Tuesday, April 28, 2009

"Unwind" by Neal Shusterman

Summary: The United States entered its second civil war (dubbed the "Heartland Wars") over abortion, and in negotiating peace a new constitutional amendment was created: abortions were illegal, but from age 13-18 children who were unwanted by their parents could be "unwound"-- divided up into pieces to be distributed to people who needed or wanted the parts. Connor, who is unwanted by his parents, Risa, a ward of the state, and Lev, a "tithe" being unwound in the name of religion, are thrust together as they avoid being taken to the "harvest centers."

Musings: Although an interesting idea, the book rests on a rather absurd premise. The book tells the reader that unwinding was a compromise that "satisfied both the Pro-life and Pro-choice armies." Pro-choice advocates are looking for a woman's right to choose whether or not to give birth, and letting parents kill their children at age thirteen in no way fulfills that. I'm no advocate of pro-lifers, but while I'm sure they'd be happy abortion is now illegal, I can't imagine many would support the killing of teenagers. In fact, the so-called "compromise" would do nothing, in my mind, to stem abortion.

In order to account for the women who don't want a child when that child is born (and, gosh darn it, just can't wait around until the child is thirteen to kill it), Shusterman has created an equally moronic law: a woman can abandon her newborn baby on a doorstep. If she can leave without being caught, that family is obligated to raise the baby. If she's caught, she has to keep it. What problem does that solve?!

The idea is that most of the unwounds are trouble-making kids who "deserve" it or tithes, like Lev, who are doing it out of some perverted religious duty. Of course, like in so many books, the "bad" kids don't seem to be bad at all. We're told Connor fought a lot and that's why his parents choose to have him unwound, but throughout the book he is kind, caring, thoughtful, and demonstrates good leadership skills. We're told he gets in fights, but we almost never see him actually fight. Risa is sent to the harvest center because her talented piano playing just isn't exceptional enough to justify the cost of keeping her at the orphanage (annoyingly called StaHo--short for Ohio State Home).

So, from the beginning, the novel has to be taken with a large grain of I'll-accept-this-ridiculous-premise-anyway salt. Shusterman has some good prose, but his writing is also peppered with obvious observations and used dialogue. The three main protagonists are interesting enough to make you want to know their fate, although Connor, and especially Risa, seem rather flat. We're told Connor changes, but as we never see really see the "angry" side of him, his transition isn't very apparent.

Lev is the most interesting character in the book as he grapples with his upbringing as a tithe, his gradual rejection of his religious beliefs, and his turn toward terrorism in an effort to express his anger and loneliness.

The book improves some in the second section with a number of twists and turns about characters' motives and a suspenseful ending that makes the reader think, for a moment, that things might not turn out all right.

But, of course, this is a young adult novel, and things do end out well in the end. The "good" characters have happy endings and wheels are set in motion for the dismantling of the unwinding structure.

Throughout the book I was uncertain on its message regarding abortion. Shusterman does seem to blame both sides for the war, and several characters have a discussion on the ongoing debate of when life begins without any resolution. On the other hand, there seems to be a critique that a woman gives up a child in order to "dismiss her responsibility so easily" (55). At the end there is a rallying cry of "We have a right to our lives!" and "We have a right to choose what happens to our bodies!" (333). Said by kids formerly tagged as "unwounds," the slogans could just as easily apply to either side of the debate.

The book also brings up--and quickly drops--some bizarre commentary on other social issues. CyFi, a boy who Lev inexplicably picks up with half-way through the book, describes himself as "umber," casually explaining to the reader that a mixed-race artist coined the term to describe blacks; whites are now called "sienna." Somehow this has reduced racism. And what's the point? Similarly, CyFi has gay parents (called "yin families," we're told). Apparently the Heartland Wars also made gay marriage illegal (did the liberal side get anything positive from this war?!), but CyFi's dads got "mmarried." Yes, with two "m's." What does that mean? No idea; it's never mentioned again in the book.

Kudos for Shusterman addressing some topical social issues, but he doesn't seem to do so in a way that offers any real perspective.

