Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Wuthering Heights" by Emily Bronte

Summary: The Earnshaw family is forever altered when Mr. Earnshaw takes in a ragged orphan named Heathcliff.  Heathcliff and the Earnshaw daughter Catherine quickly develop a close relationship while Mr. Earnshaw's attention to Heathcliff only incites hated in the Earnshaw son Hindley.  As Heathcliff ages, his attachment to Catherine grows while his hatred and spite towards others increases.  When Catherine marries the warm-hearted Edgar Linton, Heathcliff's life becomes devoted to torturing those whom he hates and pursuing his tortured love of Catherine at all costs.

Musings: My summary above hardly does justice to the self-absorbed and narcissistic leads of Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff.  This is another book that I read in high school but have little memory of reading, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  Reading Austen for some reason gave me a false impression of all 19th century literature, for while Austen's books are full of polite and chaste relationships, Wuthering Heights is anything but.  Instead, it is a close look at psychological manipulation and cruelty.

Catherine and Heathcliff's relationship drives the story.  They see themselves as one person in two bodies and are appalled and hurt by others' lack of acknowledgment of their otherworldly unity.  Even once married to Edgar, Catherine cannot perceive why Edgar would disapprove of her close relationship to Heathcliff.    Catherine describes her relationships with the men: "It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he's handsome, Nelly, but because he's more myself than I am.  Whatever out souls are made of, his and mine are the same; and Linton's is as different as a moonbeam from lightning, or frost from fire" (78).  Early on, both Heathcliff and Catherine learn how to manipulate others' feelings for their own purposes.  In fact, it's hard to know who to hate more.  Catherine hurts (and, in my opinion, ultimately kills) herself solely to injure others, and she uses others' affections for her to cause them more pain.  Heathcliff is more outwardly hateful, but he punishes generations of Earnshaws and Lintons for the perceived crimes of the parents.

Wuthering Heights is a story that ultimately ends with hope.  For although Heathcliff manages to poison numerous people through his perverse pursuit of revenge, his poison is not permanent.  Catherine and Heathcliff are consumed by sullenness, spite, and self-absorption, but the novel also shows how those weaknesses in others can be corrected through positive relationships and support.  Nonetheless, Heathcliff is clearly the force that carries the novel, so it's difficult to believe a small ray of sunshine in his overwhelming madness.

Because the story is narrated by the families' longtime housekeeper Nelly, the pace is brisk and not bogged down by description.  It's a classic book that I found just as compelling as modern novels.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

"The Northern Lights" by Lucy Jago

Summary: A biography of Kristian Birkeland, a Norwegian scientist in the early 20th century who discovered the cause of the aurora borealis.

Musings: Here are some reasons why it makes no sense that I picked up this book:

1. I know pretty much nothing about the aurora borealis.  Pretty lights in the sky, right?  And I've never really wondered.
2. I hate physics.  I took astronomy in college (lab science requirement), which was a gigantic mistake.  I couldn't even find the frickin' moon in my telescope.
3. I know nothing about Norway.  It's cold, right?  And, uh, they ski?  Uh...
    So considering my total lack of initial interest in the subject matter, I was surprised that I found the book compelling enough to finish it.  Personally, I was not especially interested by the science, although I imagine the book certainly would be of interest to physicists.  What did keep me reading, though, was the in-depth look at one man's single-minded pursuit of science and the relationship of that pursuit to Norway's politics.  Birkeland was a man of considerable intellect with an enormous amount of ideas, but like many genuises, his work was also a plague to him, and he rarely seemed happy.  The Northern Lights also gives the reader a unique view of Norwegian history, particularly as the country sought independence.  As I mentioned above, I know virtually nothing about Norway, and it was interesting to see how Birkeland's scientific endeavors were supported, in part, by a desire to bring prestige to the country.

    Like many authors of popular nonfiction pieces today, Jago delivers The Northern Lights in a narrative style which kept a relatively brisk pace but, for me, lacked intimate details and connections to the people.  Jago uses very few direct quotes from primary sources, and because of this, it's difficult to know what in the book is "fact" and what is artistic hypothesis.  Obviously she did extensive research, and there's a bibliography at the end, but her general omission of Birkeland's and others' direct voices created some distrust and alienation in me.  For this reason, I found her book much less compelling than the last biography I read, David Grann's The Lost City of Z, which succeeded in weaving primary sources and a narrative structure together.

