Friday, December 31, 2010

"Pigeon English" by Stephen Kelman

Summary: Harri, an eleven-year-old Ghanaian boy who recently immigrated to England, narrates this novel from the small community in which he lives with his mom and sister (his father and baby sister are still back in Ghana).  The thread that holds the narrative together as Harri describes his community, friends and classmates, and experiences, is the recent murder of a local boy.  Harri is determined to investigate the murder, CSI-style, but doing so exposes him to some of the harsh realities of where he lives.

Musings: Although Pigeon English took me a bit to get in to, I'm glad I remained with the novel because I was introduced to a fresh and heartbreaking voice in the narrator of Harri.  Through Harri's eyes, his community is a mixture of the fabulous and the dangerous.  He can talk about the "hutious" (apparently Ghanaian slang for dangerous) gangs as easily as he can talk about the joy of cool sneakers or his love for his baby sister.  And perhaps what is most difficult for the reader is the way in which Harri accepts all of these facets of his life with a matter-of-fact naivete.

Harri jumps from topic to topic without a transitioning thought, and although it can be distracting at times, the style also effectively captures a young man's train of thought.  You can see the many pressures he is under from the people around him--he wants to be good and do the right thing, but he also is caught up in the pressures from others.  Nonetheless, he is someone who sees the world with idealistic clarity, and as the reader, you end up loving him and fearing for his survival.

I especially enjoyed the way in which Kelman captures Harri's relationship with his sister Lydia; it's a relationship built on both bickering and love.  Pigeon English also shows the complicated relationships of adolescent boys trying to be cool and tough and often resorting to dangerous means to prove it.

The only sections of the book I didn't like were the short italicized narrations by a pigeon Harri befriends.  The pigeon "speaks" enigmatically, and though it seems like the sections are supposed to be especially deep, I just didn't understand them.  Harri's voice is perfect to capture the mood and scene, and the pigeon's interjections are only a distraction.

Otherwise, Pigeon English is an engrossing novel with perfect characterization, and it demonstrates how difficult it is to maintain hope in destructive environments.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Pigeon English will be published in July 2011.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my review.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

2010: Year in Review

As 2010 comes to a close, it's time to announce my favorite books of the year as well as tally up my total reading!

Last year Hunger Games was my clear favorite, but this year's list doesn't have a without-a-doubt first place finisher.  Collins' Mockingjay came no where near the top (and would probably top my list of biggest disappointments), but a number of other books were all fabulous. Interestingly, though YA made up only one-third of my books read this year, it makes up 50% of my list.  I think this may be because I'm especially picky about the YA I read.  The order to the list is only mildly meaningful.

My top 10 books read in 2010:
1. The Ask and the Answer by Patrick Ness
2. World War Z by Max Brooks
3. Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
4. Room by Emma Donoghue
5. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
6. Shades of Grey by Jasper Fforde
7. Liar by Justine Larbalestier
8. Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
9. The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall
10. The Disreputable History of Frankie-Landau Banks by E. Lockhart

Total books read and reviewed: 109
Like last year, I reviewed all the books I read, and I also read 27 books more than in 2009.  I hadn't set a particular reading goal for this year, though I was a little pleased to break the 100 read mark. Again, I don't plan on aiming for a particular number in 2011, but I hope I'll keep about pace with this year.

Fiction read: 90
Nonfiction read: 19
Last year I made a goal to have nonfiction make up 15-20% of what I read, and I succeeded, with nonfiction comprising about 17% of the books I read.  Another goal I'll try to keep in the coming year.  I do want to try to branch into areas of nonfiction I haven't touched before. 

Adult read: 74
Young adult read: 35
My goal was to keep YA as only one third of my read books, and, again, I succeeded.  Ditto keeping this goal for next year.  I've found that recently I haven't been craving a lot of YA, and there's nothing right now that I'm really looking forward to reading.  Hopefully something soon will spark my interest.

Female authors: 51
Male authors: 58
I only recently began counting this statistic, and it was actually pretty equal up until recently when the men pulled ahead.  Although it's not something I was to focus on a lot, I do hope to be relatively equal in my reading habits next year. 

Book sources:
- Total borrowed: 82 (71 from library, 11 from friends/family/students)
- Total purchased: 8 (5 hard copies, 3 for the Kindle)
- Total for review: 9 (4 from NetGalley, 4 from NCTE, and 1 from publisher)
- Total otherwise acquired: 6 (2 as gifts, 2 from Paperback Swap, 2 won)
- Total already owned: 4 (these are books I've had for over five years)

Obviously I'm a library woman through and through.  This perhaps merits a separate post, but I've always been shocked by the number of books many book bloggers purchase.  I've always been on the thrifty side, and so I love libraries.  I can read whatever I want, for (pretty much) as long as I want, for free!  Who wouldn't take advantage of that?  I know I won't reread most books, covers have never been much of a draw, and I have no room to store books anyway.  Now, I certainly am fortunate in many ways--I have a close library that is part of a large extended system, so I can get most any book I want, and I never wait more than a few weeks.  In addition, very rarely am I "dying" to get a new release, so I never mind not being the first to have a book. 

Challenges I participated in:
- TwentyTen Reading Challenge 
- Books of the Century Challenge 
- GLBT Challenge 2010
- Persons of Color Reading Challenge

The only challenge I didn't complete was the TwentyTen challenge, and I knew I'd have a hard time doing so because I buy so few books.  One of the categories required that you read two books purchased from charity, and that never happened.  I was super excited to finish the Books of the Century challenge, even though it appears I'm the only person still doing the challenge.  It provided me the opportunity to read a number of books I wouldn't have otherwise read.

Happy new year.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"Delirium" by Lauren Oliver

Summary: Lena is looking forward to her 18th birthday in a few months in which she will receive the cure for love. Once she has been cured, she will never be at danger of contracting this dangerous illness the way her mother—who later committed suicide when the cure didn’t “take”--did. But during Lena’s evaluation, which will determine who she will be paired with for marriage following college graduation, Lena catches sight of a young man named Alex. She later runs in to him again, and even though interactions between the sexes prior to the cure are illegal, she finds herself drawn to him. Lena realizes she is in danger of catching the disease, but as she grows closer to Alex, she finds she doesn’t care.

Musings: Delirium has received a lot of advanced press recently, and though I had heard nothing but positive reviews for Oliver’s Before I Fall, the reviews I’ve read for Delirium have been more mixed.

Dystopian young adult novels have become very popular recently, so much so that there are now a variety of sub-genres within the field. Whereas classic dystopias (and even many strong contemporary YA dystopias) were created as satire and social critique, many recently published books are not. The Maze Runner, for example, is mostly a mystery, and even The Hunger Games is adventure rather than social criticism. Delirium, then, is really a contemporary romance that uses a dystopian setting.

This categorization can be good or bad depending on what you’re looking for. Because Delirium is mostly a romance, there is no world building. In this future United States, love is illegal, and there exists a totalitarian government which restricts individuals’ civil liberties in order to enforce the rules. However, despite these changes and the fact that the book is set sometime in the future (at least 60 years, though presumably longer), the technology, social customs, and culture are virtually identical to today’s. The characters do the same things and talk the same way as teenagers in 2010. And even though we’re told how restrictive the government is, the characters appear to get away with a lot. Now, I’m willing to believe that the government operates somewhat like the panopticon—maintaining order through the illusion of being omnipresent rather than actually being omnipresent—but it does seem unlikely that teenagers could elude detection for so long.

But, truthfully, all of this only matters if you don’t care about the love story itself. And, I’ll admit, I fell for Oliver’s star-crossed lovers Lena and Alex. I could understand Lena’s fear and trepidation of breaking the rules, and I could also understand her powerful attraction to Alex. Alex is really too good to be true, but it’s so nice to like him anyway and “aww” a bit for his care of Lena. Yes, there are a lot of typical descriptions of emotions ("I couldn't breathe/was dizzy/was numb when he [insert some "swoon-worthy" action]").  Nonetheless, I was eager to see what happened, even though I dreaded the ending (since this is the first in a trilogy, I knew the ending would be tragic!). I also liked that the book didn’t just focus on the romantic love between Lena and Alex but also the friendship love between Lena and Hana. Often best friends get second billing to love interests, but Oliver showed the strength and power of the two friends as well as she showed the romantic feelings.

