Wednesday, April 28, 2010
Musings: I was a competitive fencer in college and eventually president of my college club. I was never an especially strong fencer, but as I fenced in a southern state with little fencing presence, my club was fairly well-known for the area and I competed with some success. Fencing played an enormous part of my life (I met my husband fencing and, crazily enough, five marriages have come out of the fencing cohort from when I was an undergrad), and although I no longer compete, I have always been fascinated by the sport. In fact, my undergraduate thesis was on the history of women in fencing and the ways in which gender roles and assumptions have shaped women's participation in the sport. I first came upon Cohen's book when I was doing research for that paper. Although I read most of it then, I was inspired to reread the book after looking for--and failing to find--modern fiction which includes realistic fencing.
The first half of the book is centered on the evolution of the sword, from early days of gladiators through the long history of dueling, primarily in European countries. Although there's some interesting stuff here, particularly concerning the way in which dueling was used to act out "macho" codes of male behavior, the information didn't particularly appeal to my interests.
What I was interested in was the history and evolution of the modern sport of fencing, begun largely in the mid-19th century. Here, for me, Cohen had some success and some misses. A significant amount of time is spent on famous people, mainly authors and politicians, who fenced at some point in their lives. Although it was scarily informational to learn about Fascist leaders' love of fencing, I wanted to read about star fencers, not hobbyists.
The last quarter or so of the book, then, was my favorite part. I enjoyed reading about the development of the French and Italian schools of fencing, the invention of electric scoring, and the lives of the best fencers throughout the last century. I was surprised to learn of the dominance a select number of countries have had over the sport and the ability of one great fencing master to single-handedly bring a country to fencing prominence. Sections of fencing injuries (few, but gruesome) and cheating in fencing were great.
The "cheating" issue certainly reverberated with me, particularly in the area of directing fencing bouts, which despite the advent of electronic scoring, still has some measure of subjectivity. As Cohen notes, there's a tendency to favor the better fencers, consciously or not, when a directing a bout. In one of my clearest memories, I was fencing a significantly better fencer (for those for which this means anything, I was unranked and she was a B) in a the direct-elimination portion of a large high-ranked competition. My opponent seemed to have only one move, a quick flick to the back, but her flicks weren't landing. She complained about everything under the sun: my hair was blocking my target, my lame had a dead spot, etc, but despite the director insisting on multiple changes on my part, she couldn't land her hit. I would have changed tactics, but she seemed devoted to the flick, and she tried another flick and I counterattacked. No light went off on her side and the on-target light went off on mine, but the director gave her the point anyway. I was rather peeved, as clearly she had not hit me, but my complaining would have made no difference. I beat the whiny girl anyway and earned my rating.
Cohen admits to not being comprehensive, and things are left out. He does describes Japanese sword-making, but otherwise very little time is spent on Asian countries and their relationship to sword fighting or fencing. Other than an interesting chapter on Helene Mayer, a German girl of Jewish grandparents who fenced for Nazi Germany, almost no time is spent on women's fencing (hence my thesis!).
By the Sword examines the ways in which sword fighting--central to every day and military life not too long ago--became fencing, a small and largely misunderstood sport, at least in the United States. It was an eye-opening account for me, since as an American fencer, I knew only little pieces of the long European legacy. Some sections can get dry, but the book certainly provides a comprehensive look at a mystical weapon.
Sunday, April 25, 2010
Musings: I'm a big fan of Fforde's Thursday Next series, and I really loved Shades of Grey. In fact, as difficult as it is for me to say this--considering my devotion to literature and grammar--I think I may have even liked Shades better than the Thursday Next books.
The idea of color as a commodity is really interesting. We take our ability to see a full range of color for granted, but in this society, when at best people can see most of one type of color, all resources and money are spent towards artificial colorings. The color-ability affects a range of things, from people's emotions to their inability to see at night.
Shades of Grey has the same absurdist and flippant tone as Fforde's earlier series, and that style works particularly well for this world, which is governed by strict adherence to the rules, regardless of their effectiveness or relevance. For example, spoons are a huge underground commodity as no spoons are permitted to be manufactured; regular Leapbacks have ensured no new access to cars; citizens must have 1000 merits to marry and are not, under any circumstances, allowed to marry a complementary color. For anyone who's worked in an office or other environment guided more by protocol and tradition than common sense, the book is especially funny. But the humor of the rules also belies a more insidious process by which complacency is gained through social pressure.