Monday, April 27, 2009

"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner

Summary: The Sound and the Fury follows the Compsons, once a reputable Southern family, now in a state of decay. The patriarch of the family, Mr. Compson, is dead from alcoholism; son Quentin commits suicide; son Jason is angry and bitter; son Benjy is severely mentally retarded; and daughter Caddy is "disgracefully" divorced with a child out of wedlock. Each son takes turns narrating the story and the petty lives the family leads.

Musings: I've been regularly reading for pleasure for several months now, and I typically "eat" books (as my husband puts it). I'm a fast reader and can easily read several books in a week. Although I've read a number of challenging novels recently (For Whom the Bell Tolls, Beloved), The Sound and the Fury takes the cake. I don't think I've had to work so hard at reading in quite awhile. The first two sections of the book were daunting, and I probably wouldn't have made it through Benjy's section without some help from Sparknotes. I had to read more slowly and reread more parts of the book than I have done in a long time. Nonetheless, now that I'm finished, I'm proud of myself for sincerely working my way through it.

The first section of the book is narrated by Benjy. Severely mentally retarded, Benjy has no concept of time, so he narrates both the present and past events as they were one, often without signaling the time shift to the reader. He describes things literally and as a child might, picking up on pieces of conversation and an occasional detail without combining all the parts together to make a recognizable whole. Sometimes the most basic plot details (like the fact that Benjy and Luster, a servant, are watching golfers at the beginning) were lost on me, even after several readings. Benjy lives in a world where his desires are guided by small stimuli, which he caretakers frequently fail to understand. Most of his interaction with other people consists of his caretakers telling him to "hush."

The second section is narrated by Quentin, the oldest son, and I expected to have an easier time reading this part of the book. However, Quentin is not much better than Benjy. Although aware of time (actually, hyper-aware), Quentin relays much of his section in stream of consciousness, where Faulkner removes all punctuation (even apostrophes!). I had a tendency to read the stream of consciousness quickly, since it flowed together without grammatical interruptions, but in doing so I lost all meaning of what I was reading. I found I had to pretend to insert my own punctuation in order to make sense of what I read.

The third section is coldly narrated by Jason and was straightforward and relatively easy to understand. The final section describes both Jason and the Compson family servant Dilsey, and is told in third person.

Overall, Faulkner has created some of the most unlikeable and irredeemable characters I have ever encountered in literature. With the exception of Dilsey and a few minor characters, the other members of the Compson "family" are all terrible people. We are told that most of the family problems stem from Caddy's "promiscuity," which leads to her child out of wedlock and sudden marriage (and subsequent divorce). Although Caddy is blamed for the family problems, Faulkner never gives her a voice (as he does her three brothers). Instead, we are left with three pathetic men who have centered their pathetic lives around Caddy's "dishonorable" actions. Benjy is too disabled to accurately understand what is happening, but nonetheless he ties his existence to "owning" Caddy and howls when he thinks she has left him for another. Quentin feels personally ashamed at Caddy's actions, and when his lame attempts to "save" her from disrepute are rejected, he goes into despair and eventually commits suicide. Jason, the worst of the brothers, is misogynist, racist, and anti-Semitic; he is angry and bitter at being left behind on the farm without the prestige he desired. He has no compassion and no feeling for others.

Nevertheless, Jason would have to compete with his mother, Mrs. Compson, for title of "worse person on the planet." Self-absorbed and manipulating, Mrs. Compson uses whining and self-pitying to manipulate the people around her.

My overall thoughts on the book are ambivalent. The Sparknotes analysis argues that "Caddy's indiscretions... irreparably taint the family name." I don't know if this is the common interpretation of the novel, but I find it hard to accept Caddy's fault in the downfall of the family. Yes, she has relationships with men, but her home life is terrible, and it's not unsurprising to see a young girl chase after new relationships. Caddy regrets the actions she commits that cause harm, and she genuinely tries to help the things she can, unlike her brothers. To me, it is the brothers' unwarranted obsession with women's purity that causes the family's problems. It is men's obsession with keeping "their" women in line with traditional gender roles that taints the family's name, not the woman's actions.