By dystopian standards, Delirium is not particularly new or special. The book’s plot is very similar to Uglies, and the arranged love concept is appearing a lot recently (e.g., Matched). And if you read a lot of contemporary romances, you may not be too taken away by another Romeo and Juliet reincarnation. But, for me—someone who reads a lot of dystopias but very little contemporary romance—Delirium was engaging, with characters I rooted for.

Delirium will be published in February 2011.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my review.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"The Stranger" by Albert Camus

Summary: Meursault's mother has just died.  He goes swimming with Marie.  While at the beach with friends, with the sun in his eyes, he shoots and kills a man.  He goes to prison and is sentenced to death.

Musings: My summary above has "spoiled" the book, but I really know of no way to provide an overview to The Stranger that would effectively convey the book's essence.  This is my second or third time reading the novel (I know I read it in high school, but I'm not sure if I also read it in college), and I'll admit my reason for choosing it was rather lazy: I'm one book short of completing the Books of the Century challenge, and The Stranger allowed me to finish the challenge easily, since it's so short.

The Stranger is really a "classroom" book, by which I mean I think it is best understood and explored in a critical literary environment.  It's an absurdist novel that is focused on the way in which individuals are molded--and, when resistant, judged--by arbitrary standards of society.  Meursault is a character focused on physical, not emotional needs, and he goes through life accordingly.  During his mother's wake, he thinks primarily of being sleepy or dizzy.  When he kills "the Arab," he does so not out of anger or anything else, but because the sun is in his eyes and has made him uncomfortable.  As a reader, we find him odd and his lack of attachment disturbing, but our judgment of him is turned on its head during his trial.

In the trial, the prosecutor attacks Meursault for failing to cry or show emotional distress at his mother's funeral.  His shooting of the Arab is all but forgotten, and he is condemned solely because he did not act in the expected manner of a bereaved son--a point that, of course, has nothing to do with the shooting.  Here the reader reacts against society and its judgment of Meursault, but it is too late: the jury sentences him to death.

Before the trial and later while waiting execution, Meursault is repeatedly exhorted by others to express remorse and turn to God.  Meursault refuses, and in the end comes into his own sort of peace as he "opened [him]self to the gentle indifference of the world" (122).  The others say Meursault will only find peace in God, but instead he finds peace in knowing that he does not matter and the world does not care.  I too found this reassuring--it means there is no set plan, set fate, or set "way" we should lead our lives.  This freedom gives each person who recognizes it the ability to truly live as he/she sees fit, though it's clear from the book that society tries hard to destroy this freedom.

As it's been years since I read the book for an assigned class, I don't know how standard my interpretation is, but I liked analyzing and thinking about the short but powerful novel.

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Reading Challenge.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

"The Warmth of Other Suns" by Isabel Wilkerson

Summary: In The Warmth of Other Suns, Wilkerson uses the stories of three individuals to provide a broad overview and understanding of the Great Migration, the fifty-five-year period in American history in which southern blacks migrated to the North.  Centering the book are Ida Mae, a sharecropper who migrates to Chicago in the 1930s; George, a grove picker who flees Florida for New York after attempts at unionizing in the 1940s; and Robert, a southern doctor who moves to Los Angeles in the 1950s in order to practice medicine.

Musings: The Warmth of Other Suns is the perfect nonfiction novel; it effectively blends the narrative with the sociological, and in doing so, it brings an intensely personal and human element to a significant part of American history while also demonstrating the large-scale effects the Migration has had on our country.

In choosing her subjects to focus on, Wilkerson has been careful to capture very different stories and experiences that, nonetheless, have important similarities.  Ida Mae, for example, was among the poorest who came North, and though she found contentment in life, she was never wealthy.  Robert, on the other hand, came from elite southern black society and was among the highest educated.  Through practicing medicine he became extraordinarily wealthy.

But, regardless of education level or background, Ida Mae, George, Robert, and the many others who traveled North did so for many of the same reasons and faced many of the same problems.  They left because there was little available to them in the Jim Crow South, where segregation and hatred made it not only difficult to make a living, but to live safely.  Although the North did provide significant more freedom than the South, it was not perfect.  What was most heartbreaking was how much prejudice the migrants continued to face, even in the North where Jim Crow did not legally exist.  In the South, a person of color knew what restaurant he or she could enter--it was clearly posted.  In the North, there were no signs, but that did not mean places were any less segregated--a person of color had to enter the establishment and potentially be refused service in order to find out.

Wilkerson is especially effective at detailing the daily indignities migrants faced in both the North and the South while also showing the ways in which the migrants were able to find success for themselves despite the virulent racism.  Although, logically, I was familiar with many of the racist policies, it was all the more poignant to hear them in terms of individual stories.  One of the sections that most stuck with me was the difficulty in migrants finding housing in the North, and the extremes white residents went to to ensure their neighborhoods remained all white.  It was sickening and saddening, and it happened within the lifetimes of many people living today.

At times some of the material could be repetitive as Wilkerson retells portions of the characters' stories as a reminder or continually reinforces the idea of a caste system, but that style also means that the main points were clearly driven home.  I liked that the book is broken up into short sections and frequently switches between Ida Mae's, George's, and Robert's stories, as it make the relatively long book feel fast-moving.

Like the other nonfiction book I recently read, Unbroken, The Warmth of Other Suns has made a number of "best books of the year" lists.  Since I spent time while reading Unbroken considering what made a nonfiction book "best," I felt like I needed to do the same with Wilkerson's work.  For me, Other Suns was a significantly stronger piece, and I think that's because Wilkerson uses the stories of individuals to help the reader understand a macro-level movement.  Hillenbrand, on the other hand, uses a major event (World War II) to tell the story of an individual, and long term, that was less compelling.

The Great Migration is a largely overlooked part of American history, but it has shaped the makeup of our country and race relations ever since, and The Warmth of Other Suns is an engaging look at that period.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.

Monday, December 13, 2010

POC Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

I signed up for the POC Reading Challenge with a goal of reading 10-15 books, and I easily met that goal.  In 2010, I read 21 books with authors and/or protagonists of color. Here is what I read:
- Ash by Malinda Lo
- The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
- The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow
- Kindred by Octavia Butler
- Liar by Justine Larbalestier
- Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
- Libyrinth by Pearl North
- Monique and the Mango Rains by Kris Holloway
- Bloodchild by Octavia Butler
- The Freedom Writers Diary by the Freedom Writers and Erin Gruwell
- Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
- A Map of Home by Randa Jarrar
- Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris
- The Help by Kathryn Stockett
- The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Color of Water by James McBride
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
- The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
- The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
- Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman 
Of the books, my favorites were The Remains of the Day, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Marcelo in the Real World.  Each of these books was completely different, but all touched me and stayed with me in some way.  Ishiguro, the author of The Remains of the Day, and Octavia Butler are the only authors I read twice.  My least favorite book was probably Freedom Writers Diary, which, to me, completely lacked authentic student voices.  I also couldn't make a connection with The Color of Water or Ash, though I know others have enjoyed them.

I did have a quite startling realization from this challenge.  I realized that although it was easy to find books with characters of color, it was much more difficult to find books by authors of color.  I was disappointed when, part way through the year, I noticed how many of the books I'd read and qualified for the challenge were written by white authors.  Recently, I stopped counting some books for the challenge that theoretically could have qualified but had white authors (like Three Cups of Tea and The Windup Girl), but in the end, at least 8 of the 21 books I read were written by white authors.  I found it was difficult to learn of books by authors of color through my typical sources: book blogs (with some notable exceptions), newspaper reviews, and award winner lists.  My difficulty in discovering books I was interested in was compounded by the fact that authors of color are under-represented (or, at least, under-promoted) in some of my favorite genres (science-fiction and fantasy; contemporary literary fiction).

