Saturday, May 30, 2009

"The Secret Life of Bees" by Sue Monk Kidd

Summary: Lily, a teenage girl with an abusive father, runs away when her African-American caretaker, Rosaleen, is arrested after a run-in with local racists. Lily and Rosaleen travel to Tiburon, South Carolina, where they are taken in by a trio of African-American women beekeepers. Through the sisters August, May, and June, Lily learns more about herself, her religion, and her dead mother.

Musings: This is a really popular book that I only recently got around to reading. Several of my students have read it for their book review assignment, and it only seemed right that I did so as well. I started it while waiting for a delayed flight at the airport and was surprised by the ease of reading.

The story itself follows familiar tropes, as the insecure teenager Lily learns to love others and love herself through the wise mother figures in her life. There is some acknowledgment of Lily's inherent racism and white privilege, but, for the most part, the racism present in the novel lies outside the main characters and in the prejudiced and cruel white townspeople.

Nonetheless, the book uses some unusual additions to the novel such as the introduction of beekeeping and the sisters' worship of the black Madonna. In this way the book is both woman- and nature-centric and celebrates the faith available from both.

The book is an interesting and quick "beach read" with more depth than other popular books.

Monday, May 25, 2009

"A Prayer for Owen Meany" by John Irving

Summary: John Wheelwright recounts his childhood with his best friend, Owen Meany. Owen, a little person with an alarmingly unique voice, has always guided John's life through Owen's belief in God's purpose for him (Owen). After Owen accidentally kills John's mother with a foul baseball, Owen dedicates his life to fulfilling God's plan for him.

Musings: Like so many books, I have a story for why I chose to read this one. I first read it my senior year of high school. There are always a few weeks between the end of AP testing and graduation for seniors, and my AP Lit teacher chose this book as our "treat" in those in between weeks (a 600-page treat, I think sarcastically now, but I enjoyed it both times). One of my honors students is reading the book currently, and her questions (to which I had but the vaguest answers) inspired me to reread it.

Irving has created a good old-fashioned story with memorable, if not realistic, characters. Owen, with his odd voice (written in all caps in the novel) and unwavering belief in his divine purpose, is mysterious, infuriating, and an underdog you can't help but root for. John, the narrator of the novel, plays second-fiddle to Owen throughout his life. Where Owen is certain and relentless (and successful) in his pursuit of his Purpose, John is doubtful and mediocre. John serves as a foil to Owen, but even after Owen's death John is unable to grow beyond his position of a contrast to Owen. As an adult, John is pathetically stuck in the past and unable to create meaningful relationships with other people; he relentlessly criticizes the U.S. government while hiding in Canada. John's inability to mature causes the reader doubts. Owen gave his life pursuing his Purpose, but his martyrdom, while saving a few innocent lives, failed to "save" the people closest to him.

The nature of religious belief is a prominent theme throughout the novel. John tells us Owen is the reason he believes in God, but this knowledge does not seem to have brought much comfort to John. Irving seems to be criticizing the very nature of belief. We say we believe in miracles, that we accept God by faith alone, but if a genuine miracle occurs--something beyond the nature of science--we dismiss it as hocus-pocus. Can real miracles occur today? What constitutes belief?

John's current problems with the U.S. government, Owen's religious certainty, and the "sainthood" of John's mother can get heavy-handed, but the novel's greatest strength lies in the way unique characters and small events all come together to form meaning at the end. The nature of Owen's death, while alluded to frequently throughout the novel, still comes as a satisfying surprise.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" by Mark Haddon

Summary: Christopher, an autistic 15-year-old, narrates this story as he tries to solve the murder of his neighbor's dog. Socially awkward and a frustration to his parents, Christopher finds solace in math and logic, and uses those skills to navigate his world. When he discovers his father has lied to him, Christopher undertakes a journey on his own.

Musings: This book is immediately unique because of its narrator. The story is told solely from Christopher's point of view, which means we understand events as he sees them. Because the majority of readers are not on the autistic spectrum, we can see the underlying meaning in many of Christopher's encounters and also understand why such meetings are terrifying for Christopher. Christopher uses drawings and math tangents to explain himself and his emotions in the only way he can.

