Friday, June 19, 2009

"Pride and Prejudice and Zombies" by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Summary: Austen's classic story of misunderstandings and reconciliations is updated with zombie killing mayhem.

Musings: I can't write a review about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies without reviewing both Austen and Grahame-Smith, for although Grahame-Smith has added zombies, the story is all Austen's. In truth, the zombies are a clever conceit that add absurdity but change little of the story's overall feel or tone.

In fact, I was surprised how little I noticed the zombie killing. I did like that Elizabeth was given not only mental wit, but physical strength as well, as she's known as a champion zombie slayer. It makes her all the more equal to her love, Darcy. Otherwise it's easy to overlook the Bennett daughters' intensive training in the "deadly arts" since their training in China has done little to affect their temperaments. Mrs. Bennett and the three youngest daughters are dismissed as utterly worthless people, although they are granted some positive growth at the end of the novel.

Austen's prose can be tiring at times, and even some of the more ludicrous additions (such as Elizabeth pulling out the heart of one of Lady Catherine de Bourgh's ninjas and taking a bite) don't make a significant difference. The beginning of the novel frequently bored me, and I could only digest the book in small parts. However, I read the last one hundred pages straight through, and I did so because of Austen's story, not zombies. I knew Elizabeth and Darcy would end up together, but I read eagerly, quietly pining as they avoided revealing their feelings for one another.

If Austen's not your thing, Grahame-Smith's changes aren't sufficient to make it worth your while. However, I think any Austen fan can find pleasure in reading an old work in a new light.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

"Big Mouth & Ugly Girl" by Joyce Carol Oates

Summary: Matt Donaghy, a popular high-school student, is thrown into turmoil when a joke he makes at lunch is reported as a violent threat on the school. Although cleared of the charges, Matt finds himself ostracized and withdrawing from school life until he finds solace with Ursula Riggs, a truculent, intimidating girl who is universally feared and disliked.

Musings: The book has a basic premise (two opposite kids suddenly finding each other) with contemporary commentary thrown in (hysteria over school shootings). Matt seems like a typical kid: smart, well-liked, but unable to stand on his own when he finds himself outside the mainstream school culture. Ursula is like no kid I’ve ever known, which perhaps made her the more difficult character of the two for me to empathize with. She uses her size and attitude to mask personal unease.

The characters’ emotions felt authentic, and the book does a nice job describing how quickly relationships can turn, particularly in a high school setting. The budding relationship between Matt and Ursula is slow, but sweet.

The book ends happily but still leaves some lingering questions. Matt and Ursula have found connections with each other, and have each started to renew some old friendships, but they’re not able to be friends with other people together. I think there’s certainly some real truth in that.

Although only written in 2002, the text feels a bit dated, especially concerning the characters’ clothing and method of communication (I doubt my kids have ever emailed one another—they barely know how to use it—it’s all text messaging these days).

Saturday, June 13, 2009

"Olive Kitteridge" by Elizabeth Strout

Summary: A collection of short stories centers around the life of Olive Kitteridge, an irritable and callous retired public school teacher. Olive is the center of some of the stories and is in the outermost periphery in others.

Musings: Although dealing with a different cultural population (aging white New Englanders, mostly) than Interpreter of Maladies, Strout's book, in some ways, follows many of the same themes as Lahiri's work. Like Interpreter, loneliness seems to envelop the majority of characters as they fail to make connections and relationships succeed in the way they want. An emphasis is placed on individuals' isolation, even when surrounded by other people and even in the presence of family.

Olive is the most interesting character in the book, and the reader slowly learns more about her as the stories continue. Originally portrayed mostly as a bitch in the first story (which focuses on her kindly husband Henry), she quickly becomes more nuanced. She often is a bitch, but she also deeply cares about the students she has worked with over the years and almost intuitively is aware of the deep sorrow in others. She is often unable to make relationships with other people, except those in crisis, because (even against her better judgment) she condemns and dismisses them as "stupid" and irritating. Her only son (who also appears cold and uncaring in early stories) hates her because of her attitude. Although Olive is devoted to him, she is unable to express that love in a productive way and fails to secure a loving relationship with him.

I'm significantly younger than Olive, but I did occasionally see some of myself in her: dismissing other people, failing to put effort into relationships, taking for granted the love I do receive. It's not something I intentionally do, yet I know I too can come off as cold and stiff. There's no overarching message in Olive Kitteridge to take solace in (nor even a story of hope, which Lahiri at least provided), so I felt rather saddened by its stories.

Olive Kitteridge is the newest Pulitzer Prize winner, and I was pleased to find a book that was rich and compelling, even if it wasn't uplifting.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

"The Omnivore's Dilemma" by Michael Pollan

Summary: Pollan explores the basic question of where our food comes from and what our food's origins mean politically, socially, economically, environmentally, and medically. He explores the industrial food chain, organic and other natural alternatives, and the basic method of hunting-gathering. He comes to the realization that truly knowing about our food is a complicated procedure that can profoundly affect the way we eat.