    Because I was completely unfamiliar with all of the content of The Northern Lights, I learned quite a bit by reading the book, even though it was not an "enjoyable" read.  Considering Birkeland's greatest scientific contributions were on the aurora borealis, it would have been helpful for Jago to include some color photos of the spectacular phenomenon. Nonetheless, I would certainly recommend the book to people interested in science and the scientists who pursue research at all costs.

    ***This book qualifies for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("Up to You!" category).

    Thursday, February 25, 2010

    "Marcelo in the Real World" by Francisco X. Stork

    Summary: Since he was young, Marcelo has attended Paterson, a school for children with learning and physical needs.  Marcelo's condition is similar in some ways to Asperger's; he has difficulty with social interactions and has consuming "special interests" that appear odd to others.  However, Marcelo's father Arturo has always believed that Marcelo could operate in the "real world" if he only he tried, so he makes a deal with Marcelo.  Marcelo may remain at Paterson if he takes a summer job at Arturo's law firm; otherwise, Arturo will force Marcelo to attend public school in the fall.  At the law firm, Marcelo befriends Jasmine, the director of the mail room, and learns more about the "real world" than he ever imagined.

    Musings: After a glowing review from Reading in Color and favorable comparisons to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I was eager to pick up Stork's work.  What I found was a sweet and touching book that had me totally engrossed.

    Stork does an excellent job putting the reader in the mind of Marcelo.  Marcelo has been taught how to operate properly within the "real world," but he does not do so naturally.  To appear "normal" takes concentration and effort.  This is one of the reasons Arturo wants Marcelo to work at the law firm. Paterson has created a safe atmosphere that adapts to fit Marcelo's needs, but the school has not forced Marcelo to adapt to a world that will expect him to fit in.  Without being forced outside his comfort zone, Marcelo may have a hard time finding success in "normal" environments.  This is Arturo's primary argument; it's a difficult and heartbreaking one, but it's also realistic.  At the same time, Arturo is a jerk, and he makes this argument in the form of an order rather than a discussion.  Nevertheless, one of the joys of the novel is seeing how Marcelo develops as he works at the firm and must adapt in order to navigate the complex social relationships of the work place. As he works longer, Marcelo becomes more adept at interpreting emotion, understanding casual language, and reacting to others' ulterior motives.

    However, progress always means giving something up.  In becoming a member of the "real world," Marcelo loses some innocence and comfort of his disorder.  Marcelo also must come to terms with the hurt and failures of the world.  Fortunately, Marcelo has Jasmine to help him in this territory.  Their relationship is touching and gentle, and I loved the way Jasmine and Marcelo were able to understand one another.

    Marcelo in the Real World touches on important issues like the treatment of those with disabilities, the objectification of women, the impacts of race and nationality, and the meaning of suffering through the eyes of Marcelo, which helps the reader understand those issues in new ways too.  It's optimistic without being cheesy or false.

    ***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge and the TwentyTen Reading Challenge (completing the "Bad Bloggers" category).

    Wednesday, February 24, 2010

    Guest Post: "The Forest of Hands and Teeth" by Carrie Ryan

    Summary: The Forest of Hands and Teeth follows the story of Mary, a young woman living in a village surrounded by the Unconsecrated, basically zombies, who live in the Forest of Hands and Teeth. The village is run by the Sisterhood, a nun-like religious sect, and the Guardians, who protect the village by killing Unconsecrated and mending the fence that surrounds the village. When a rare "Fast One" Unconsecrated breaks into the village, Mary flees the village with a group of villagers including her brother, her betrothed, her true love (happens to be her betrothed's brother), and her best friend. The group escape through mysterious Paths in the forest and fight for survival.

    Musings: Greetings, fellow musers! I, Tia's wonderful husband, decided to give Tia a break and pick up one of her books. Tia said she had heard of this book through the blogosphere and wanted to try a zombie apocalypse book (besides Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, of course). I needed a distraction from my graduate school work, so I gave it a go. Of course, in the time it took me to read this one book, Tia finished one book, read another book, and is halfway through a third. Blerg.