Although Christopher's story has a clear beginning and ending with strong conflict along the way, Christopher sets out only to recount his life as he sees it. That means some characters are introduced and then dropped (like the kindly neighbor Mrs. Alexander) and other characters appear frequently, but in the periphery (like his teacher Siobhan).

Christopher's take on the world is both funny and sad. His quirky logic to everything he encounters is both odd and strangely rational. Christopher himself is a paradox: a genius who cannot operate "normally" within society.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

"The Secret Garden" by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Summary: When "contrary" Mary's parents die, she is sent to live with her reclusive uncle. It is only through discovering her uncle's fabulous gardens--including the "secret" one that has been locked up for ten years--that Mary becomes healthier and kinder. Through her relationship with Dickon, a country boy with a knack for charming animals, and Colin, her uncle's invalid and petulant son, Mary learns a love for the outdoors and a belief in Magic.

Musings: This is one I read a very long time ago. As I mentioned in my review of Nation, I had a thing for secluded outdoor places, and The Secret Garden fit that bill.

The book is a true old-fashioned children's book, which means a lot of proselytizing about polite behavior. Every character's gruff exterior belies a heart of gold, and a number of characters (Dickon, his mother), radiate heavenly goodness. The children chirp phrases repetitively and seem to charm everyone around them. Colin's annoying preaching is actually enjoyed by not only Mary and Dickon, but the old garden keeper as well.

The best part of the book is the idea of a secret garden of one's own filled with hearty snacks (courtesy of Dickon's mother) and friendly woodland creatures (a la Snow White). Burnett's overall message seems to be that fresh air can cure all ills, and who can really argue with that?

Thursday, May 14, 2009

"Interpreter of Maladies" by Jhumpa Lahiri

Summary: A collection of short stories about Indians and Indian-Americans taking place primarily in India and New England.

Musings: I really enjoy literature about India; somehow I find the culture so different from my own and the feelings associated with it so rich. Lahiri uses her stories to explore a range of characters: women and men living in India, recently transplanted Indians in America, and 2nd generation children who grew up in the U.S. Although the individual characters vary, the stories, as a whole, present a picture of longing and loss. In the stories, people strive for some kind of human connection and frequently find the gap between them and others widening, rather than decreasing.

In the first story, "A Temporary Matter," newly married Shoba and Shukumar find themselves distant over the loss of their first child during childbirth. When their power is turned off for an hour every night as the power company does maintenance, Shoba and Shukumar find themselves forced to be together and gradually begin to reveal secrets. On the final night, Shoba reveals that she has found her own apartment and is moving out. As in many of the stories, Shoba and Shukumar have a strained, silent relationship. More is unsaid than said, and the gulf between them widens through lack of effort. All but one of the marriages in Lahiri's book is defined by cool distance. It was difficult, and scary, to see how isolated people who lived in the same house could be.

The Indian diaspora is also a common thread across the novel, particularly for the Indian wives who move, jobless, to America with their husbands with nothing to do but care for dingy apartments and cook. Although the husbands at least have work to give them purpose, the women are largely ignored, particularly in the American society that fails to understand Indian culture. Nonetheless, women form the backbone of the majority of the stories, and it is clearly their pain that shapes the tone of the stories.

Despite the sadness present in most of the stories, the last story, "The Third and Final Continent," ends on an upbeat note as a transplanted newlywed couple uses a small moment with a very old woman to bring them together in a strange country.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

"Nation" by Terry Pratchett

Summary: After an enormous wave in a large ocean destroys almost everything and everyone in the vicinity, two survivors are thrown together on one island. Mau, a native of the island, was away on an initiation rite when his entire nation was destroyed. Daphne, a young and well-raised British girl, is the only survivor of her ship. Together they begin to form a society on the island as they are joined by other survivors.

Musings: I'm a sucker for "living alone on an island" stories and adored books like Island of the Blue Dolphins, Hatchet, and My Side of the Mountain as a kid. I picked up this book with much of the same interest. The story I read was much different than I expected.