Of course, women are never given a voice with which to object to their biased portrayal. The three brothers each receive a section to narrate, but Caddy does not. Even the last section, which follows the servant Dilsey, is narrated in third person, thus removing any female from the opportunity of narrating from her point of view.

It only just occurred to me that the title comes from a Macbeth soliloquy which I memorized back in AP Lit:

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

In many ways the title is an apt description of the Compson sons. Benjy is the natural "idiot," but his brothers in many ways share the title. They are full of thoughts and anger and bitterness, but their wailing means nothing and comes to nothing.

The novel is beautifully written, despite the difficulty in reading it. It's a book I'd like to discuss in an academic environment, since I think there's far more to it than can be digested by a single person.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

"Beloved" by Toni Morrison

Summary: Beloved tells the story of Sethe, a runaway slave, and her daughters. Through varied points of view and fractured telling, the reader learns that Sethe was raised primarily on a plantation called Sweet Home, where she married Halle. When the owner dies, "schoolteacher" is brought in to take care of the slaves. His cruel treatment leads Sethe to send her children (two boys and Beloved) to escape, and Sethe later escape herself (while pregnant with Denver). When schoolteacher catches up with her, she kills Beloved rather than allow her daughter to reenter the life of slavery. Eighteen years later, Sethe lives with her grown daughter Denver when a mysterious woman appears--a reincarnation of Beloved.

Musings: I don't believe I have read this book before, although I am familiar with some of Morrison's other work (I taught Sula to 11th graders a few years back).

The story Sethe and Paul D (another slave from Sweet Home) have to tell is chilling and disturbing. Their experiences are all the more horrifying to the reader because they are told slowly throughout the novel, and the reader is left to piece together the different parts. Mr. Garner, the Sweet Home owner, boasts that his slaves are "men," but Morrison shows the stifling and confining effects of slavery--even the relatively "benign" slavery the Garners practice.

When Sethe rebels against Sweet Home, she does it primarily for her children. Her desperation over her abuse stems from the loss it represents for her children (notably Beloved).

Although the characters never felt quite real to me, I did feel carried along by the rhymic quality of Morrison's writing. Like her other books, the novel is full of strong dialect that makes the characters unique. The book has an earthy and bodily focus, which emphasizes the connection between a person's inner self, physical existence, and natural surroundings.

In the end, Beloved wasn't a book I liked, but it is a well-crafted novel deserving of its high praise.

Monday, April 20, 2009

"Graceling" by Kristin Cashore

Summary: Graceling is set in a fantasy world where rare people are Graced--born with an extraordinary ability and identified by their different colored eyes. Katsa has been Graced with killing and is used to do the "dirty work" of her Uncle Randa, King of the Middluns. She secretly resists her uncle and the other tyrannical kings by forming the Council, a group of people who resist evil doers. Through her work, Katsa meets Po, a fellow Graceling and Prince of Lienid. As Katsa and Po travel together to find out the truth of the kidnapping of Po's grandfather, they grow closer together and Katsa begins to see herself in a different light.

Musings: In many ways Graceling is a more explicitly fantasy (i.e. medieval-like setting rather than high school) version ofTwilight. But, in this version, Bella can kick Edward's ass and Edward isn't a prude.

Like Bella and Edward, Katsa and Po have sexual tension from the beginning, which drives the novel (and my interest in the characters). Katsa is more independent and confident than Bella (she's a very similar character, actually, to Katniss from Hunger Games), but she's also very conflicted about her Grace and the kind of person her Grace has made her. With Po's help, she learns to be more confident in her ability to control her Grace. Po is much like Edward in his handsome looks, blush-inducing stare, and selflessness. He thinks only of what is best for Katsa, somewhat to the point of losing his place as a real character himself.

The story doesn't follow the conventional fantasy plot line where the heroes plan an enormous fight against a powerful enemy, then come face-to-face with the enemy in a final huge battle. The climactic moments of the novel come quickly and from unexpected places; they end quickly as well. Because of this, the narrative arc felt a little strange, and the ending of the book didn't have the can't-put-it-down pacing of the beginning (when I was dying to see when Katsa and Po would finally get together).