    I myself have never read a zombie book, and while I'm not necessarily a zombie nut, I was a big fan of 28 Days Later, 28 Weeks Later, and The Village, which I first thought of when I read the inside cover. Plus I'm also a fan of YA dystopian novels (required for the marriage), especially those with female leads. So, even though the concept of a zombie apocalypse isn't exactly original, I was excited to see what a YA take on it would look like. Unfortunately, all this excitement was brought crashing down by incessant, nauseating, maudlin, and frankly unnecessary melodrama.

    In the first act of the novel, Ryan spends way too much time reminding us all of what we already know: these may be the last survivors, death looms (literally) at the gates, the future looks grim, so the town's only goal is survival. We get it. It's a zombie apocalypse. Worse yet, Ryan decided to ignore the most interesting aspect of the novel (the zombies, where they came from, how the town came about) and instead tries to interest us in the inner workings of the village and its social structure. Problem is, the story lines flit from one to another too quickly for any to gain any traction. Even worse, after you've spent this time learning a little here and there about the village, Ryan throws it all away by bringing in the zombies. I felt like Ryan may have had a interesting back story about the village in her head, but didn't let us see enough of it before wiping it away. Maybe we'll see more in the sequel.

    In the second act, the novel picks up the pace a little bit as the characters escape the Unconsecrated. Again, however, Ryan spends way too much time emphasizing the uninteresting aspects of the plot. Here its the characters themselves, who are frustratingly one-dimensional. The main character, Mary, is a typical rebellious spirit, though way too inept, melodramatic, and selfish to gain my interest, especially compared to strong female leads such as Katniss in The Hunger Games and Katsa in Graceling. Her love interest, Travis, has no real personality besides being "the essense of my soul, the love of my life, the everything of everything" according to Mary. The other men are pretty much stock characters and are generally pushed aside to allow for more time for Mary to wax poetically about her love for Travis and why she's so tortured. Ho hum.

    It wasn't all bad; the few action scenes are exciting, and the description of the zombies lurching towards the characters engaged me. The end of the book also gears the series towards what I find more interesting - finding out the history of the world of the Forest of Hands and Teeth. Problem is, I'm not sure I'll want to struggle through more of Mary's thoughts to learn about it.

    Sunday, February 21, 2010

    "Incarceron" by Catherine Fisher

    Summary: Incarceron is a prison; years ago, inmates were sealed inside in an experiment to create a paradise.  Since then, no one has entered and no one has escaped.

    Finn is a young boy inside Incarceron.  Born of the prison and a member of a group of thieves, he knows nothing of his identity and little of the fits that sometimes come on, leaving him with visions.  But when a mysterious key appears that matches a mark on his arm, Finn believes he may have a clue to his identity.

    Claudia lives on the Outside, the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron.  The Outside is trapped in a mandated Protocol that forces everyone to live as if it were the 17th century, despite the significant scientific advancements, in an attempt to avert progress and danger.  Since she was young, Claudia has been engaged to the Queen's son, but when she finds a link to Finn and Incaceron, Claudia knows she must do everything she can to save him and avert the wedding.

    Musings: Incarceron is a unique dystopian book with interesting world-building and engaging characters.  In the novel, Fisher has created two worlds--the prison Incarceron and the falsely antiquated Outside, each of which come fully to life.  Although some mysteries, such as Finn's identity, are revealed very early, others are spaced out and enough it revealed and withheld by the end to leave the reader anticipating a sequel.

    Some of the intricacies of the worlds are interesting but not fully explored.  Incarceron is a sentient being of its own kind, and some intriguing details of its motivation are mentioned, but the prison doesn't really emerge as a full character.  The presence of the prison itself raises questions of the nature of evil.  Wonders one of the first prisoners of Incarceron:
    ...or is it that man contained within himself the seeds of evil?  That even if he is placed in a paradise perfectly formed for him he will poison it, slowly, with his own jealousies and desires? (312)
    This and other philosophical themes, as well as the forced 17th century lifestyle, could have been more fully addressed, but there's plenty of excitement within the book to look beyond that.

    Incarceron is a nice blend of science-fiction and fantasy with a full and complex story line.  Despite some omissions, it's a book that would be great to chat over with others.

