Tuesday, June 29, 2010

"The Elegance of the Hedgehog" by Muriel Barbery

Summary: Renee Michel has been the concierge at the apartment building of number 7, rue de Grenelle for twenty-seven years.  She hides her knowledge and intellectualism from the wealthy residents of the building, who prefer their concierge to fit into a stereotype of a bumbling servant.  Paloma Josses is twelve years old and also lives in the building; she can't stand her snobbish family and has decided to commit suicide on her birthday.  Both Renee and Paloma hide their talents behind a facade of average, and in doing so, repress any real shot at life, but when a new resident moves into the building, both women are challenged to make a change.

Musings: The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a book which is centered, at its core, on two characters who--while probably not realistic--are nonetheless full-fleshed.  Renee goes to laughable lengths to hide her true interests from the building's residents, but in quarantining herself from the world and becoming a self-imposed near-hermit, she conforms to her position's stereotype as well.  Paloma sets out to record her "profound thoughts" and observations on the "movements of the world" before she ends her life, and in doing so reveals her intelligence and her naivete.  It's only when the reader becomes invested in these two characters that the book really gets moving.

And for me, that investment didn't come until more than half-way through the book.  Renee's and Paloma's meditations on life, Art, and Beauty border on pretentious, as does Barbery's choice of sentence structure and vocabulary.  There's a level at which one can empathize with people who want to rise above others' expectations, but there's also a point at which assuming one is so far beyond others just becomes snobbery.  Barbery's characters sometimes have a hard time riding this line.

The introduction of Kakuro brings out and softens both Renee and Paloma, and it was when his character entered that I became endeared to the novel.  Kakuro is clearly too perfect, more a foil to the women than a man in his own right, but his attentions bring out the best true selves of the protagonists.  I was not thrilled with the ending, which seemed a bit cheap given all the detail put into the rest of the book, but I still finished it on a high note.

I'm a big fan of short chapters, and Barbery uses that structure successfully in the book.  Renee's musings on life alternate with Paloma's journal entries, exposing the similarities in two people of very different circumstances.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog is a very sweet book with a unique cast of characters, and while I didn't retain any of its philosophical musings, the quirky characters undoubtedly will stay in my mind.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

"Never Let Me Go" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Summary: Kathy H. has been a carer for close to twelve years, but soon she will be a donor, just like the people she watches over.  As Kathy approaches this point in her life, she recalls her childhood at Hailsham, an isolated school, and her friendships with the self-assured Ruth and the warm Tommy.  Looking back, Kathy is able to piece together and understand moments from her childhood for the first time and come to terms with her relationships and place in life.

Musings: Unlike most books in the genre, Never Let Me Go is a very quiet dystopian.  In fact, from reading summaries of the basic plot outline, it's easy to overlook the dystopian setting beyond a vague uneasiness with certain wording: "carers," "donors."  This set-up is very much like the book itself, which is focused much more on relationships than the world in which the book operates.  There is no open hostility, and there is no open rebellion; there is no villain and no real evil.  Instead, there is Kathy, who relates her childhood matter-of-factly, working within her position in life rather than against it.

Nonetheless, the dystopian elements are always in the background, as the reader is "told and not told" what is happening.  Throughout their time at Hailsham, Kathy and her friends have a vague idea of what is happening to them without fully understanding, and the reader undergoes the same experience throughout the novel.  There is no big revelation when everything is finally understood; instead, small pieces form together throughout the chapters.  This does mean there is sometimes an excessive amount of ominous foreshadowing, but overall, the mood felt appropriate.

As someone who reads a lot of dystopian works, I did wonder at the fact that the characters never once question their position in life.  Certainly they are raised to accept what will happen to them, and, in fact, the book sets up a childhood in which the most difficult questions and assumptions are ignored rather than discussed, but I still imagine that every human being--at some point in his or her life--wants to know why he or she has been set on a particular course.  For that reason I was a bit let down by the ending, which fits within the general tone of the book, but wasn't quite satisfying.

Although Never Let Me Go is quite different, I was drawn in by Ishiguro's simple prose and attention to detail.  By having Kathy narrate events from her childhood as an adult, Ishiguro gives his protagonist the gift of hindsight and the ability to understand things as only an adult looking back can do.  I think that as most of us age, we tend to look back on our younger years with a mix of approval and regret, and I appreciated that connection with Kathy.

Never Let Me Go is very readable and would appeal to people interested in dystopian fiction but not ready to take the "hard-core" plunge into the genre.