The novel has a strong feminist message than occasionally comes across a little heavy-handed. Katsa is no girly-girl; she refuses to wear dresses, cuts her hair short like a boy, and has sworn off marriage and childbirth. Katsa recognizes her feelings for Po, but she also realizes that marriage, especially in her society and with Po's nobility, would demand unacceptable compromises in independence for her. Katsa and Po work out an arrangement that can be a little unusual for those of us who like marriage as the classic happy ending. Nonetheless, Cashore presents a loving relationship that is strong and stable despite the rejection of tradition. Many modern novels have strong female characters, but Cashore sticks strongly to her characterization of Katsa, not reeling Katsa into a feminine norm like other authors might have.

For readers who enjoyed Twilight but wanted a Bella who wasn't so submissive and insecure, Graceling is a good choice. Although there won't be a direct sequel to the book, Cashore's second novel, a prequel to Graceling, will be published in the fall of 2009, and her third book, which will take place six years after Graceling, is currently being written.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"The Book Thief" by Markus Zusak

Summary: Narrated by Death, The Book Thief traces the life of Liesel, a young girl in Nazi Germany. Liesel is raised by foster parents, and through the dedication of her "papa," she grows to love--and steal--books. Her family's life becomes more complicated when they hide Max, a Jew, in their basement and a deep friendship forms.

Musings: The Book Thief is narrated by Death, so its tone and structure is, from the beginning, slightly unusual. For Zusak, Death is a tired and pessimistic being who has nonetheless been touched by Liesel's story. Death says he has no interest in keeping secrets, so many of the important plot points (namely the deaths of almost all the characters and Liesel's varied "book stealings") are mentioned and foreshadowed repeatedly throughout the book. Although I could see the need of creating tension, I grew tired of the ominous "certainly, something of great magnitude was coming toward 33 Himmel Street" statements that were peppered on nearly every page until I just wished Zusak would get on with it and spit out the full story (129). In particular, Death spends an inordinate amount of time in the beginning of the book alluding to Liesel's thievery, even though very few of her acquired books are real "thefts" and none of the thefts come with much adventure or conflict.

Liesel is an enjoyable character because she is so flawed. When she first arrives at her foster parents' house, she is uncommunicative with little ability to read. The love of her papa helps her grow but does not dissipate her nightmares. Liesel acts both heroically and selfishly, and she has to live with some important regrets. Oddly, Liesel's past is almost completely missing from the book. The book begins with Liesel's mother taking her to live with the foster family; along the way, her brother dies. Although Liesel's nightmares are caused by losing her brother, Liesel does not seem to ever think about her mother. We learn almost nothing about Liesel's biological family other than they were labeled communists. After an early attempt, Liesel makes no other effort to get in touch with her mother or find her mother.

Because the book takes place in Nazi Germany, it's clear from the beginning that a happy ending is not possible. Much of the book dwells on the deaths of the main characters, and despite being repeatedly warned about the deaths, I was still immensely sad when they actually happened. I wished more time had been spent on Liesel's and Max's lives after Hitler's fall, but the book ends rather quickly after the primary deaths, despite the five-hundred pages Zusak took to get there.

Zusak has created different spin on the young adult "Holocaust" novel, and his characterization keeps the reader hooked.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"The Bell Jar" by Sylvia Plath

Summary: A semi-autobiographical novel. Plath's narrator, Esther Greenwood, recounts her time on scholarship at a fashion magazine during college and subsequent suicide attempt and institutionalization upon her return home for the remainder of the summer.

Musings: This book came to mind recently with the news of the suicide of Plath's son. I'd heard of The Bell Jar before, most likely in some Women's Studies class, but I had only vague notions of who Plath was and what her only novel was about.

What struck me first (which was also noted in the forward), was how contemporary the book sounded. From the beginning, Esther sounds like any other slightly jaded/slightly trying to be "cool" college student who isn't as sure of herself as she appears. I instantly felt a personal connection. Although I was highly successful in high school and college, I dealt with bouts of mild depression in which all my successes seemed meaningless. I struggled to fit in with other people when I frequently cared little about putting in the necessary effort for them to like me. Esther finds herself falling farther away from the other girls at the magazine without knowing why, and I felt her experiences were undeniably real and relatable.