Musings: This can be a difficult book to read at times, especially if you're not ready for a dramatic food change, which I don't think I am. My husband and I are struggling to make some basic food changes - eat less read meat (not more than once a week), eat fish (at least once a week), and incorporate more vegetables (including trying vegetarian meals). The idea of also trying to think about where my food comes from and how it's made is almost more than I'm willing to take on right now.

Nonetheless, the book is a fascinating look at the way Americans, in particular, have perverted the very nature of obtaining and eating food. The first section is on corn, and I was shocked at how much corn factors into our modern eating. In a bizarre system dictated by government policy and the development of pesticides, American produces far more corn each year than is necessary, and in doing so, is forced into using corn in more and more obscure ways. Through this, we've perverted both humans' and animals' natural way of eating.

My favorite section of the book was when Pollan visited Polyface Farms. This farm relies on the simple principle that nature has already created a system in which animals and plants inherently work in tandem with one another to create a naturally sustainable and thriving cycle. The section will either make you a fervent evolutionist or true believer in God, because there's no other way such an ideal system could come into being. I was awed by the way in which food can be grown without pesticides, without fertilizer, and in humane ways by simply allowing nature to do what it is designed to do. For this to happen, farmers must be willing to play along with nature rather than industrialize it. This is certainly not the case in America today.

Pollan's chapter on hunting and foraging was a little less interesting, especially the rather long section on the complexities of gathering wild mushrooms. It was exciting, however, to see the results of the meal he made (almost) entirely from items he had personally grown, hunted, or gathered.

Pollan can get repetitive at times, but the repetition does ensure that his essential points are clear. My biggest issue, upon finishing, is wondering what I do from here. I agree with Pollan's criticism of the industrial food chain exemplified by the food found in basic supermarkets. But I'm also unwilling to drastically raise my food budget or spend extensive amounts of time seeking alternatives. I feel more aware, but I don't feel like I currently have any where to go.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

"Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.

Summary: John--or Jonah, as he tells us to call him-- relates his story of getting mixed up with the children of the father of the atomic bomb, visiting San Lorenzo (and becoming its president), learning about ice-nine, and becoming a Bokonist. But it's Vonnegut, so take it all with a satiric grain of salt.

Musings: This is my second Vonnegut novel after I rediscovered how great Slaughterhouse-Five was. Cat's Cradle was even more disjointed than Slaughterhouse, but it still had much of the same style that I enjoyed in the latter.

I love Vonnegut's tone, quirky side notes, and super short chapters. However, after reading the book, I'm not really sure what it's about. Or what the message is. I'm thinking it's that "life is pointless." Or "religion is pointless." Maybe "everything's a lie"? Each chapter felt incredibly deep and meaningful, yet I have no idea how it all comes together.

I've already started rereading it, so perhaps I'll be more articulate the second time around.

But I really liked it.

Monday, June 1, 2009

On Rereading

A recent New York Times' article on rereading ("Some Thoughts on the Pleasures of Being a Re-Reader," Verlyn Klinkenborg, 5/30/09) had me considering my own "personal philosophy" when it comes to reading a book for a second time.

I suppose, like many people, I've been rather anti-rereading most of my life. What was the point if I already knew the ending? Teaching was probably the first time I actively reread, mostly so I could ensure I was more well-versed in the text than my students (although I still fail in this regards, sometimes). However, as Klinkenborg points out, even for good readers much is lost over time. Although I read Jane Eyre in high school, I could barely remember enough to fully appreciate The Eyre Affair. My students have been peppering me with questions about A Prayer for Owen Meany, The Color Purple, and Big Fish, but I scarcely remember enough to have a discussion with them (even though I read Big Fish only 8-9 months ago).

This past month I've gradually began rereading favorites or classics. Of the eight books I read in May, four I had read before.

Klinkenborg argues that one of the perks of rereading is the ability to be less concerned with the plot and more focused on the book itself, whether that be its style, language, description, dialogue, characterization, etc. When I reread Great Gatsby, I was much more focused on the tone and environment created in the reader, even though I didn't like it any better the second time around. Curious Incident was much funnier and ironic than I remembered.

And, of course, one of the most interesting aspects of rereading is the fact that we, as people, are dynamic while the novel itself is static. The Secret Garden is no different, but I am certainly not the same young girl who first read it. How does my opinion change when I'm reading for pleasure versus when I'm reading for an assignment? Reading as a teacher versus reading as a student?

I've been immensely satisfied with my recent rereadings, and I intend to continue to do so frequently in the future. I brought home a number of old books from my parents’ house recently, so I think I may start with a favorite of mine, Brave New World. I’ve read it at least three times now (always for class), but I think a pleasure reading will have to reveal new insight.