I will likely participate in this challenge again next year, but I think I will focus only on books written by authors of color.  It's undoubtedly important to support and recognize white authors who include diverse casts of characters, but I think the former is where I want to place my energies.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

"Everything is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer

Summary:  An American (also) named Jonathan Safran Foer has traveled to Austria with an aged picture depicting his grandfather with Augustine, the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis.  With the help of his translator Alex and his driver, Alex's grandfather, Jonathan begins a hunt for Augustine.  But this is not a novel that is told chronologically or with a traditional narrative structure.  Instead, the story is recounted through Alex's letters to Jonathan after the trip and Alex's own recreation of the narrative, as well as through Jonathan's fictional recreation of his family's history.

Musings: Everything is Illuminated is a very different book--one that, in the beginning, I thought I would hate, but in the end, found difficult to put down.  It's a strange combination of the humorous and the tragic, of the real and the not-real, and the in between.  It's a book that makes you see life's moments as simultaneous and muddled, and it makes me want to write in run-on sentences.

Alex is a fascinating narrator, and he transforms from hiding in bragging and joking to the most thoughtful character in the novel.  He is only partially fluent in English, and he over-uses a thesaurus, so his letters are often a funny mix of pidgin English.  I worried the book would lean too heavily on a "haha, look at his strange English," but that really isn't the case at all.  Alex and Jonathan's early conversations also provide a lot of humor as they struggle to understand and communicate with one another.

Jonathan's fictional narrative of his family has a folksy, magical realism style to it, which initially turned me off (I think I'm still prejudiced against the style from reading One Hundred Years of Solitude), but was essential to the mood and feeling of the novel at its end.

As one review I read put it, Everything is Illuminated is, at its most simple, a story about the Holocaust, but that barely begins to encapsulate the novel.  It's a story about love and memories and the ability to see oneself clearly.  It's a book that has so many interwoven parts that it demands a reread but still feels satisfying once finished.  It's a book that made me laugh out loud and cry.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

"Unbroken" by Laura Hillenbrand

Summary: The true story of the life of Louie Zamperini during World War II.  Zamperini was an Olympic runner when he joined the Air Force, with the potential of medaling in the next Olympic Games.  Switching his life of running for a life in the military, Zamperini worked in the massive B-24 planes.  When his plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean during the war, Zamperini spent weeks adrift at sea before being captured by the Japanese.  That capture began years of internment and abuse as a prisoner of war.

Musings: Unbroken has been making the rounds on the "best of 2010" book lists, and because I feel like I know little about World War II, I was interested in learning about one man's tale.

Zamperini has a fantastic story, though it's clear from this book that his story is only one of many incredible stories coming out of POWs.  There's much in Zamperini's life that brings amazement--his skill as a runner, his ability to survive weeks aboard a life raft, and his endurance of years of torture as a POW.

Hillenbrand has done an exceptional job of bringing various pieces of Zamperini's life together in a cogent and compelling narrative.  She portrays a multi-dimensional view of Zamperini, showing his boyhood as a trouble maker, his resilience during the war, and his struggles with PTSD after returning home.  Although Zamperini is clearly a brave man, Hillenbrand doesn't hide his dark moments, nor does she glorify the idea of "war heroes."

In fact, one of the issues that most stuck out to me was despite the important justifications for going to war, there was so much senselessness in what happened.  For example, Hillenbrand explains the extraordinarily high injury and death rate from accidents, particularly within the air force.  Military personnel were more likely to die by mistakes than through combat.  This is clearly the case for Zamperini, whose plane goes down while on a rescue mission for another downed plane.

Hillenbrand also details the extraordinary difficulty of POWs adjusting to "normal" life after the war's end.  Men who had remained hopeful and alive through the worst circumstances were too traumatized to enjoy the life they had held out for.  Zamperini was fortunate to be able to find solace (for him, in God), but undoubtedly many more were unable to.

However, while I enjoyed the story and learned much from Zamperini's experiences, I felt bothered about judging the book itself.  One of the things that gnawed at me as I read was the definition of what makes a book "good." I had seen Unbroken on so many "best of" lists that I think I expected something more.  When a fiction writer tells an amazing story, we laud them for it, but should we do so for a nonfiction writer?  Is Hillenbrand's unquestionable ability to research and pull together so many disparate sources enough?  For me, a truly great book has to have something in style and form that sets it apart, and I just didn't see that in Unbroken.  The story is clearly told chronologically, and Hillenbrand keeps the narrative moving quickly, investing in strong character detail throughout.  However, in the end, the book is still a standard narrative, and because of that, it didn't stand out to me as something special, beyond the extra-ordinariness of the story itself.  I don't say this to be critical--I thought the book was very good--but it's not the kind of book that would make a top reading list for me.

P.S.  On a separate note, I accidentally requested the large print copy of Unbroken at my library instead of a regular copy.  I was worried that the enormously large size of the text would be a distraction, but I found it didn't bother me much (though I didn't like the size of the book because of the large print--it was over 700 pages and quite heavy).

Sunday, December 5, 2010

GLBT Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

When I signed up for the GLBT Challenge, I hoped to read not just more books with GLBT characters/authors in general, but in particular, I was looking for YA books that would fit these categories.  I think I did fairly well on that this year.  I signed up at the lambda level, which was four books, but I ended up reading seven.  Here's my list: 

- Ash by Malinda Lo
- Luna by Julie Anne Peters
- Libyrinth by Pearl North
- Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan
- Wildthorn by Jane Eagland
- Room by Emma Donoghue
- A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf

Of the seven, Room was definitely my favorite, though there are no GLBT characters and I didn't know Donoghue was a lesbian until after I had read the book.  A Room of One's Own was a close second, and Will Grayson, Will Grayson was my favorite of the YA.

Although I found I mostly had to actively seek out books with GLBT protagonists, I was happy to see a number of books I read positively portrayed GLBT secondary characters.  I didn't count these books towards the challenge, but they include:

- Zombies vs. Unicorns  by various authors
- The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly
- The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx
- The Ask and the Answer and Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness 

I'm definitely glad I did this challenge, though I'll admit I put more time into searching for books in the beginning of the year than in the end.  I spent a significant amount of time in the beginning looking for GLBT fantasy/sci-fi, but had a hard time finding much.  It's something I'll continue to keep an eye out for. 

Friday, December 3, 2010

"The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Summary: Mr. Stevens, an aging English butler, once served Lord Darlington at the height of the Lord's prominence, looking over a large house staff and overseeing events involving important political figures.  But Lord Darlington has been dead several years, and an American gentleman now owns the property.  When Stevens' American employer leaves for several weeks, he suggests Stevens take a holiday.   As Stevens takes a motoring trip, he looks back on his many years of service, facing the truth of his employer and his service.

Musings: Remains of the Day is probably one of the most thoughtfully characterized book I have ever read, and in this small novel, which is almost all introspection, I found myself more engrossed than in any action book I've read.

The Remains of the Day is a quiet novel, much like Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go.  Its strength lies in the way Ishiguro absolutely makes you believe you are listening to a real English butler named Stevens.  Stevens is an absolutely convincing character, and because of this, his experiences are all the more heartbreaking.  Stevens is a man who has dedicated himself to executing his profession to perfection.  But this all-consuming dedication has been his biggest downfall.  In seeing himself as a butler above all else, and in holding himself to expectations higher than anyone else's, he has sacrificed relationships (with his father, a housekeeper named Miss Kenton), intellectual vigor, and enjoyment of life.  He has been a martyr for a cause no one but himself supports.  And this is all the more sad because Stevens refuses to acknowledge it; he stubbornly defends his choices, even though it's painfully obvious to the reader that his has not truly been a life well-spent.

Stevens narrates the novel in first person, and it's easy to want to empathize with him.  His dedication to his job is admirable, and he holds himself to high standards.  But it's soon apparent that though Stevens is good at his job, he is not good at being human.  He is inconsiderate and uncaring of others' feelings; he rejects friendly conversation, and he holds no room for human fallacy--except in the case of his employer, for whom he mostly overlooks mistakes.  He is someone who, at this point in his life, has no friends, no family, and years dedicated to an employer now despised by most.