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

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"The Intuitionist" by Colson Whitehead

Summary: Lila Mae Watson is the first black female elevator inspector, and she is also an Intuitionist.  Elevator inspectors are divided into two groups: Empiricists, who inspect elevators by examining the parts, and Intuitionists, who inspect elevators by "sensing" them.  Intuitionism is a newer and not fully accepted field in the elevator inspector industry, and that--and more importantly, the color of Lila's skin--has made her an outsider.  When an elevator Lila recently inspected goes into catastrophic failure and Lila is blamed, Lila becomes determined to discover who caused the crash and why.  Meanwhile, there are rumors that papers exist from James Fulton, the founder of Intuitionism, which contain a blueprint for the "black box"--the perfect elevator, and these papers may be connected to Lila.

Musings: Although I enjoyed The Intuitionist, it's a book that I find nearly impossible to describe.  It's a philosophical detective novel existing in an odd world that is absurd and terribly realistic.  Although I don't believe a specific year is given, the book seems to take place in a pseudo-1950s.  Despite Lila's placement, racism is rampant, and Lila's acutely aware that she does not belong.  She has developed a steely facade to protect herself, which only separates her more.  So while this aspect seems realistic of American history, Whitehead's world is also one in which elevators have extraordinary and bizarre importance.  It's a world in which such odd musings as this occur: "At its core, Intuitionism is about communicating with the elevator on a nonmaterial basis. 'Separate the elevator from elevatorness,' right?" (62).  The juxtaposition of the real and the fantastic (and sometimes the esoteric) forms a central aspect of the book.

The entire book is told straight-forwardly, making it easy to sometimes miss the humor and sarcasm.  Nonetheless, the style matches Lila herself, who has allowed few emotions to permeate her life.  I was surprised by how affecting Whitehead's style was; something about his words echoed with me.  I'd almost describe the prose as haunting, but that indicates a gloominess that wasn't present.  The structure of the book itself also reinforces the mood; sections change points of view and points of time, sometimes jumping back to illuminate a recent section.

Past all the absurdity, The Intuitionist is largely about race and identity, and Whitehead expertly weaves this message together by the end of the novel.  I'm sure I missed aspects of the allegory, however, so this is a book that I especially wish I had a book group to discuss it with.

I don't read a lot of modernist fiction, but I would definitely read more of Whitehead's work.

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

Sunday, June 20, 2010

"I Was Told There'd Be Cake" by Sloane Crosley

Summary: A collection of humorous essays by Crosley, a twenty-something writer who grew up in suburbia and now lives in New York City.

Musings:  I really enjoyed I Was Told There'd Be Cake, primarily because Crosley's experiences so closely mirror my own.  Truthfully, we're quite different--I would never ever live in NYC and I'm a married homeowner and teacher.  But nonetheless, the funniest moments of the book for me were shared moments.  Crosley is only a few years older than I, and I found so much similar in our experiences: our childhood in classic suburbia, our ambivalence about high school relationships, our nostalgia for the '80s even though we were really relatively young in that decade.

My favorite essay was "You On a Stick," about Crosley's experience as a bridesmaid for a former high school friend.  And although I operated on the opposite end (as the bride bringing back high school friends) just a few years ago, so many of the feelings echoed for me.  She captured the mood perfectly while also making it seem absurd.

I have a stereotype of young New Yorkers being arrogant and self-absorbed, and because of that, I feel disdain for most stories about NYC.  I imagine Crosley likes the city, but it's certainly not the focus of her story, and the city did not get in my way of enjoying the book.  I liked Crosley's recognition of her own stupidity and selfishness and her problems maintaining friendships--because they illuminated and ridiculed my own failings in those areas while assuring me I wasn't alone.

I Was Told There'd Be Cake is funny, light, and dead-on for those of us raised in a middle-class suburban life and trying to figure out where we belong today.

"The City of Ember" by Jeanne DuPrau

Summary: The City of Ember is in trouble.  Ember is running out of food and, most importantly, the light bulbs that power the otherwise entirely dark city.  The people have been living in Ember for several hundred years, but they have no idea how they got there--or if there is anywhere else beyond Ember.  With no knowledge of "movable lights," the citizens have no ability to explore beyond their town.

Twelve-year-old Lina Mayfleet is naturally curious, and when she discovers a torn message stored in a mysterious locked box in her house entitled "Instructions for Egress," she wonders if there is land beyond Ember.  With the help of her friend Doon, a worker in the Pipeworks, Lina tries to find a way to escape Ember and save the city.