    ***This book completes the "New in 2010" category of the TwentyTen Reading Challenge.

    Monday, February 15, 2010

    "Liar" by Justine Larbalestier

    Summary: Micah is a liar.  She candidly admits it when the book opens.  But from that point on, the reader is never sure what's true and what's not.  The story centers around the mysterious details of the death of Micah's "after-hours" boyfriend Zach, as well as her status as a "freak" at school and her "family illness."  Realistic and outrageous lies and truths mix together into an incredible story of a girl whose only self defense is lying.

    Musings: Liar is one of those books that, when you're finished, leaves you sitting there, mouth agape, for a few minutes.  Then you want to rush to the Internet to find out the "truth."  You want to immediately reread the book again for clues you may have missed the first time.  You want to grab someone off the street and force them to read the book too so you can have someone to discuss with.  You want to sit there and gape a bit more. 

    I love the idea of an unreliable narrator, especially in YA.  My students have had almost no exposure to unreliable narrators and have a difficult time with this concept in the literature we read.  I think most of the students have grown up with the idea of the "fourth wall"--in movies, TV shows, plays, and books.  They assume that we, as consumers, are simply peering in at a story already in progress.  There's little concept of a relationship between the reader/audience and narrator/author.  Larbalestier does an excellent job of not just creating a connection between the reader and narrator, but a real relationship.  We like Micah; we want to support her; we're hurt when she lies to us; we're angry when she prevaricates so often that nothing seems real.

    Liar is so different structurally than most YA, but it still contains many issues and characters that young people would relate to.  Some might be frustrated with the unwillingness of the author to establish "truth," but the book's draw really lies in the reader being forced to make his or her own decisions, which is itself a very real experience.

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

    Sunday, February 14, 2010

    "Peter & Max" by Bill Willingham

    This is the 100th book I've reviewed since I began my blog.  Woo-hoo!

    Summary:  In this re-imagining of classic fairy tales, Max and Peter Piper are brothers in a family of traveling musicians.  When their father decides to give the family's treasured and magical pipe to the younger brother Peter, instead of Max, something terrible is unloosed in the elder brother.  Max spends his life spreading evil as Peter tries to survive, and later defeat, Max.  The story is told in the present, as the grown Peter attempts to stop Max one last time, and the past, which recounts the boys' younger days.

    Musings: A big thanks to Cecelia at Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia for this book, which I won in one of her contests. I know reinvented fairy tales are popular right now, but I haven't read many books in the genre myself.  However, I really enjoyed Willingham's use of the classic stories.  The book integrates many stories (notably the Pied Piper and Little Bo Peep), but doesn't feel constrained by them, and it also doesn't shy away from the darker aspect of the stories found in the originals (but less so in the more modern "cleaned-up" versions).  Willingham is also able to make good use of the fact that so many fairy tales use the name Peter (a rather strange coincidence... or is there something else to the name Peter?).

    Peter & Max is a fun story with a brisk pace and a good amount of action.  Although the book is based off Willingham's Fables comic series (which follows fairy tale characters living in the United States), I didn't feel like I was missing anything because I haven't read the comics.  And although Peter & Max is a novel, I especially enjoyed the occasional illustrations.  In fact, I might even be willing to give his comic series a try, even though I didn't like my first attempt at graphic novels.

    This book would be perfect for people who like a slightly more adult retelling of fairy tales (although this book certainly wouldn't be inappropriate for a high school audience). 

    ***This book qualifies for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("Shiny & New" category).

    Thursday, February 11, 2010

    "Luna" by Julie Anne Peters

    Summary: Regan has always been there to support her older brother Liam, even though that means getting no sleep, as by night, Liam becomes Luna, the girl he has always felt himself to be.  Weighed down by keeping the secret from her parents and her new crush Chris, Regan begins to feel her life is on hold because of her transgendered brother's needs.  When Liam decides he wants to transition full-time, Rachel isn't sure how far she can support Luna.

    Musings: This is the second YA book I've read for the GLBT Reading Challenge, and it does an excellent job of describing the feelings of and challenges for a young transgendered person.  Regan and Liam act as important foils for one another.  Regan envies Liam for his brains and relative popularity while Liam envies Regan for always being treated as the girl she was born into.  The siblings are co-dependent on one another, and by the end of the book, each must realize her own autonomy in order to be happy.