The Remains of the Day is a beautiful novel, and one I would highly recommend.

***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge and the Books of the Century Challenge.

Monday, November 29, 2010

"The World According to Garp" by John Irving

Summary: A story of the life of T.S. Garp, the son of famed nurse, author, and feminist Jenny Garp, who would become a famous writer himself.

Musings: I've only read two books by Irving--this and A Prayer for Owen Meany--and they're a lot a like.  I don't say this as criticism, but rather because I think the easiest way to understand what The World According to Garp is like is to have read another one of Irving's books.

A World According to Garp is populated by crazy and bizarre characters who nonetheless are so intricately drawn as to feel real (there's something Garp says about fiction being realer than reality, which certainly applies).  Similarly, the events that happen in the book are too fantastical to believe (particularly the tragedy) while also making complete sense within the context of the book.  There's no real plot arc to the story, and it would be difficult to summarize the novel's plot (which is why I didn't even try in the summary above).  Nonetheless, the reader is drawn into the story.

There's a lot to think through after finishing A World According to Garp, and I almost think I'd rather just be left with the finished story.  Because Garp is a writer, much of the book concerns Garp's craft of writing.  However, those comments on writing are part of the very structure of A World According to Garp itself.  In essence, Irving is Garp as Irving writes the book, so the reader is left with the feeling of reading Garp and reading about Garp at the same time.  It's all very meta.

But, the book can also be read without thinking too deeply about multiple levels, and there's plenty of humor, sex, violence, tragedy, and love to keep it afloat. 

Sunday, November 21, 2010

"A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf

Summary: Woolf's essay on "women and fiction," in which she argues that in order for women to create, they need an income of five hundred pounds a year and a room in which they can write.

Musings: I somehow never was exposed to Woolf's classic essay before, and I regret that, though I think this reading came at a perfect time in my life.  I'm not a terribly observant reader of most books, and I had to force myself to highlight, comment, and reflect when reading assigned works in college.  However, as I read A Room of One's Own for the first time, I cursed the fact that I was reading a library copy.  I was dying to mark lines and jot down my thoughts as I read.  I turned over particular sentences in my head, read them aloud to my husband, and reread whole sections.  I had to pull out a notepad in order to copy down all the gems I wanted to remember.  In short, this fabulous feminist essay not only exposes the state of women in 1928, when Woolf was writing, but it also sheds significant light on the fight for equality between the sexes today.

Woolf's primary purpose in the essay is to address the lack of women writers throughout history and to understand what is necessary for a person to create fiction.  One of her most potent arguments is that a person must have financial security in order to create. She notes, "Intellectual freedom depends upon material things.  Poetry depends upon intellectual freedom.  And women have always been poor, not for two hundred years merely, but from the beginning of time.  Women have had less intellectual freedom than the sons of Athenian slaves.  Women, then, have not had a dog's chance of writing poetry" (106).  But it is not only the lack of financial means that have kept women from writing.  Woolf argues that is is also the lack of history of women's writing from which to draw on and the lack of social support.  Even for poor men, the world says, "Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me," but to women, "the world said with a guffaw, Write?  What's the good of your writing?" (52).  Woolf recognizes the popular conception that truly great writers produce regardless of circumstance, but she breaks down that false ideal easily.

A Room of One's Own is set during an interesting point in history, a time in which women had recently won the right to vote and were increasingly allowed access to wider range of educational and vocational opportunities.  But, greater equality also results in a stronger backlash.  Life is difficult, Woolf says, and self-confidence can come most easily by asserting one's superiority over another.  So even as women were given more rights, their work and abilities were also being increasingly disparaged.  Woolf argues, "Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority.  That was what he was protecting rather hot-headedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price. ...  How can we generate this imponderable quality [of self-confidence], which is yet so invaluable, most quickly?  By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself" (34-35).

As I mentioned above, many of Woolf's arguments still hold sway today.  Women still make, on average, less than men, and it is a lack of financial freedom that hampers greater equality.  Although there are many more opportunities for women artists, there are still many arenas in which women lack a history and support network, and as a result, women are underrepresented.  Even Woolf's discussion of the way in which women in literature are only depicted in relationship to men is still evident in many popular stories (just see the continued use of the "Bechdel test").

I had read the introduction to my edition of the essay first, which was a mistake, because it made me think Woolf's piece would be difficult and indecipherable, when in fact I found it especially accessible and pointed.  A Room of One's Own is certainly a piece I want to return to, and I also hope to try some of Woolf's fiction in the near future.

***This book qualifies for the GLBT Reading Challenge 2010 and the Books of the Century Challenge.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

"The Devil's Sword" by Douglas E. Richards

***This is the 100th book I've read this year!

Summary: Kevin has recently discovered a passion for fencing, and he's excited to attend a large regional tournament at Nellis Air Force Base with his friends and fellow fencers, Ben and Rachel.  However, the three young competitors have no idea that arms dealers intent on stealing the ultimate weapon from the U.S. government are also at the tournament and have their eye on the fencers.  Kevin, Ben, and Rachel find themselves unwillingly drawn into a plan that could jeopardize the entire country's safety.

Musings: The Devil's Sword belongs to a genre that I never read--middle grade spy/adventure fiction. So I read this book for one simple reason.  It has fencing in it.

As I've mentioned before, I fenced in college and have since been fascinated by the sport.  However, while there's plenty of literature involving sword fighting, there are very few books which include fencing as a competitive sport.  When I heard about this book through my college fencing listserve, I was eager to try it out.  From the summary alone I knew the book would not be completely up my alley--fencers stop arms dealers!?--but I hoped the smart inclusion of the sport would win me over.

In the end, it's difficult for me to talk about the book fairly, as I want to acknowledge its weaknesses while also refraining from being overly harsh to a book that I would never normally have considered.

So, first, the bad in short.  The story is cliche and cheesy, the characters are stock, and there is a serious problem of "telling" instead of "showing."  There's no real style--just a story explained over the course of the book.

However, there are also goods.  The fencing is realistically portrayed.  One of the problems in writing books about fencing is that fencing, unlike more popular sports like basketball or football, has complicated rules, procedures, and uniforms that the lay person is not familiar with.  Richards does, then, go into long explanations about the sport (there's an especially large info dump in the first chapter), but it's accurate and interesting information.  The novel's especially good at showing how fencing can be appealing to people just like Kevin--slightly nerdy types who might want to be active but not be interested in traditional "jock" sports.

I was also worried that a book involving fencers facing arms dealers would inevitably lead to a dramatic sword fight between a 14-year-old and a villain.  As I've told the many people who have asked over the years, fencing in no way prepares you to actually fight anyone--sword or not.  Again, I was pleasantly surprised.  The book begins with this fabulous quote from Bruce Lee which sets the tone for the rest of the book:
"If someone comes at you with a sword, run if you can.  Kung Fu doesn't always work."
Although fencing provides the background for the book, and the kids' skills, developed in fencing, do play a part in their interactions with the arms dealers, there's no silly sword fight to the death.  In fact, as the book continues, fencing begins to play a less significant role in the novel.  I was actually rather disappointed when the novel moved away from the sport and simply into a traditional kids' spy story.

The Devil's Sword would be a good book for young people (middle to late elementary, probably) interested in spy books and/or fencing.  I also think it might be a good book for a child who might be interested in fencing, as it portrays the sport in a positive light.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi

Summary: In a future world where most agriculture has been wiped out and massive corporations hold the patents on available seeds, Thailand has been more successful than most countries.  But the country is unstable itself, as warring factions compete for control.  Within this world, various characters' stories come together.  There is Anderson, a corporate man from America, out to discover Thailand's seed stock.  Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee, is Anderson's right-hand-man, but Hock Seng has plans of his own.  Emiko is a windup--a New Person--created by the Japanese to blindly serve; discarded by her Japanese master, she endures forced humiliation every day as a prostitute.  Lastly, there are Jaidee and Kanya, two Thai governmental workers with their own agendas.