In fact, what I really liked about the novel was its dystopian feel and message. It's still silly a lot of the time, but there is also a sincere look at class privileges and ruling through subjugation of dissident ideas (think 1984) that the Thursday Next series doesn't have. In fact, the ending of the novel was surprisingly serious, and I cared significantly more for the characters as individuals than I did for Thursday or her eradicated husband.
Even though I missed the grammar jokes a bit, I'd highly recommend Shades of Grey to anyone looking for a light style with a serious undertone.
Monday, April 19, 2010
Musings: I read a good amount of Agatha Christie novels as a kid, although I can't for the life of me remember if I read this one or not. Nevertheless, mystery is a genre that I almost never read, so it was a lot of fun to jump into a fast-paced whodunit. Although the basic plot of this novel has been endlessly parodied by Scooby-Doo and other shows and movies, it didn't lessen my enjoyment.
I was surprised at how quick the read was; I finished it easily in one reading. The short chapters keep the events moving, as do the frequent switches in point of view. The rapid introduction of all ten characters was a little overwhelming in the beginning (I felt the need to keep notes), but the differences between the characters are established pretty quickly and titles like "Dr." and "Justice" helped me keep the characters straight.
I suppose I could get philosophical about themes--the nature of murder and guilt most significantly--but that really isn't the purpose of the book. Although I read it at home, it was the perfect "beach read" type book for me. I hate chick-lit and romances, but this would be light and exciting enough (ironically enough, I suppose, for a book about murders) for a sunny day outside. A number of my 9th grade students have really enjoyed the novel, so I think it would also be a good entry point for young people interested in mystery.
P.S. I remember after I finished the book (and researched it) the issues with the racial epithet used in the original title and novel. Mentions of racism and anti-Semitism remain, although from my perspective the change to "Indian" didn't seem to affect the book's content overall. Undoubtedly some literary criticism has been written about the original title and its relation to the book as a whole, which would be interesting to read.
Saturday, April 17, 2010
Musings: Feed is an eerily prophetic look at the homogenizing and dumbing-down of people through high consumption of media. In Feed's America, the constant connection and bombardment of messages gives little room for thought outside the presented norm. The feed is constantly on and is inescapable, and it is this feeling of never being alone--of always being tied to the feed or to other people--that allows little room for deviance. Feed was published in 2002, but it made me immediately think of a recent study that came out about the daily use of media among young people. The study found that today adolescents between the ages of eight and eighteen spend nearly eight hours a day using "entertainment media." That's up from about six and a half hours in 2004. And, because most of that time involves using more than one medium at once, adolescents spend get almost eleven hours of "media content" in those eight hours (Kaiser Family Foundation). Although plenty of time can be spent arguing how that time is spent and the positives and negatives of each, it's undeniable that today's youth are connected to technology and each other in a way that no other generation has been. Feed presents a scary--but certainly not unbelievable--extension of what is already happening today.
Although I liked the concept of Anderon's Octavian Nothing series, I found the language and style prohibitively dense in a way that made me unable to connect with the characters. However, in Feed I think Anderson's use of a distinct style enhanced the world and my understanding of the protagonist Titus. Titus' limited knowledge and vocabulary and simultaneous frustration comes across in his first person narration to the reader: "They were as gray as, I don't know. They were just gray, okay? The rain hit them" (135). The style and tone reminded me a lot of the Specials' way of talking in Westerfeld's Uglies series, and, in fact, there are a lot of similarities (especially in the consumerist- and popularity-driven societies) between the two.
The "awakened to another way of thinking by a girl" motif in Feed echoed Fahrenheit 451, especially the emphasis on recognizing the beauty of things around you. But I really liked Titus' and Violet's characterization. Titus is impressed by Violet's way of thinking, but he's interested more because she's different than because he agrees with her arguments. Violet wants to be "normal," but she's not willing to change what she really thinks. Although I found the book heartbreaking, it stays true to these realistic characters.