Musings: The City of Ember is an excellent dystopian novel for younger readers interested in the genre.  The people and society are just like us--only they have been left to fend for themselves for hundreds of years without the knowledge modern humans have.  Although they rely on electricity, they don't know how the electricity works, so they can only make repairs rather than innovate.  And although they eat canned fruit and wear normal clothes, they have little ability to grow food and no production with which to make new items.  It's an interesting look at our current reliance on science and technology despite the fact that very few people understand it.

One of the most interesting mysteries in the story for me was why Ember was founded in the first place, and I was happy that the reader is given a glimpse of the motivation by the end of the novel, even though full answers are not yet provided.

The world and story DuPrau created could easily go very dark (no pun intended), but because this is middle grade, people remain mostly good and no real danger or depravity occurs.  This does, however, allow for more focus on Lina and Doon's adventure.

I listened to the audio book version of the novel, narrated by Wendy Dillon.  I've had some problems finding just the right type of book for listening, but The City of Ember was perfect.  There were two primary protagonists and few extraneous characters, so it was easy to follow what was happening.  The premise was straightforward and the narrative continuous, so I didn't find myself forgetting what was going on.  The "childish" voices used for Lina and Doon can be a little annoying, but I suppose they are only twelve.  I also liked the occasional sound effects (running water, etc.).

I've already downloaded the sequel to my iPhone and look forward to finding out more about the creation of the City of Ember.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

"Leviathan" by Scott Westerfeld

Summary: In this alternative history of World War I, the world is divided into the Clankers and the Darwinists.  The Clankers rely on large machines and robot-like walkers for power while the Darwinists use fabricated animal hybrids. 

Deryn has always wanted to work in the air, like her father.  But because she's a girl, she's prohibited from joining the British Air Service.  So Deryn disguises herself as Dylan and joins the team working on the Leviathan, the giant whale-hybrid air ship.  Alek is the prince of Austria-Hungary.  When his parents are assassinated, Alek is spirited away by servants loyal to his father.  With the world on the brink of full-scale war, Deryn, Alek, and their companions are forced into an uneasy alliance.

Musings: I first purchased this book last fall when I had the opportunity to meet Scott Westerfeld at a signing.  I've been using the cards I got from the event as bookmarks for months, but I only just got around to reading the book itself.

Leviathan is the first book I've read in the steampunk genre, and the history Westerfeld created in the book is definitely the strongest part of the novel.  Although much of the science is far-fetched, it's interesting to imagine a world in which technology has been taken in two very opposite directions.  The machines the Clankers use are nothing new (they've appeared in numerous sci-fi stories), but the animal hybrids of the Darwinists are certainly unique.  I especially liked the way in which "machines" like the Leviathan rely on a symbiotic relationship between species and the environment to power the ship--an extreme and intriguing way of being eco-friendly! (though I would wonder whether a living whale being used as a ship would be considered animal cruelty)

Unfortunately, however, I didn't find the story especially exciting.  It was easy to put down the book, and I didn't feel connected to Deryn or Alek.  Each has interesting back story, and I liked their growing friendship, but something about the narrative arc was just "meh" for me.  However, the book is deceptively short (although coming in at over 400 pages, the pages are extremely narrow with large print and margins and a number of illustrations), so the story went fast.  The frequent illustrations were also great, especially since the book has so many detailed machines and creations that might be hard to imagine otherwise.  I liked the pictures' old-time children's story book feel.

Leviathan is a good introduction to the steampunk genre, and perhaps the next book in the series will ramp up the storyline.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"The Help" by Kathryn Stockett

Summary: Taking place in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960s, The Help follows three women: Aibileen, Minny, and Skeeter.  Aibileen is a black maid who has spent her life raising white children; she cares for her newest charge, two-year-old Mae Mobley, but she knows she plans to move on when Mae Mobley is old enough to be just like her racist uncaring mother.  Minny is also a maid, but despite being the best cook in the area, she has a hard time finding a job because she's known for "sassing" her employers.  Skeeter is a young white woman just out of college; she wants to be a writer, but there is little opportunity for her living at home in Jackson.  The novel alternates with each woman's perspective as the three join together for a secret--and potentially dangerous--project to address the complicated relationship of white women and their help.

Musings: I had been reluctant to start this book for awhile, primarily because I'm suspicious of super-popular books (ugh, I'm such a snob sometimes!) and I wasn't sure if I was ready to read about such a difficult period of history.  I suppose sometimes it's easier to read about oppression and mistreatment in my dystopian novels because the novels are, in the end, fantasy.  But the racism and segregation present in The Help is not only very true, it's so very recent (heck, my parents grew up in the '60s--my dad can remember when his high school was integrated), and that makes it all the more infuriating.