Musings: The Windup Girl was brought to my attention as the winner of this year's Hugo Award.  I had heard positive things about Bacigalupi's recent young adult novel, Ship Breaker, and was eager to try this dystopia.  And although I enjoyed this novel very much, I was struck by how different it is than most of the dystopians I read.  I realized that although young adult marketed literature only makes up a third of what I read overall, young adult categorizes the majority of the science-fiction/dystopian I read.

For me there are clear differences between young adult dystopians and adult dystopians.  I am no doubt generalizing, but in reading The Windup Girl, these differences especially struck me.  By and large, young adult dystopians are concerned with individual characters and their fights to survive and/or defeat tyrannical systems.  The worlds they inhabit are interesting but often not too detailed, and while social critique may play a role, it usually is secondary to the character's journey.

In adult dystopians like The Windup Girl (this would also apply to classic sci-fi like Dune or recent books like Atwood's The Year of the Flood), the world is central.  For this reason, there are often a number of primary characters, each of whom exists to demonstrate a particular aspect of the world.  Extraordinary attention is paid to the political and social order, and in fact the political background often takes precedence over the individual characters' stories.  Typically the novel offers some critique of our current society.

It's easier to prefer the young adult route, which is often less complicated and more action-oriented, so at first I was a bit unsure of The Windup Girl.  In the end, I discovered that Bacigalupi's novel in no way lacked in action, intrigue or characterization.  Its attention on political leaders and uprisings was not to my taste, but the focus was necessary in the story Bacigalupi created.  I raced through the book as fast as any engrossing young adult I've read, and I believed completely in the Thailand of the novel.

The characters are complex, and none are either "good" or "bad."  Abuse is rampant, but the novel never feels hopeless, though some of the strong violence was difficult to read.  Emiko was undoubtedly my favorite character, perhaps because she is the most innocent, but I also enjoyed learning about the layers of Kanya. 

The Windup Girl would definitely be a hit with anyone who enjoys classic science-fiction or wants an adult dystopian with strong world building.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"The Shipping News" by E. Annie Proulx

Summary: After the death of his promiscuous and cruel wife, Quoyle is left--lost and timid as always--with his two daughters, Bunny and Sunshine.  When his aunt suggests moving back to Newfoundland, where the family originated, Quoyle agrees.  In Newfoundland Quoyle begins working for The Gammy Bird, a local newspaper, and slowly begins to realize love can exist without misery.

Musings: The Shipping News is a much-heralded book, having won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, so going in I had certain expectations.  And while The Shipping News was not a book I loved, it is a book with a well-crafted locale and characters, and I can see the merit in the novel.

Proulx's novel has a jilted style characterized by fragments and phrases, as well as long catalogs of lists.  Although it reinforced a certain mood, I found the wording, at times, distracting and distancing.

Furthermore, as seems to be popular with literary fiction these days, the protagonist, Quoyle, is a rather lethargic and pathetic figure when the book begins.  He has certainly been beaten down, both by his father and his wife, but his sluggish path through life made it difficult for me to be interested.

However, when the book's setting switches to Newfoundland, both Quoyle and I began to perk up.  The home of Quolye's ancestors is able to revive something in Quoyle, as he has the space to discover his love for his children, his care for a mother of a child with special needs, and his aptitude for the newspaper business.  Quoyle's shift in attitude is also precipitated by the presence of a cast of interesting and diverse characters.  In small, almost negligible moments, the reader learns about each character's past and present.

The Shipping News is not a book with a clear climax or a standard story arc.  The book follows the lives of Quoyle and the people around him in an ordinary way, and it is only when the reader reaches the end that he or she realizes the change and development that has occurred over the last three hundred pages.

***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Reading Challenge.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Thirteen Reasons Why" by Jay Asher

Summary: Clay Jensen is still reeling from the suicide of a classmate, Hannah Baker, when he receives a mysterious package filled with cassette tapes.  When he begins listening, he realizes the tapes were made by Hannah before she died--and on them, she will detail the the thirteen people who participated in the chain of events leading up to her decision to kill herself.  Clay barely knew Hannah, though he liked her, and now he must agonizingly learn about the role he played in Hannah's brief life.

Musings: This book had come highly recommended by students, and I was finally able to read it when a student allowed me to borrow it.  I'm glad I had the opportunity because Thirteen Reasons Why is a smart book that would be appealing to teenagers while also sending a clear message about the impact we have on others' lives.

Thirteen Reasons is also a mystery, for as Clay and the reader listen to Hannah's tapes, we slowly learn how Hannah reached a point in which suicide seemed to be her best option.  Asher alternates Hannah's recordings with Clay's reactions, which allows for a full view of the events.  Hannah has been treated terribly by many of her classmates, but she also has faults herself.  She pushes away people who want to help and purposely allows herself to be dragged into situations she know will only increase her sense of isolation.  In this way, Asher highlights the difficulties of addressing depression.  People like Hannah desperately want someone to notice, but they also resist attempts to help.

Hannah's story highlights the ways in which seemingly "small" actions can have a large effect on another person.  This is an especially important message in high school, where students often retreat behind the excuse of "I didn't mean it" or "it wasn't a big deal."  They justify bullying, harassment, and assault as small, meaningless incidents.  Although I've never contemplated suicide, I did experience some of the feelings Hannah did early in college.  Having lost many of my high school friends by the time I graduated, I was determined to be outgoing and make friends in college.  Yet I found myself rebuffed in small, but continual, ways.  Fairly soon I saw myself as incapable of making friends, and, in self-defense, simply assumed people did not want to be friends with me.  I rejected them without giving them a chance.  I'm sure not one of the people who initially rejected me remembers doing so, but even now I can clearly see and relive each moment.

Thirteen Reasons Why is an excellent book for its intended audience, though I think at that age especially many people are more willing to accept hurtful behavior in others rather than themselves. 

Friday, November 5, 2010

"Room" by Emma Donoghue

Summary: Room is where Jack, who has just turned five, lives with Ma.  For Jack, Room is all there is in the world.  It was where he was born, and he has no idea that Ma came from Outside.  In fact, his mother was kidnapped as a college student and placed in Room (an outside shed) by her kidnapper, and she has lived there ever since.  Room is narrated by Jack as he slowly begins to learn that there is more to the world than Room.

Musings: My summary in no way does justice to the beautiful and disturbing novel by Donoghue.  From the beginning, the reader sees the world through Jack's eyes.  For Jack, Room is not good or bad--it simply is the entirety of existence.  Although they have a TV, his Ma has told him that the life captured on TV is fantasy.  He knows of no other life, and it's heartbreaking to see his Ma try to conceal her struggles from a son who happily accepts his life.

Jack's curiosity, intelligence, and bravery are clearly a testament to the strength of his mother's love.  Locked for seven years in a small room, his mother has nonetheless eked out a semblance of a "normal" childhood for Jack.  Yet she has done so at a great personal cost.  Not only does she continue to endure the night-time visits of her kidnapper, "Old Nick,"  but she also combats loneliness and despair, all for the love of her child.

Room is a book about growing up and accepting the good and the bad that come along with it.  Jack is a wonderful character to take this journey with.

This is one of those books that I adored and would highly recommend to others, though I can't seem to find the right words to talk about it here.

***This book qualifies for the GLBT Reading Challenge 2010.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Top Ten Books That Made Me Cry


Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. This week's list is Top Ten Books That Made Me Cry.

I just saw this going around, and it piqued my interest.  I'm a few days late, but I still wanted to post.  Funnily enough, I hate sad books and avoid them at all costs.  This applies doubly to books with animal deaths.  If an animal dies, I will not read it.  Also, I've noticed how many of these are kids' (elementary age) books.  What are we doing to our young people?!

1) The Knife of Never Letting Go
If you've read the book, you know what I'm talking about.  I'm still angry with Ness about this one.  I was blubbering so badly I had to stop reading for awhile.

2) Stone Fox
I can't even talk about it.  Don't ever read it.  I just cried talking about it.

3) Where the Red Fern Grows
Notice a theme?

4) Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
I'm in Mexico on the first day of my honeymoon, sitting on a lounge chair by the pool, sobbing because Dobby died.  