I would have liked to hear more about the mysterious Coalition of Pity, which is mentioned a few times but then is dropped from the book. Otherwise Feed's an excellent and unique part of the YA dystopian genre, especially as its protagonist is the one "happy" within the system, rather than the one trying to break loose of it.
Wednesday, April 14, 2010
Musings: This book was brought to my attention by a New York Times article about Norwegians' Winter Olympic performance ("The Hard and the Soft," David Brooks, 3/1/10). The book was described there, and in nearly everything I else I read about it, to be a story that seems nearly impossible. And as many others have said, Jan's journey is so amazing that a movie of the book would seem far-fetched, but it's completely true.
It is an amazing story full of coincidences, chance, close calls, and near-fatal encounters. But throughout, the resounding feeling is one of human kindness. Whole towns risked their lives to save Jan--one man--when at any moment German awareness of their actions could mean death. And, of course, equally amazing is Jan's resolve. He lives where no person could possibly do so--through being buried, unconscious, in an avalanche while snow blind to surviving for nearly a week without food in a crevice by a rock. He perseveres through it all and emerges with only the loss of his toes.
This book was published in 1955 by David Howarth, an officer at a navy base from which Jan and his companions sailed. I loved Howarth's tone throughout the book; I suppose it had a bit of a "quaint" feel to it. So many stories today are full of sensationalism, but Howarth was determined to focus on the determination of Jan and those who helped him. In a short chapter Howarth acknowledges what happened to the other members of Jan's crew; those that weren't killed immediately were inhumanely executed, and several others were barbarically tortured. However, Howarth doesn't go into those grisly details: "The details of these executions are known, but they are not a thing to be written or read about" (67). Howarth doesn't skim over the truth, even when it's unpleasant, but I appreciated his restraint here.
We Die Alone is a gripping nonfiction read, perfect for people who tend to shy away from the genre thinking it will be boring. The pace is quick, and I enjoyed the insight into Jan, the people who helped him, and Norwegian life at the time.
***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century reading challenge.
Monday, April 12, 2010
Musings: A Map of Home is not autobiographical, although Jarrar, also the daughter of an Egyptian-Greek mother and a Palestinian father, similarly grew up in Kuwait and later moved to America. Nonetheless, her novel has a distinctly memoir-like feel to it as Nidali narrates moments from her life not in a traditional narrative form, but in bits and pieces with minimal specifics in time.
In many ways A Map of Home is a traditional coming-of-age novel with the twist of Nidali's family background and living situations. Much of the book concerns Nidali's relationship with her father (Baba) and her parents' own love/hate relationship. Her father's certainty about Nidali's future (she will get her bachelors, then her masters, then her Ph.D. and become a famous writer) and certainty that she will become a whore (even when she's just at the library studying; even when she really is hooking up) Nidali alternatively accepts and rejects. She learns how to challenge her father and get what she wants while also getting stellar grades and pursuing her own desire to become a writer. Her parents' tumultuous relationship forms another central part of the novel, and Nidali describes their interactions with each other in terms of battles and war.
Baba's characterization was one of my favorite parts of the book. He beats Nidali, her brother, and her mother with relative frequency. But Nadali considers his beatings as perfectly normal among the Kuwait families, and Baba obviously cares for and is concerned about his daughter. He is proud of her and wants her to have success in life, even though that success is often guided more by what he wants than what Nidali wants. His and Nidali's relationship is often hilarious, and I loved Nidali's passive-aggressive rebellions (when Baba makes her spend weekends writing college application essays, one such composition begins, "I come from a great line of crazy hoes" (261).) Baba is never demonized, and I found my own feelings towards him shifting back and forth throughout the book. It was difficult to establish the line between Baba evidencing the cultural expectations he was raised in and him unfairly reacting to his daughter. That ambiguity, though, is probably more real to life than a more black and white picture.
The political background of the novel was interesting, but it never eclipses Nidali's story. Some Amazon reviews complained about the explicit cursing and sex, which didn't bother me, but it might be surprising to someone used to reading YA-marketed books of this kind. I enjoyed the book's tone, which is frank, sarcastic, and full of teenage life.
