring semester her junior year. She and her range of friends (from Leila, whose ultra-conservative Muslim mother only wants her to get married, to Simone, who's convinced she's too fat to be loved) struggle finding their identities and coping with high school.

Musings: This book was also proposed as a potential summer reading book for 9th graders. The subject matter is really interesting and unique. I know little about the choice to wear the hijab, and this book takes a point of view that is probably rarely heard--a teenage girl's personal choice to wear the covering, even when her parents are nervous about the decision. There are several girls at my high school that wear head coverings, so I thought at first that Amal might be overreacting to her decision, but I soon realized that was not the case. First, I've never worn the covering myself, so I have no idea of what other people might face wearing it. Secondly, I remember reading newspaper articles about schools (in France, I believe), outlawing the wearing of the hijab, which brought the issue into a realistic light. The hijab is often seen as a sign of women's oppression, and Abdel-Fattah sets out to portray how and why the hijab can instead be a sign of women's strength and independent choice.

I had an easier time accepting Amal's decision to wear the hijab than I did her decision to forgo any sort of dating until marriage. Certainly this is not my world view, and I clearly remember railing against parents who tried to prohibit dating in their children. I realize, of course, this is another prejudice of mine--that a young person who doesn't date must be under the overbearing hand of a parent.

I found the topic of the book very interesting and thought Amal's decisions in many ways challenged my own views of teenagers and growing up. However, these important decisions are approached through excessive teenager cliches. Amal and Simone, two girls who in real high schools would probably deal with the very real problem of not finding nice guys interested in them, are both adored by the generic super-nice-popular-cute boys Adam and Josh. When Amal rejects Adam because she does not believe in dating, he is angry for a minute, but they quickly become friends again. Leila's overprotective mother eases up and allows more freedom for her daughter. Amal wins the big debate championship. The girls twitter over boys like they were 11, not 16.

The happy endings were tiresome and gave this very real issue a lack of believability. I don't know if the book would appeal more to actual teenagers, but I didn't enjoy reading it.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

"Octavian Nothing: Volume II, The Kingdom on the Waves" by M.T. Anderson

Or, "The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation: Volume II, The Kingdom on the Waves"

Summary: In Anderson's sequel to his first book, Octavian and his instructor from The College of Lucidity, Dr. Trefusis, have fled and soon hear that Lord Dunmore is offering freedom to any slave willing to join him and fight with the British against the rebel colonists. Octavian and Dr. Trefusis join, but quickly find themselves on the losing side of a war, knowing that the runaway slaves will pay the ultimate price when the rebels succeed.

Musings: I found the second book somewhat easier to read than the first, and also more enjoyable as Octavian begins to assert himself and mature. Although Octavian is thrilled to finally be free when he joins Dunmore's army, he does not find himself completely at home. He is surrounded by other people of African descent for the first time in his life, but he feels like an outsider. His privileged upbringing at the College has clearly labeled him as "different" from the other escaped slaves. Nevertheless, he slowly finds acceptance and friendship among his fellow soldiers.

Because this is a book grounded in historical fact, the reader knows from the beginning that Octavian and the others will not succeed. The colonists will overthrow British rule. It's heartwrenching to read of the men putting forth such valiant efforts knowing that it will be in vain. The British will be defeated and return to England, but for the former slaves, there is no where to return to. They will be killed or returned to slavery. The book ends on a hopeful note that Octavian and his friends will find some form of escape, but in his afterword, Anderson indicates that history points to such a utopian ending being unlikely.

The book does a good job of showing both the hope and despair of a people modern readers know will not be freed until nearly a century later.

- See my review of Octavian Nothing: Volume I.