    Some of the information on transgendered people and the gender identity spectrum is pretty basic, but it is probably appropriate for a younger audience who may be less familiar with the issues.  Peters acknowledges a range of reactions to Luna while also emphasizing the importance of respecting Luna's need to be who she is.

    Although the issues are treated in a sensitive way, the story itself felt a bit simplistic.  Many characters seemed overly sexist (at least for 2004, when the book was written), and the parallels between Regan and Liam's mother (yearning to break free from the role of a housewife) and Liam were a little too obvious.  Regan's crush, Chris, is sweet, but he is too perfect and caring for a high school student.  Liam is a huge computer geek (he builds PCs and designs video games), so I was also a little surprised that the online transgendered community didn't play a larger role earlier in his life.

    Luna would be a good read for anyone interested in learning more about the mindset of a transgendered person or for anyone looking to be an ally to a transgendered person.

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

    Wednesday, February 10, 2010

    "The Lost Books of the Odyssey" by Zachary Mason

    Summary: A fractured retelling/reinvention of stories related to the Greek epic hero Odysseus.

    Musings: I spend nearly a semester every year teaching the entire Odyssey to my freshmen students.  Although I resisted the long text at first, it's been growing on me, and I find more in it every year.  My students are also wary at first (our Fagles' translation is 483 pages in poem form), but I'm thrilled with their ability to find new things in the text.  When I heard about Mason's book, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, I was excited to see what he could offer on the canonical poem.

    First of all, the book is called "a novel," which is rather misleading.  Instead, it's more of a collection of short stories; each "chapter" is completely unrelated to the others, and a number of events (Achilles' death, Odysseus' return to Ithaca) are covered multiple times.  Furthermore, the title, The Lost Books of the Odyssey, is also deceptive, since a majority of the chapters concern events that are not a part of the Odyssey (primarily the Trojan War and its heroes).

    After reading it, I find it nearly impossible to describe what the stories are like.  The best analogy I can think of comes courtesy of my husband, who upon hearing my exasperated attempted description of the book, explained the book thus (I've embellished only slightly): It's like going to a contemporary art museum on the Muppets, but when you get there, all the exhibits are of Muppets having orgies. And you just don't see how any of this can have meaning, but all the other snooty and pretentious art patrons sneer at you for being so pedestrian and unable to "get it."

    So, yes.  Many of the stories are completely random and circuitous.  Other events are repeated ad nauseam.  The stories seem to be "deep" without having any real meaning.  For example, Mason seems to have a bizarre fixation on Agamemnon, who is portrayed as a singularly imbecilic leader.  Agamemnon's mostly a whiny and bitter bore in the Odyssey with nothing to do but spew hatred over his wife's betrayal, but in Lost Books he seems to represent the very worst of ineptitude in leadership.  But for no apparent reason.  Mason also dwells on Odysseus' return to Ithaca and his life as an old man after the war.  I think there are some interesting issues to be raised around what happens to a great hero once all the journeying is done, but no new light was shed for me.

    The Odyssey really is a perfect text for revision; so much occurs in the poem, but so much is left unexplored: missing days and years, strange people and islands, side characters with no insight into their motivation. However, Mason does not break new ground in this regards.  Odysseus is still the focus to the story, and overlooked characters are still overlooked.  This is particularly true for the women characters, who in Mason's book are mostly vapid or conniving; in pretty much all of the stories in which she appears, Athena is madly in love with Odysseus.  In a New York Times article ("A Calculus of Writing, Applied to a Classic" by Larry Rohter, 2/9/10) on him, Mason describes the book as "a very rational and masculine book," which pretty much makes me want to vomit.

    I did find a few stories interesting.  In one chapter, Odysseus goes to recruit Achilles for the Trojan War only to find that Achilles is dead; he then builds a golem (a "an artificial human being in Hebrew folklore endowed with life" according to Merriam-Webster) which fights in the war instead.  For some reason, that stuck around with me.  A super short chapter on Hermes' exasperation at Odysseus' despair on Calypso's island was great.  Otherwise I find the "novel" mostly unintelligible and exceedingly self-important.

    If you think obliqueness and repetitiveness inherently equal genius prose, then The Lost Books of the Odyssey is for you.  As for me, my students' creative revisions to the Odyssey are far more interesting and enlightening.