5) All Lurlene McDaniel books
I used to eat these up as a kid.  Basic plot: teenager is in hospital because he/she has cancer.  Then, he/she finds love of his/her life.  He/she dies.

6) The Amber Spyglass
Although I thought the last book in the trilogy was a bit odd, I was still left crying with the pair at the end.

7) Island of the Blue Dolphins
One of my favorite childhood books, and the relationship between the girl and her wolf dog totally got to me.

8) The Outsiders
I should definitely reread this since I know how great it is, but it's too sad.  Can't do it.

9) The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
I really felt for Oscar by the end.

10) Bridge to Terabithia
I won't even watch the movie.

"The Great Typo Hunt" by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson

Summary: Feeling purposeless as a copy editor at small magazines, Jeff decides to set out on a mission.  With his friend Benjamin, Jeff will drive around the country, correcting grammar and spelling errors in public signs (no more its/it's confusion! wrongly placed apostrophes! misspelled words!).  Along the way, Jeff struggles to define the purpose of his mission in a world of typos.

Purpose: The basic mission of Jeff, Benjamin, and TEAL (Typo Eradication Advancement League) is one I can support.  After all, I teach grammar, value its importance, and am also rankled by blatant and lazy errors.  One that still gets me is on the back of a fencing t-shirt I have, which proudly claims, "Fencing in Tennessee ain't what it use to be."  Plus, the boys' mission sounds like a lot of fun.  The two drove around the country, fixing errors (with the aid of Wite-Out, markers, tape, and chalk), sometimes with the owners' approval and sometimes surreptitiously.

But, right away, TEAL and the reader trying to sympathize come up against a problem.  We may value correct grammar, but it's difficult to go around correcting people's signs without coming off as a holier-than-thou curmudgeon out to disparage the less educated.  To his credit, Jeff recognizes this, but he also struggles to articulate his mission in a way that is meaningful, fair-minded, and defensible.  In fact, much of the first part of the book is concerned more with Jeff's examination of his purpose than anything else, and although many books concern man's search for life's meaning, it's hard to care much about Jeff's uncertainty.

The book also has difficulty finding a proper tone.  It tries to take on a mock-grandiose style, what Jeff calls "self-parodying pomposity," (139) using hyperbolic terms as a way to sound both important and like it doesn't take itself too seriously.  Even the structure of the book follows suit, as headings at the beginning of each chapter relate the events in terms of the epic hero cycle.  But, again, it is difficult to use that kind of language to describe your mission while also being sincere and not "being jive-ass punks" (172).

Furthermore, although it seems like TEAL's roadtrip would be ripe for great stories (both funny and horrifying), most of Jeff and Benjamin's encounters in fixing errors are pretty dull.  There are some interesting musings about the structure of the employer-employee relationship in retail stores, where the team confronts sales associates who refuse to make any real decisions.  The funniest meetings come towards and end of the book, where Jeff and Benjamin meet people absolutely unwilling to acknowledge their errors.  Ah, willful ignorance.

In an interesting turn of events, the trip ends in grand fashion when Jeff and Benjamin find themselves brought to federal court where they plead guilty and are heavily fined for "defacing" a "historic" sign at the Grand Canyon (they corrected a comma and apostrophe error).  Reading about their trials through the bureaucracy that is the America judicial system rather made me hate my country and the stupid stuff the government is wasting its time on.  To the federal officers who felt prosecuting that case was a worthwhile use of my taxpayer money: you're giant losers.

Of course, Jeff and Benjamin aren't necessarily the tiny underdogs out against the Man, which is how they most often present themselves.  They're two white boys from Dartmouth who not only have the free time and money (though they do do the trip on the cheap) to take such a trip, but they're also rewarded with publicity (national news) along the way and obviously, in the end, a book deal.  This type of book (a person chooses an odd, obsessive mission to complete in a set period and then blogs about it) is also pretty common today, so it's clear Jeff's mission was not terribly altruistic from the beginning.

In looking for implementable actions that can lead to less errors like the type TEAL found, Jeff and Benjamin do make an interesting point.  Although students learn spelling throughout school, they do so by memorizing the spelling of specific lists of words.  They never learn how to spell.  I certainly don't know the rules for when double letters are or aren't used, for example.  In seeing the dismal spelling of my 9th grade students, I think directly instructing students on how to spell could be worthwhile.

The Great Typo Hunt was less engrossing than I had hoped, but it opened up more questions for me than I had imagined.  It led me to consider the ways in which we advocate for the proper usage of grammar in a world of so many problems.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

"Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves" by Sarah B. Pomeroy

Summary: A comprehensive look at the lives of women in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Musings:  Although I think I've always been a feminist, I didn't know the words for it until some eye-opening women's studies classes in college, which led to me being a women's studies major (along with English).  I found that my classes in women's studies easily transferred to my English major, and I became more and more interested in looking at the books I read through a feminist lens, most frequently considering whose voices were missing from a text (often women's and people of color) and how power structures played out.  It was this critical viewpoint that allowed me some excitement in an English major I otherwise did not enjoy.

I've brought my interest in women's voices to my teaching as well.  The Odyssey, the first major piece of literature my students study, is a great text to look at women.  It's unique in that there are many prominent female characters with varying degrees of desires and interests (contrasted with the Iliad, in which women are mainly there for Achilles and Agamemnon to fight over).  However, the Odyssey is also a poem very much of its time, and certainly aspects of it would reflect the restricted lives of women in Ancient Greece.

I chose Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves because I wanted increased background information to present to my students on women's lives in Ancient Greece.  I hoped to be able to answer several questions my students ask.  How could a society create powerful female goddesses while also maintaining a firm patriarchy?  How accurately does a work of fiction like the Odyssey reflect the lives of real women in Ancient Greece?

Pomeroy's book is special because it was the first to truly examine women of classical antiquity.  It was published in 1975, so undoubtedly one of its drawbacks today is the lack of new research that has been done in the area.  Nonetheless, the book is comprehensive in its study of women through several ancient time periods.

I was happy to see that much of what I teach my students is correct.  Women of Ancient Greece were under control of a guardian and had relatively little social freedom.  Marriages were arranged for the purpose of power and childbearing.  Women married young (early teenage years) to men who were much older.  The duties of women were specific and distinct from men's, and upper class women were largely secluded.

The book does spend time on the fictional characters in the Odyssey.  Pomeroy addressees the way in which the major female characters (Penelope, Nausicaa, Calypso) play important roles in the work while also acknowledging the way in which each character reinforces an established archetype of female behavior. A reader can easily see the virgin/whore dichotomy in the epic poem.  The same is true for the major Olympian goddesses.  This way of looking at the female characters is something I can certainly take into the classroom.

Interestingly, Pomeroy suggests that as Greece (Athens, in particular) moved from an aristocratic society to a democratic society, women actually had less freedom.  She argues that without the power structures inherent in a outwardly hierarchical society, men had to find other ways to distinguish themselves.  Pomeroy writes, 'The will to dominate was such that [men] then had to separate themselves as a group and claim to be superior to all nonmembers: foreigners, slaves, and women" (78).  The time period depicted in the Odyssey was likely a time where women had more rights, comparatively speaking, than women several centuries later.

Goddesses, Whores, Wives, and Slaves has great background information for anyone interested in the subject matter.  The book does read like a textbook, so from a "pleasure reading" perspective, I would have enjoyed a more lively tone.  The stories told and the examples used are so interesting that the book could have easily been made more reader-friendly.

Pomeroy also tries to straddle the line between a book for the lay person and a book for academics.  The book does rely on some general knowledge of Greek and Roman history, so the person unfamiliar with that (uh, me) may have some difficulty with all the names and events mentioned.

I'm definitely interested in reading more recent studies about women in antiquity, but I know I will be consulting Pomeroy's book throughout my students' study of the Odyssey.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Wildthorn" by Jane Eagland

Summary: Louisa Cosgroves believes she is being taken to be a companion to a woman in a wealthy family, but when her carriage arrives at Wildthorn, an asylum for the mentally insane, Lousia is suddenly thrust into deplorable conditions and told her name is Lucy Childs.  As Louisa struggles to stay sane at Wildthorn, she thinks back to her childhood and her desire to be a doctor.  Slowly, Louisa realizes she has not been admitted by mistake, and that something in her past has lead her loved ones to turn on her.