I know I don't read enough literature by and about Arab-Americans, and A Map of Home was a good combination of familiar (adolescent maturity) and unfamiliar (Kuwait in the '80s; Nidali's parents' experiences).
***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.
Friday, April 9, 2010
Musings: Fahrenheit 451 is, of course, a classic, and I first read it in high school. I must have read it since then as well, since the plot was very familiar, but I had forgotten how short is was (a brief 165 pages!). Looking at it now, it seems a bit dogmatic, and the science fiction feels well-trod. Of course, when it was published in 1953 that would not have been the case, but it's eerie how "done" this type of story felt to me. That's certainly testament to the novel's influence over the past fifty-plus years.
At the end of the book, Montag joins a group of "vagabonds" storing up fragments of books in their minds, hoping one day the world will be ready to write down and distribute the books again. Although the memorization is intended only as a storage tool, it can't help but operate as a social tool as well, for if Montag wants to "read" a book, he must listen to it recited by another person. It brought to mind the nature of reading today, which is such a solitary pursuit. Thinking of the long oral tradition in many cultures (i.e. the Odyssey) or even in some novels (i.e. the Singers in the Libyrinth), it's interesting to consider what has been gained and lost in books' paper backings.
I liked that the novel acknowledges that although there is much greatness to be had in books, books, by themselves, are not some kind of magic. They are a tool for expression of ideas, emotions, and experiences, but they are not the only tool. Faber tells Montag, "It's not books you need, it's some of the things that once were in books... Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget... The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us" (82-83). This reminded me of a fabulous post by Justine Larbalestier, in which she argues, "I don’t think reading a novel is morally superior to baking a cake, swimming, dancing, or gardening, or any other fun activity a teen or anyone else could do with their time. Best of all is to do all those activities." So I suppose it's funny for me, as an English teacher and avid reader, to say this, but I believe what's important is engaging with the world, with others, with thought, and with life, rather than the medium by which that happens. I find I get a lot of praise for my reading habit, but I sometimes feel it's given unjustly. Perhaps I'm using reading as a way to avoid doing life. This isn't meant as a slam on myself or on anyone else, but rather my attempt to grapple with the ways we live and the ways others value how we live.
Bradbury has an interesting coda where he criticizes what I suppose he would term as "hyper-political correctness." He complains, for example, about a school that balked at performing one of his plays because it had no female characters. Bradbury suggests the people in charge of the play didn't object, per se, but rather that they feared performing the play because "the ERA ladies on campus would descend with ball-bats if the drama department even tried [to perform it]" (178). I completely support free speech and am adamantly against the sanitization and censorship Bradbury describes (happening most often to his works when placed in texts intended for use in schools--kids aren't going to drop dead if they see "damn" printed. Or even "f***"). And I would never argue an author shouldn't include/omit whatever characters, issues, locations, ideas he/she wishes. However, I do think a consuming audience also has a right to say, "We don't want to read pieces that aren't representative of our society," or, "We don't want to read pieces that propagate racism, sexism, or homophobia." You can write/speak what you wish, and I have that same right as a reader/audience member. Of course, it's never that easy, and there's clearly a level of push and pull; the activist blogs I read will frequently suggest writing to and protesting an offensive person while I think Bradbury would suggest that if you are offended, then write your own. Because of the unequal nature of society, I don't know that the "write your own" is always feasible, but I'm not sure spending time protesting the crap of obvious and devoted bigots is a good choice either. (Note: I'm not saying Bradbury is a bigot; just thinking about the concept broadly here.)
So I've said very little about Fahrenheit 451 itself, but I think because the book was already so familiar, my mind wandered into offshoots more frequently than it does with books that are new to me. I think it's an important classic that should still be read, particularly by students who often are unaware of the issue of censorship. I also have to give some love to Bradbury's devotion to libraries; probably 95% of the books I read are from the library, and I truly believe in their importance.
***This book qualifies for the Books of the Century Challenge.
Tuesday, April 6, 2010
Musings: I have vague floating memories of this book from my past, which is only appropriate, given the content of the novel. I believe my friends read it for middle school, but somehow I never did. I remember them chanting "The cheese stands alone" and talking about how Cormier uses a real person's phone number (just looked it up and apparently it was Cormier's real phone number; crazy!) and feeling left out. So I've now rectified that, a dozen or so years later.