    ***This book qualifies for the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("Who Are You Again?" category).

    Monday, February 8, 2010

    "Kindred" by Octavia Butler

    Summary: Dana, a black woman living in 1976, suddenly vanishes from her home and reappears by a lake where she rescues a drowning white boy, Rufus.  Threatened by the boy's father, Dana reappears at her home, only to be drawn back to save the boy's life over and over again.  Dana comes to learn that she is being taken back in time to the antebellum South, and the boy she is saving is a white slave owner--and her ancestor.  As Dana remains stuck in the past as a slave for longer period of time, she must struggle in an era that sees her as nothing but property while also ensuring Rufus', and thus her own, survival.

    Musings: In general, I'm most strongly drawn to the science-fiction and dystopian genres, but I've found it difficult to find science-fiction beyond the white heterosexual normative.  I started looking and was excited when one of the first posts I came upon was at The Angry Black Woman entitled "Mindblowing Science Fiction by POC."  One author whose name came up again and again was Octavia Butler, so I was excited to pick up Kindred at the library.  (I'm still looking for more LGBT science fiction!)

    Kindred only loosely fits the science-fiction genre, as its time traveling is more a mechanism for the story to take place rather than a part of the story itself.  Nonetheless, I was completely taken in by the novel. Kindred is perhaps one of the most terrifying books that I've ever read, and it does so with real characters facing agonizing decisions.

    Living in 1976, Dana experiences prejudice and racism (just take the reaction to her marriage to a white man).  However, being thrown back to the early 1800s is another thing all together.  In those times, she has absolutely no rights--any white coming upon her can do as he wills.  Kindred clearly relates the ways in which the institution of slavery is designed to suppress slaves and make resistance difficult.  The reader is forced to share Dana's agonizing frustration as she finds herself unable to retaliate against mounting injustices and abuse.  However, Dana also experiences moments of success, and her very existence is evidence her ancestors' ability to carry on.

    Dana's relationships with two white men--Rufus and her husband Kevin--further complicate the story.  Dana and Kevin have a strong relationship, but when Kevin is also brought back in time with Dana, he must assume the role of a slave owner.  He does it to protect Dana, but it's also clear that regardless of Kevin's sympathies, he cannot experience and understand life the way Dana does.

    Rufus is a pathetically needy man whose society gives him the right to demand, and take, the "love" he desires but is not given freely.  Dana struggles with her own ambivalent feelings towards him.  In a critical essay on the novel, Robert Crossley notes that Butler's works explore "the webs of power and affection in human relationships... the ethical imperative and the emotional price of empathy" (268).  In many ways Kindred is a psychological look at the way relationships guide and shape our behaviors across lines of race and gender.

    Butler has created complex and interesting characters and a fast-paced, if not emotionally draining, story.  True to history, the novel does not end with complete hope or despair, and the white slave owners are not redeemed nor solely vilified.

    Crossley mentions that Butler was one of the first recognized African American science fiction writers, and Kindred is an excellent and different approach to the genre.  I know many of Butler's other works are more traditionally science-fiction, and I'm eager to read more by her.

    ***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge and the TwentyTen Reading Challenge (completing the "Older Than You" category).

    Friday, February 5, 2010

    "The Girl Who Fell From the Sky" by Heidi W. Durrow

    Summary: Rachel, the daughter of a Danish woman and African American G.I., grew up in Germany.  With her light brown skin and blue eyes, Rachel did not see herself as anything but her parents' child; she was unaware that, to Americans, she was black.  When tragedy strikes her mother and siblings shortly after moving to America, Rachel moves in with her paternal grandmother.  In Portland, Rachel feels alienated from her family and schoolmates, unable to fit into categories of white or black, and she struggles with memories of her mother.  Although told mostly from Rachel's point of view, the novel also follows Rachel's father, her mother's boss, and a young boy who witnessed the family tragedy as Rachel attempts to discover who she is beyond others' labels.