The trueness of the first part of the account makes the second half all the more scary as Esther quickly loses hope, becomes preoccupied with suicide, and nearly succeeds in killing herself. Although her sickness has clear signs of mental illness, in many ways she also felt like a normal young woman, trying to figure out her role in the world.

The novels ends with Esther making a (presumably) successful bid to leave the asylum and resume classes and college. Yet I felt all along that Esther had not been "cured." She had just learned to hide her abnormal feelings and function better in society. Of course, Plath herself succeeded in committing suicide only weeks after the publication of the novel, so perhaps I was biased from the beginning. Nevertheless, the book and my feelings on the ending led me to consider how much mental illness is truly an illness--meaning it can be cured--and how much it is a part of one's ingrained psyche. Although I no longer attend therapy (it never did me any good), I don't know that I'm any different from my "depressed" period in college. I'm still very successful, with a successful job and marriage, but am I any different? My husband's struggled with depression more than I, and I frequently have the same wonderings about him. He's gotten better and he's gotten worse, but has he changed as a person? Is the difference between a person who lives a full life and a person who gives up early all that great?

Suicide has been loosely on my mind recently with this book, studying Romeo and Juliet with my 9th graders, and reading about the author David Foster Wallace. Plath/Esther, Romeo, Juliet, and Wallace all strike me as people who lived life passionately with the desire for perfection, and in doing so, they only realized the futility of reaching that utopia in the actual world. We're frequently raised with the idea that true happiness is obtainable, but I think the perfect happy life is a false idealization that few people reach and many people go crazy attempting to reach.

Plath is discussed within the Women's Studies circle for its feminist themes, particularly around the sexual expectations and gender roles of men and women. Although written decades ago, The Bell Jar accurately depicts the tension women even today feel between finding the relationship they want and the relationship they are expected to have and balancing a career with the need/desire/expectation to have children.

I enjoyed The Bell Jar, especially with its honest first person narrator. I typically hate books which are too innerly focused, but I felt intimately drawn into Esther's crumbling world.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

"The Good Thief" by Hannah Tinti

Summary: Ren, an orphan missing a hand, is adopted by Benjamin Nab. Ren is excited to finally have a "family," but he soon learns that Benjamin and his friend, Tom, are thieves and con artists. Ren begins finding his way among the rag-tag team and learns more about himself and his background.

Musings: The plot to The Good Thief sounds very familiar to other books, notably Dickens and portions of Huckleberry Finn. The principle characters are your standard "thieves with a heart of gold," but I still felt Tinti had created an exciting and interesting story with likable characters.

Ren's principle feature is his missing hand, but the lost limb rarely affects the way he lives his life. His strong Catholic upbringing adds an interesting additional dimension in the beginning of the novel, but Ren's belief seems to be less important later in the book.

About half-way through, the semi-realistic movement of the book disappears as the events become more and more outlandish. However, the book never feels overly contrived. I quickly grew to love the giant murderer Dolly (very similar to the character in Ludo in the movie Labyrinth) regardless of how unlikely his existence was.

The novel ends with a deus ex machina, but the happy ending is rewarding for the reader.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

"Gilead" by Marilynne Robinson

Summary: An aging pastor writes the book to his son as the pastor prepares to die. He muses on theology, his position as pastor, and his relationships with his father, grandfather (both pastors too), and wife.

Musings: I picked up this book because it was a Pulitzer Prize winner even though the topic itself didn't interest me. I should have known better. I'm sure for people who like these kinds of things this was a very deep and profound book. John Ames, the pastor, writes in a simplistic and thoughtful tone as he considers many events in his life. He covers his past experiences pieces at a time and frequently ponders his actions and his family's actions. Very little happens, and the little tension that is created through learning about his father and grandfather's relationships and his friend's son Jack Boughton don't add up to much.

In sum, it's a book with too much thinking. I started skimming about halfway through and stopped reading altogether about two-thirds of the way through. I suppose it's not right to write a review without finishing the book; oh, well.