Nonetheless, The Help deserves all the praise is has received.  Each of the women comes fully alive through her narrative, and each is given a distinctive voice.  The three main characters are fully multi-dimensional and must deal with their conflicting feelings.  Aibileen can't stand her employer, Miss Leefolt, but despite her best efforts, she can't help but love Mae Mobley.  Minny may be known as a woman who speaks her mind, but she also puts up with her abusive alcoholic husband.  Skeeter wants to write something meaningful, but she also wants to have friends. The book details the women's cautious steps toward finding something more in their lives by standing up in the way they best can.  The book ends not with happy endings, but with hopeful beginnings.

There are clearly issues of privilege at play here--both within the book itself (Aibileen and Minny have a lot more to lose than Skeeter) and in the writing of the book.  After all, Stockett is a white woman writing about black women's lives.  Stockett does try to address this through the book's very content and through an afterword, but it's still something that played on my mind.

Nonetheless, I'd highly recommend the book for its strong characterization and ability to illustrate one complex view of the Jim Crow South.

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

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"A Room With a View" by E.M. Forster

Summary: In the British world of social niceties, young Lucy Honeychurch vacations in Italy with her intolerable and priggish cousin Miss Bartlett.  Although proper conventions rule the day, Lucy finds herself immersed in something different in Italy and in the young George Emerson, whose lack of social standing causes him to be looked down upon.  When Lucy returns to England, she must make a choice: protection with her fiance Cecil or truth and beauty with George.

Musings: A Room With a View is an appealing novel of breaking tradition and convention for something else, whatever that something else might be.  Its focus on manners and rudeness reminded me a lot of Austen, although, in comparison, Forster's book is a relatively quick 242-page read.  Forster's novel also goes farther in challenging standard protocols of propriety, particularly in terms of gender roles.  Although George plays a role in Lucy's transformation, the real change comes from inside herself as she recognizes that she does not want to be with someone whose principle aim is to protect and mold her.

Lucy's internal wanderings were often a bit vague for me, but I think that's in keeping with her character.  She's young and dissatisfied and believes the world can offer more--but she doesn't really know what that means.  The best she can do is challenge herself.  George was sweet but somewhat ill-defined, and I didn't understand his attraction as fully.

The novel has a slightly confidential tone, as the narrator gently mocks and chides his characters both for their snobbery and their illusions of grandeur.  I especially liked quirky details such as the naming of chapters, which include the title "The Reverend Arthur Beebe, The Reverend Cuthbert Eager, Mr. Emerson, Mr. George Emerson, Miss Eleanor Lavish, Miss Charlotte Bartlett, and Miss Lucy Honeychurch Drive Out in Carriages to See a View; Italians Drive Them" for chapter 6 and the meaningful title of "Twelfth Chapter" for chapter 12.

Towards the end of the book there is much talk of being muddied in one's feelings, and that sense of muddiness did pervade a lot of the more philosophical musings of the novel, but A Room With a View is, like its protagonist, a sweet and innocent look at the desires of youth.

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

Sunday, June 6, 2010

"The Secret of Sarah Revere" by Ann Rinaldi

Summary: Sarah Revere, the daughter of the famous American patriot Paul Revere, has a secret.  But in her household, there are a lot of secrets, including what her father really knows about who made the first shot at the Battle of Lexington and Concord.  The novel follows Sarah and her family at the beginning of the American Revolution as they navigate the changes shaping the country's history forever.

Musings: I read almost no genre historical fiction, but a student recommended Rinaldi's books and loaned me several to try.  Unfortunately, the books sat on my shelf for almost the entire school year until I realized I had to read one so I could return her copies before summer break!

Funnily enough, my students would probably get more out of the historical setting than I did.  My students often ask me questions about basic U.S. history, and I have to tell them that they've had history much more recently than I have--while they probably had it yesterday, I haven't taken a U.S. history course since high school (I scored high on the AP US History text and thus was exempted from college courses in the subject).  Nonetheless, Rinaldi does a good job of situating her story within a famous part of history while also offering a new and nuanced view of that event.  In fact, Paul Revere's famous ride is only a small part of the story.  Instead, Rinaldi focuses on overlooked areas: How did Revere's large family feel about his actions?  In what ways did family members' beliefs about the revolutionary activities differ?  How did an event that is so mythologized now appear to those who actually lived it?  There is no rabid patriotic sentiment; instead, each character must grapple with his/her personal beliefs and balance those beliefs with the needs for his/her family.  Revere himself is made into an ordinary man rather than a comic book hero of history textbooks.

