Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"Inheritance of Loss" by Kiran Desai

Summary: Taking place in India and America, Inheritance of Loss covers the stories of the spiteful Judge, trained in England; his granddaughter Sai; his cook, saving money for his son; the cook's son as he struggles in America, and other characters amid unrest in their town in India.

Musings: Like a number of other books I've read on India, Inheritance of Loss discusses the pull many Indians feel between their home country, England, and America, and the many different positive and negative feelings associated with each country. This novel not only covers poverty in India, but it also includes the struggle of immigrant poverty in America, whereas other books I'd read (such as Interpreter of Maladies) concerned professional Indians now living in America.

In the Institute I'm participating in this summer, our director has discussed the findings of Terry Gilligan, who did work with some of the most violent offenders in jail. Gilligan found that the common denominator among these men was shame. It was intense shame that created the impetus for the men to be violent. This idea is especially present in Desai's novel, particularly in the Judge. His simultaneous shame of his culture and his shame over the treatment of his culture by whites creates intense anger in him, which most potently manifests itself in violence against his wife.

The book is not particularly uplifting, but it does end with a moment of joy between a separated father and son. Desai writes lyrically, and the small chapters create intense moments of feeling.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Special Topics in Calamity Physics" by Marisha Pessl

Summary: Blue, an intelligent teenager, constantly moves about with her brilliant visiting-professor father. When she arrives at another prep school, she finds herself being taken under the wing of one of the school's teachers, Hannah, and brought into the Blueblood clique. Soon, however, unanswered questions begin to arise, and mysteries deepen.

Musings: I've been in a summer institute for the past two and a half weeks and haven't had the opportunity to read with my typical voracity. Nonetheless, this book had been on my "to read" list for awhile (on the recommendation of another English teacher), and as it was one of the few pieces of fiction the Smith College Library had that I wanted to read, I checked it out.

I enjoyed the book, but I do think my reading of it suffered somewhat from misplaced perception. From the English teacher who recommended it, I knew only that the book was about a smart young girl who used endless literary allusions (i.e. all the chapters are titled after canonical texts). However, about halfway through I realized Special Topics was not a story about the difficulties of being a teenager, but instead a historical conspiracy mystery. This turn of events struck me by complete surprise (I don't even think I'd noticed the early warning signs as I was so convinced the book was just about the difficulties of high school). For that reason, although the mystery was interesting, I couldn't help but feel it wasn't appropriate in this book.

Throughout the book many questions go unanswered as the protagonist, Blue, tries to find some ground in her newest school. Her close relationship with her father and her admiration of his intellect also forms a large part of the novel. The book gets a little strange when the teacher Hannah takes a primary role, but it's only in the last third of the novel that all semblance of a "normal" book is thrown out as several chapters are spent by Blue explaining the vast anti-government conspiracy she has stumbled upon.

It's a fun read that kept me wanting to know how it ended, despite feeling sideswiped by the odd turn of events.

Monday, July 13, 2009

"Emma" by Jane Austen

Summary: Emma Woodhouse, a spunky and well-off young woman, gets herself into trouble when she seeks to set up her poor friend Harriet with Mr. Elton. Emma navigates the social world in which she lives while discovering people are not always what you think them to be.

Musings: Although I've seen Clueless, I was not very familiar with Emma. However, since I finished Pride and Prejudice and Zombies so recently, I did feel I was already in the proper mindset to appreciate Emma and already know what was going to happen.

Austen's books run along the same themes, and Emma is no different. Although Emma makes many mistakes, she is endearing, and the reader cheers for her attachment to Mr. Knightley, even if he is quite a bit older. Some of the topics in the book get tiresome, such as the constant inquiries into characters' health. I thought the obsession a product of Austen's time period, but I'm currently at a summer institute, and I observed that most of the participants open morning welcomes with health inquiries. So I guess we're not so different after all.

Emma's father, Mr. Woodhouse, in reality would probably be the most annoying and tiresome person who ever existed, but in Austen's book he is absolutely hilarious.

There is nothing very shocking or surprising about the book. Most characters are, indeed, kindly, marriages ensure, and proper class relations are maintained. Perhaps its lasting impression on me was my tendency to go around musing on "so-and-so's temperament" and "so-and-so's manners" whenever I put the book down.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

"1984" by George Owell

Summary: In this dystopian society, the greatest crime a person can commit is "thoughtcrime"-- thinking anything that goes against the dogma of the ruling Party. Winston tries to secretly rebel against Big Brother, but quickly learns autonomy is impossible.

Musings: This is a new choice for summer reading, although I think it's a rather heavy book in comparison to some of the other options. I first read it a few years back (I loved Animal Farm in high school, but never had this assigned in school) and looked forward to reading it again.

On of the most obvious observations is how eerily correct many of Orwell's predictions are. Although "thoughtcrime" is not yet punishable, there are certainly many ways in which our society encourages a group mentality over independent thought and blind patriotism over common sense. When betraying the Party, Winston seeks solace in believing that although the Party can capture him, torture him, and force him to betray everything he believes in, they cannot actually destroy the essential part of "him." And despite our focus today on being part of a group, there's also an intense belief that an individuals' beliefs are inviolable. Of course, this is where Big Brother's greatest strength lies. He not only makes you say you believe the Party line, he drives you to the point where you actually do give up anything you once stood for.

There's no hope nor optimism in Orwell's world, and that's not a comfortable idea to have.