I Am the Cheese is an "old" YA novel (published in 1977--older than me!), but it doesn't feel at all dated. What I like most about the book is that it's part psychological study and part good old-fashioned mystery/spy caper. The reader's kept guessing about the "truth" of Adam throughout the novel, but in an exciting--not exasperating--way. The ending packs a nice punch while also wrapping up loose ends. I'm left wondering if some aspects of the novel were meaningful or just red herrings, and I think that's a good thing.
I loved the structure of the book and the juxtaposition between Adam's single-minded conviction of his bike ride and the muddy uncertainty in his interviews. The novel changes from first person point of view during Adam's bike ride to third person during his interviews, which helps jumble the reader's mindset and keep the reader uncertain.
I Am the Cheese was a fun read that I'd highly recommend, especially to people who loved the ambiguity and questioning of the narrator found in the more recent Liar.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Musings: I am a big fan of Lahiri's first two works, Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake. Unaccustomed Earth clearly follows in those two works' footsteps, exploring similar themes, particularly the strained relationships between parents and children, culture and assimilation, old and new. Lahiri's skill, for me, lies in her ability to recognize and make apparent the complexities of human relationships and the ways in which relationships are challenged and broken by things unsaid. That same skill is found in Unaccustomed Earth, but Unaccustomed also doesn't cover any new ground or explore anything different from her earlier works. For this reason, I think I enjoyed the book less than I did her previous ones, as it seemed simply an addition to Interpreter rather than a separate work.
This book's focus is slightly different, as all the stories concern first generation Indian-Americans and none of the stories take place in India. The stories also often explore the relationships between these children and their white partners or spouses.
Lahiri's stories all seem bound by sadness as people are unable to have the kind of relationships they want with their family, friends, or partners. Lahiri does recognize some small moments of human connection, but they are often fleeting. It made me wish that she was also able to recognize human moments of joy, which although rare, are part of the human experience as well.
***This book qualifies for the POC Reading Challenge.
Thursday, April 1, 2010
Musings: I think I would have enjoyed this book more had it not had such strong similarities to other books I've read recently--Flowers for Algernon (about a mentally retarded man being "cured") and especially The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Marcelo in the Real World, both of which are also told in first person narration from the perspective of an autistic person (or, in Marcelo's case, a person with some autistic qualities). The Speed of Dark, Curious, and Marcelo are all interesting in the way they give the reader insight into the thought processes of the narrator. Lou's way of thinking seemed quite similar to Marcelo's, in fact.
My knowledge of autism is relatively limited, so I don't know how effectively Moon has crafted a realistic portrayal of autistic life. However, one of the things Speed does address that I found interesting was the way in which persons with mental disabilities are taught and reminded to act "normal" in ways that "normal" people themselves are not required. People with disabilities are, in effect, being told to live up to a hyper-normative ideal that doesn't exist in reality. For instance, I tend to jiggle my leg when sitting, but no one sees that as a sign of illness, whereas in an autistic person the behavior might be condemned as indicating the illness.
The book is set in the future, but it felt very old fashioned to me (the Internet is called the 'net). The advances in medical technology didn't quite fit together to give me a clear idea of the world Moon has created.
I also need to get one annoyance off my chest. In the book, Lou "fences." Throughout the book, he and his club refer to what they do as fencing. They do not fence. They dress in period costumes and pretend to be from the Renaissance (most likely they belong to something along the lines of the Society for Creative Anachronisms, although it's never named). Call it what you want except fencing, which is a modern competitive sport that doesn't involve playing make believe. I was a competitive fencer for several years, and there are enough misconceptions about our sport without calling Renaissance play-acting fencing. (My husband was also a fencer, and when I mentioned this to him, he didn't seem to think it was a big deal. So perhaps it's just me that's feeling protective of my sport.)
People who aren't overly-protective fencers and haven't already read books done from an autistic viewpoint (or are simply interested in reading others) would probably enjoy this book more than I did.