    Musings: Durrow has created a unique story that combines a young woman's search for identity with a family's history of shame and secrets.  The novel begins with Rachel narrating her move to Portland and is told in stark, simple prose, much like Annie John (a novel the book is compared to in the cover flap).  The book does not fall into magical realism like Kincaid's work, but it does follow Rachel's thinking as she, unable to reconcile the "new girl" (her new self) with her previous self, dissociates and thinks of herself in third person.  In Portland, Rachel becomes acutely aware of her lack of belonging.  She is "light-skinned-ed;" she "talk[s]" white" and can't help but judge her grandmother for her lack of formal English.  She fails to fall into pre-established categories: "I learn that black people don't have blue eyes.  I learn that I am black.  I have blue eyes.  I put all these new facts into the new girl" (10).

    Meanwhile, pieces of Rachel's parents' history are filled in.  Both parents are filled with shame for their inability to protect their children, although their shame comes from different sources.  Rachel's mother exemplifies a woman unable to to accept or actively reject that many Americans do not see her children as her own and see them only as a skin color.

    The detachment of the first part of the novel distanced me as a reader, but as Rachel grew, I grew closer to her and her story.  The tragedy piles on thick at times, but the second half of the novel touchingly covers the nuances of Rachel's development: her feelings for her aunt's fiance Drew, her conflicts with her judgmental but well-meaning grandmother, and her relationship with a liberal white college boy.

    Durrow's own background closely mirrors Rachel's although this is clearly a work of fiction.  The novel skillfully explores the complexities of racial identity and relationships today.  Despite the slow beginning and excess of tragedy, I'd highly recommend the book.

    ***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge and the TwentyTen Reading Challenge ("New in 2010" category).

    Tuesday, February 2, 2010

    "A Walk in the Woods" by Bill Bryson

    Summary: Bryson's travel memoir of hiking the Appalachian Trail.

    Musings: As I've written before, growing up, my greatest dream was to live in the woods.  I'm not quite sure where this came from, and I'm not particularly outdoorsy today, but I still find something in walking and hiking outside that soothes me.  In warm weather, my husband and I spent a lot of time walking around our neighborhood or traveling to nearby parks to hike.  For me, Bryson was a perfect author to relate his experience with the Appalachian Trail (AT).  Although he indubitably (and I say "indubitably" only because Bryson was overly-fond of the word) had more willpower than I, he's no hiker junkie.  He's a normal person taking on an abnormal pursuit.

    Bryson does an excellent job establishing the awesome wonder that is the AT.  At around 2,100 miles long and stretching from Georgia to Maine, the trail is a feat of creation.  Although it seems crazy to even attempt such a hike, I can completely see the draw.  Hiking the AT means devoting at least several months of your life to nothing more than walking in the wilderness, largely away from modern distractions and responsibilities.  It's freeing in a way that's difficult to imagine.

    However, Bryson effectively balances both the romanticism of the outdoors and the realities of being in the wilderness.  Yes, hiking provides breathtaking views and a greater sense of connection to nature, but it also involves carrying heavy packs, walking in all extremes of weather, camping in rough conditions, and going without access to normal food.

    My favorite parts of the book were Bryson's descriptions of the people he met along the way, particularly his hiking companion Katz and an annoying woman named Mary Ellen.  The book was at times laugh-out-loud funny, and I enjoyed Bryson's slightly panicked descriptions of all the dangers of the AT.

    I had found Bryson's Notes from a Small Island boring, but I didn't have that problem with A Walk in the Woods.  The history of the AT is interesting, as is Bryson's way of matter-of-factly describing what happens to him.  Although he doesn't end up hiking the entire AT (in fact, he manages about 40% of it, in various stages), he's clearly respectful of all it has to offer.

    One part of the book stood out to me: "In America, alas, beauty has become something you drive to, and nature an either/or proposition--either you ruthlessly subjugate it, as at Tocks Dam and a million other places, or you deify it, treat it as something holy and remote, a thing apart, as along the Appalachian Trail.  Seldom would it occur to anyone on either side that people and nature could coexist to their mutual benefit" (200).  In the busy suburb of a large city in which I live, I've found this to be the case.  I can walk around my neighborhood, but there's little beauty in tightly-packed cookie cutter houses.  Or, I can get in a car and drive to a park, separate from living.  The two are never connected, and because of that, I think it's even more difficult to feel some connection to nature.

    I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and it's definitely inspired me to try to get out more (darn it being only February).  I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a view on hiking the AT that won't make you feel like a loser for liking Coke and real beds.