Musings: I very much wanted to like Wildthorn, primarily because of its young lesbian protagonist.  Given the time period of the novel, there were so many questions that could be explored.  What would it be like to realize you were attracted to girls when you wouldn't even know the name for that kind of relationship?  How would you construct your identity when a core part of yourself would always have to be hidden?

Unfortunately, while Wildthorn does take a somewhat new approach to the historical romance genre, its over-reliance on cliched characters and storytelling has led an uninspiring and dull read.  Stock characters?  You got them: a nasty brother, a doting but somewhat clueless father who dies, a Nurse Ratched asylum nurse.  And, worst of all, a protagonist with no real flaws and no nuance of character.  Stock setting?  An insane asylum where the patients aren't really insane, the staff are abusive, and the conditions deplorable.  Stock themes?  Women were oppressed, and it wasn't fair.  Heck, I'm a feminist, and I couldn't help but roll my eyes at many of the conversations, which went something like this:
Louisa: I want to be a doctor!
Other character: Oh, how shocking!  But you can't be!
Louisa: Why not?!
Other character:  Because you're a woman!  And women can't be doctors!
Louisa: It's not fair!  Women can be doctors!
Other character: [blatantly obvious stereotype against women]
Louisa: [whines and gets angry]
There was no subtlety of character or plot.  The evil characters were obviously evil (the asylum nurse Weeks was the worst), and the good characters obviously good.  The explanation for everything at the end seemed contrived and unrealistically complex.

The romance was welcome, as it was the only unique part of the book, but it came about too suddenly.  I never felt invested in it, and it wasn't enough to save the book for me. I realize I'm coming across harsh, and I'll admit that perhaps the book might be more interesting to younger readers completely unfamiliar with the way mental illness was treated or the lack of opportunities open to women in the Victorian era.

***This book qualifies for the GLBT Reading Challenge 2010.

E-galley received by the publisher through Net Galley for my honest review.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

"Three Cups of Tea" by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

Summary: Three Cups of Tea is the true story of the work of Greg Mortenson, an American who, after failing to hike Pakistan's infamous K2 mountain, was welcomed in by a small village.  After experiencing the hospitality and need of the community, Mortenson promised to return and build a school for the people who had aided him.  After he built the school, he decided to dedicate his life to building more schools, especially for girls, in the most impoverished and isolated regions.  Over the years, Mortenson formed relationships with people in the far-off reaches of Pakistan, and later Afghanistan, and in doing so, was able give children across the nations access to education.

Musings: This book and Mortenson's continued work have received a lot of attention lately (there were two articles in the New York Times this week about him!), and rightfully so.  Mortenson has shown that developing relationships with "hostile" countries is completely possible and that increasing education is one of the best ways to reduce the threat of terrorism from such places.

Three Cups of Tea is a quintessential story of the power of an individual, but the story does not end with the individual.  Often I think of such enormous individual endeavors as doomed to failure; people may have a lot of passion, but that passion is too frequently combined with project-destroying naivete.  Mortenson may have had some of that naivete going in, but he was able to accomplish was he has because, with the help of Pakistani friends, he was able to see that he was not the giant "savior" come to make life better for rural people.  Instead, Mortenson's projects succeeded because he supplied what the Pakistanis themselves could not--money and initial organization--and allowed the local people to do the rest.  His projects were dictated by what they needed, and, in the end, were products entirely of the local villages' work.  At the heart of his work was a lack of egotism or selfishness and a dogged determinism to achieve what others did not think possible.

The stories told throughout Three Cups of Tea are often heart-wrenching, especially those that tell of the enormous sacrifices individuals and communities made to ensure that their children would have and be able to attend schools.

Such amazing work cannot come without some cost, and while the book's primary focus is on Mortenson's successes, there is some look into the effect on Mortenson personally.  From leaving his family (a wife and two children) for months at a time, to lacking personal security or health, to traveling around the U.S. virtually begging for money to continue his work, it's clear that being a one-man machine of change is an enormous sacrifice.

In a time where policy makers are debating the best way to combat terrorism and enormous amounts of money are being directed to our military, Mortenson shows that with compassion and money directed to the right areas, we pave the way toward sustainable peace for generations to come.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

"How to Read Literature Like a Professor" by Thomas C. Foster

Summary: A "guide to reading between the lines," or understanding and thinking about literature beyond a literal level.

Musings: As an English teacher, I struggle between the roles of expert and learner in the classroom.  My students often expect and want me to know everything about the books I teach, and I obviously want to appear knowledgeable in the classroom.  However, I also want to show that literature is up to interpretation, and that, as a reader, my thoughts are constantly being challenged and refined.  I was interested in reading How to Read Literature Like a Professor because I hoped it would help me think about my personal reading and the books I teach more critically while also providing accessible language to discuss those aspects with my students.

I found that the book largely failed me in those regards, not because it's a bad book necessarily, but because I really wasn't the right audience.  In choosing the book, I think I underestimated myself.  I'm no scholar of literature, but I am an English major with a masters degree in education; I've been teaching English to 9th graders for four years, and I read regularly and (I hope) thoughtfully.  Therefore, the main points of Foster's book (lots of things reference the Bible and Shakespeare; symbolism's everywhere; quests are a recurring motif) were in no way new to me.  In fact, many of the ideas I teach in my classroom.  How to Read Literature Like a Professor would probably be better suited to high school students (or even adults) learning to move beyond plot summary and into critical literary analysis for the first time.

Foster keeps a light and conversational tone that would be appealing to readers looking for something accessible.  His points are clear and concise, and he provides many examples for each of his arguments (though because he particularly studies D.H. Lawrence, Toni Morrison, and James Joyce, way too many examples come from these authors).  I did at times find Foster's stylistic mannerisms grating, as he adopts the tone of a patient and knowledgeable professor schooling and shocking a disbelieving audience.  Many parts of the book went something like this: "Here's my pithy statement about literature.  Oh, you don't believe me?  How about when this character does this.  Sound familiar?  Oh, just it's a little book called Major Important Work of Literature."  Towards the end I was skimming parts of the chapters.

Although Foster's arguments are probably common knowledge to anyone who has studied literature, what I liked most about the book was when he addresses the question of "so what?".  So an author alludes to Shakespeare--why does that matter and how does it impact my reading?  I struggle explaining this in the classroom at times (for example, with Simon as a Christ figure in Lord of the Flies or the light and dark imagery in Romeo and Juliet), so I appreciated those parts of the book.

Foster also addresses the question asked every year by the obnoxious kid in the class: did the author really mean all this or are you just making up stuff that isn't really there?  As Foster points out, it takes most readers a minute or two to read a page of literature, and maybe the same amount of time to think about it.  It takes an author significantly longer to write it, and the author's certainly been thinking about it a lot longer than any reader has.  So if the reader can pick up some point of meaning with his unavoidably shallow study in comparison, how likely is it the author did it unintentionally?

People accustomed to only thinking about plot and characterization could certainly use this book as a guide to understanding new aspects of literature, but there's not a lot of helpful information for those who already feel somewhat comfortable in that arena.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

"The Scorch Trials" by James Dashner

Summary: In this sequel to The Maze Runner, Thomas, Teresa, and the other Gladers have finally escaped the Maze.  However, their hope for peace and safety is quickly shattered.  They are given a task: march a hundred miles through a desert wasteland partially inhabited by Cranks--people infected with the Flare.  As Thomas and the other Gladers begin their journey, more pieces of Thomas' history start to come back to him.  What is WICKED?  What is the purpose of these trials and what are the patterns WICKED is looking for?  Are the former Gladers really the key to curing humanity of the Flare?

Musings: I enjoyed the first book in this series, The Maze Runner, even though I found I didn't have a lot to say about the book in the end.  When its sequel arrived at my library yesterday, I had to read a Wikipedia summary of the first book just to remember what had happened.  The Scorch Trials left me similarly; I raced through the book, finishing it quickly, but I don't know if it will remain with me.