Nation has the trappings of a basic survivor and culture-clash story but instead is more about the existence of gods/God, the choice of society before self, and the Western appropriation of scientific ideas. After his society is killed by the wave, Mau begins to ask the classic question: why would gods let such terrible things happen? This questions haunts Mau throughout the novel, and his religion finally comes in the form of science. Science provides an answer for Mau's "because why?" questions and becomes the foundation on which he can build a society.

Mau and Daphne discover that Mau's ancestors had sailed around the world and made many scientific discoveries well ahead of the Western world. Although I appreciated Pratchett giving credit for such work to a new source, the concept didn't work fully for me. If his people were so learned, why was all the knowledge completely lost? Why did Mau's people live, more or less, like a Westerner might expect "natives" to live? At the end of the book, Mau's country is opened to Western scientists as place of learning. Again, a nice idea, but I find it hard to believe such knowledge would not be appropriated and manipulated by outside sources.

Mau and Daphne are extraordinarily capable to the point that many of their actions seem unbelievable. They are more archetypes for the ideal Britain/native than real people. The book does not have a desired romantic ending, but such an ending would not be in line with the book's message. As representatives of the ideal of scientific sharing and understanding, Mau and Daphne's only choice is to lead their people, not be together.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

"The Eyre Affair" by Jasper Fforde

Summary: Set in a futuristic Britain in the 1980s,The Eyre Affair follows special operative Tuesday Next, an agent in the LiteraTec office, which protects works of literature. This is a Britain that takes literature very seriously, and Tuesday soon finds herself embroiled with the evil villain Acheron Hades when the original manuscripts of Dicken's Martin Chuzzlewit and Bronte's Jane Eyre go missing.

Musings: Tuesday's work and world have a basic sci-fi premise, and Fforde's characters are fairly generic. Tuesday's pain over fighting in the long-standing Crimean War is less than believable as is her relationship with fellow veteran Landen. The novel ends with the cliche "breaking up the wedding at the altar," which was rather annoying.

Nonetheless, what makes the book enjoyable are the tidbits for literature lovers. Tuesday loves literature and her world is full of the classics. Fforde includes references both obvious and subtle, making it especially exciting for someone familiar with the works. Shakespeare gets significant coverage, and I especially liked the continuing debate (and "explanation") over the authorship of Shakespeare's plays.

Jane Eyre forms the basis for the conflict in the play, and although I haven't read the book since high school, I had a basic enough understanding to be excited to see the canonical book used in a more flippant light.

Fforde shows that all those books kids were forced to read in high school can be fun, valuable, and rewarding.

- See my reviews of book two in the series, Lost in a Good Book, and book three in the series, The Well of Lost Plots.

Friday, May 1, 2009

"The Great Gatsby" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Summary: Nick Carraway narrates his summer in West Egg where he is next door neighbor to the rich Jay Gatsby. After being invited to one of Gatsby's opulent parties, Nick becomes closer to his neighbor with a secret past and learns about Gatsby's interest in Nick's cousin, Daisy. Nick becomes more and more involved in the lives of Gatsby, Daisy, and her husband Tom as the summer progresses.

Musings: This is another book I, like every other person in America, read in high school. Unlike Slaughterhouse-Five, I do have a decent recollection of the basic plot of the book, probably because I had to read it again in college. Somehow I haven't remembered the literary commentary on the book along with the plot, which probably would have helped as I read it.

I know I didn't like The Great Gatsby the first two times I read it, and I didn't like it any more as an adult. I can see why the book would be lauded, but its appeal was lost on me.

The book takes place in the languid '20s, and the reader, like the characters, goes through most of the books in a humid haze of parties, drinking, and sitting around.

Gatsby's intense devotion to Daisy is odd and inexplicable to me. I didn't understand his obsession to her or the extremes to which he has gone to make himself appear deserving of her.

If nothing else, the book reinforces the idea that nothing changes and that the “can-do” idea of the American Dream is unrealistic. You may be able to make a fortune, but that doesn’t mean you’ll have what you want.