Anyone who has read The Maze Runner knows the book is full of unanswered questions.  Thomas and the reader are left in the dark about the purpose of the Maze and the world the Gladers inhabit.  With the boys and Teresa escaped from the Maze in The Scorch Trials, I wondered how the second book would hold up.  However, by immediately stripping away the Gladers' safety and plunging them yet again into a "game" they must solve, Dashner effectively creates just as many--if not more--mysteries than before.  I don't mind the build up of tension, and it certainly makes me want to read the last book, but I'm not sure if any explanation can live up to everything that's happened. (haha, I just saw I said the same thing in my Maze Runner review)

Dashner relies on short chapters, and each contain a cliffhanger ending.  For this reason, the book moves as a fast pace, and the reader, along with the characters, is kept in a constant state of danger and insecurity.  The mood is appropriate for what is happening, but it also can be wearing at times.  It's difficult to become worried about yet another new danger when just about every moment is near deadly.  I would have also liked to see a bit more character development, perhaps among Thomas and great characters like Minho, but there wasn't much time in the "aah, escaping dying!" plot.

The biggest drawback of this book and its predecessor is the sometimes repetitive style.  I should have counted the number of times Thomas "didn't know why, be he trusted/liked this person."  It seemed like a lame way for Thomas and the reader to know things weren't too bad.  Ditto the number of times Thomas was told "it's going to get really bad" or that "he hurt so unbelievably bad."

Still, this series is great for people who like their dystopians with action, excitement, and mystery, if not a lot of real thought.  I'm looking forward to The Death Cure, the concluding book in the trilogy, in October of next year.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"The Passage" by Justin Cronin

Summary: Wolgast, an FBI agent, is assigned to convince death-row inmates to agree to an army experiment.  No one's clear exactly on what the experiment is, but the term "vampire" has been floated around.  Wolgast dutifully does his assignment until he's assigned to bring in someone different--a six-year-old girl named Amy.  When the experiment goes wildly out of control, humanity is plunged into chaos, and it is Amy who will have to be mankind's savior.

Musings: I was initially skeptical of this book, both because of the length (it's over 700 pages, and I have to really be interested to put in that kind of time) and its core topic: vampires.  But the length and the topic ended up not being issues because the term "epic vampire novel" isn't really the right way to describe The Passage.

At its core, The Passage is really a post-apocalyptic zombie novel--only the zombies are vampires.  But in feeling, scope, and plot, the book mirrors many of the common zombie stories of today, with desperate and isolated groups of humans fighting against an overwhelming and depersonalized force.  Furthermore, although the science fiction behind the creation of the vampires is ever-present, the book itself is rarely about the science.  Instead, it is a story of adventure, survival, and banding together.

The first main section of the book takes place in the near future in a world little changed from our own.  Various forces are being brought together for mysterious reasons.  This look at the pre-apocalypse is typically absent from dystopian books.  We often see the dysoptia, but only hear about the forces that brought it about.  I liked that The Passage focuses on the genesis of the destruction that later occurs, as it gives the reader greater insight as to what's happening as the book progresses.

The second main section of the book takes place nearly one hundred years later.  I know some reviewers have complained about the jump, which leaves the reader in a different setting with entirely different characters.  I had no problem moving on to a different story with a different cast, but the jump meant a shift in content that did take some getting used to.  The first section of the book takes place in our world, but in the second section, the world has completely changed.  Although there are people, the reader must suddenly guess at the meaning of many capital words: Walkers, Watchers, the Colony.  And only slowly is the reader filled in on what has happened in the years in between the sections.  At times I found all the mystery a bit grating and confusing, but gradually I became accustomed to the new setting.

At its core, The Passage is a story about faith, and I think that message carried through, except for what I consider a cheap last minute and unnecessary ending.  The book did not feel as long as it is while I was reading, though sometimes I longed to be farther along in the story.  There's nothing particularly new in the world-building or characterization, but Cronin has succeeded in creating a compelling story in which the reader cares deeply about what happens.

Monday, October 4, 2010

"Zombies vs. Unicorns" ed. by Holly Black and Justine Larbalestier

Summary: A collection of short stories about zombies and unicorns.

Musings: For fans of fantasy, sci-fi, and the bizarre in-between, the arrival of Zombies vs. Unicorns has been hotly anticipated.  Like any collection in which the stories are written for a specific purpose (i.e. none of the stories had been written or published previously), there are some hits and misses in the book.  And, despite my excitement over the topic and many of the contributing authors, I don't think I would recommend the anthology as a whole, though I might suggest specific stories.

I think the easiest way to break down my thoughts is by categories:

1) Zombies vs. Unicorns: I had the mistaken idea going in that the stories would actually be about zombies and unicorns, not simply alternating stories about each.  It makes sense that the two fantasy beings don't exist together--you'd really have to stretch to make up a dozen stories or so about the two--but I still did long for a zombie and unicorn showdown.

2) Zombies: As a whole, I thought the zombie stories were stronger, though when looking at my favorite stories, none of them were zombie stories.  As Larbalestier points out in the introductions to some of the stories, there is simply a lot more that can be done with zombies, particularly with their mythology (where did they come from, what is a zombie like, how can a zombie be destroyed).  "The Children of the Revolution" was probably my favorite, especially if you think of it as a snide, sarcastic look at what Angelina Jolie is doing with so many adopted children.  However, by the end, the zombie stories had mostly melted together into depressing end-of-the-world anguish, despite the "love story" aspect of some of them.

3) Unicorns: There were highs and lows in the unicorn stories.  Those that stuck to a traditional fantasy medieval-ish setting were the worst ("The Highest Justice," "A Thousand Flowers").  I began to think that there just wasn't enough you could do with unicorns to make a decent story.  However, Diana Peterfreund completely changed by mind with the great "The Care and Feeding of Your Baby Killer Unicorn," which managed to use the unicorn in a believable modern setting with an interesting protagonist.  Also fabulous was "Princess Prettypants," which delightfully answers the age-old question, "What would you do if you received a unicorn for your birthday?"  (My favorite line?  Young brother Ted saying, "I wasn't going to say anything because I thought you were cool, Liz.  My cool big sister.  But now that I know you don't like unicorns, I don't think you're cool at all" [292-293].) There was more fun and lightness in the unicorn stories as a whole, and they often provided a welcome break from the gloom of the zombie stories.

4) The "edginess": Zombies vs. Unicorns is marketed as young adult, but I was surprised by some of the "edginess" (it's a terrible designation, but it's the best I can think of) of the stories.  There's strong language, sexuality, drug and alcohol use, and gore.  I don't think any of it's necessarily inappropriate for a teenage audience, but it was stronger content than I had expected.  It also felt like some of the stories were trying hard to "push the boundaries" by being "dark" and including things like bestiality and masochism when it just didn't seem that necessary.  One after another, they just didn't pack an emotional punch.

5) The length: Even though it's a collection of short stories, the stories often seemed way too brief.  Characters felt incomplete or the story fell short of being fully realized.  I've read completely compelling stories that lasted only a few pages, but perhaps some of the authors in this anthology are too accustomed to writing full novels to achieve similar narrative success in a shorter format.  In fact, I felt several of the stories would have done better as a full novel.

6) The romances: A lot of romance in the stories, especially the "I've longed for you forever but we just haven't been able to say it" kind. A little tiresome.

7) Female protagonists: The protagonists of all but one story are female.  I don't know if this is because all but two of the authors are female or because the intended audience is largely female.  Or some other unknown reason.  Just something I noticed.

8) GLBT characters!: Happily, three of the stories had gay main characters just as a matter of course; their sexuality was part of their identity but not a central part of the story.  I love that I'm seeing that more often.

Although I was Team Unicorn going in, I felt my allegiance switching to Team Zombie half-way through (those early unicorn stories were just so bad!).  However, now that I'm finished, I feel completely sick of zombies and still relatively intrigued by unicorns, so I'm Team Unicorn to stay.