However, the book was too simple and slow for my tastes.  Sarah is a flat character for me, and her "secret" is truthfully boring.  The main theme of the novel is "What matters?  What's true?  Or what people think?".  If you decide to read this book and forget the theme by the time you do read it, don't worry: the theme is repeated in nearly every chapter.  Word for word.  Again and again.  I've no problem with books with messages, but young people are smart enough to pick up on them on their own.  Very little happens throughout the course of the novel.

I appreciate Rinaldi's use of history to create a new story, but would only recommend this novel to history buffs desiring an easy read.

Friday, June 4, 2010

"Finding Nouf" by Zoe Ferraris

Summary: When Nouf, the teenage daughter of a wealthy Saudi Arabian family goes missing in the desert, Othman, the adopted son of family, asks his friend Nayir, a desert guide, for help in locating her.  Although Nayir is unable to find her and Nouf's dead body is soon discovered by others, Nayir finds himself inexplicably drawn to the case.  What would cause a teenage girl, about to be married, to run off into the desert?  Nayir quickly meets Katya, Othman's fiance and a medical examiner.  Despite Nayir's reluctance to associate with a woman, the two begin working together to solve the mystery of Nouf's disappearance and death.

Musings:  Finding Nouf has a lot of interesting things going for it.  First, it's an old-fashioned who-dun-it mystery in the unique setting of Saudi Arabia.  Nayir and Katya's investigation is limited by cultural boundaries: the expectations of courtesy between families and the taboo of unrelated men and women associating.  But for some reason, the book just didn't quite sit well with me.

Nayir, a gentle and modest man, is the obvious hero of the story.  Much of the book is based on his growth.  In the beginning, he is appalled at women appearing before him without being covered by a burqa, and he is shocked at Katya's brazenness in speaking directly to him.  In fact, a significant part of the book is spent on the restrictions on women's lives and the way in which Nayir has been conditioned to both fear and underestimate women.  The country is severely gender-segregated, and it was difficult to read about the many ways women are subjugated through ensuring that the sexes are never able to have normal interactions.  As Nayir works more closely with Katya, he begins to reevaluate his beliefs and understand women's lives and restrictions for the first time.

Nonetheless, I couldn't connect with Nayir.  I did not understand his obsession with the case; he never appears to work during the course of the book and spends most of his time investigating Nouf's death, but why?  He also seemed inconsistent.  In the first chapter, he is shocked to see Katya without a burqa and insists on asking questions to the male medical examiner, rather than Katya, who is the one talking to him.  However, at the end of the chapter, he asks Katya, who is examining Nouf's body, if Nouf was a virgin.  I find it hard to believe someone so unaccustomed to speaking to women would be able to ask a woman he had just met a sex-related question.

I also didn't understand much of the investigation.  It would seem to me that the most obvious suspects in Nouf's death would be her family (especially in a society where women had no rights), but that potential culprit is mentioned sporadically.  Clues fall into Nayir and Katya's hands so methodically that it felt like I was in a video game, collecting the necessary pieces before I could advance to the next level.  And not only does the book end with the cliche "detective confronts the killer and explains just how the killer did the crime while the killer becomes more and more nervous and then bursts out confession," the explanation of the crime's execution still failed to make much sense to me.

I loved the setting and concept of Finding Nouf, but I never found myself immersed in the story or the characters' lives.

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

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

"Lord of Scoundrels" by Loretta Chase

Summary: In this romance, Lord Dain has always been scornful of women, and though he'll happily pay for a prostitute, he's never concerned himself with "ladies."  That is, until Jessica Trent, the bright and witty sister of one of Dain's annoying friends, comes along.  Jessica's determined to get Dain's bad influence away from her brother.  Although Dain and Jessica disagree and argue over everything, they're also drawn together, and when Jessica's virtue comes into question, they must work to settle out their feelings for one another.

Musings: I was inspired to read Lord of Scoundrels by Presenting Lenore's post, "Make me read a romance novel!"  I've never read a romance, and I hadn't had much desire to.  Like Lenore, I tend to stay away from any book--genre romance or not--in which romance is the main focus.  But I read enough that I want to try other genres at least once.  I chose Lord of Scoundrels because I often saw it highly recommended among fans (and it was available from my library).  And besides, it would keep me from taking my reading habit all too seriously.

I picked up the book from the library and couldn't help but laugh at the "discreet" all-pink flower cover (the cover pictured at right).  I suppose the real cover (above left, which to me has nothing to do with the story) is just too scandalous!  I certainly did feel a bit silly settling down in my reading couch with the book.

But, all in all, it really wasn't too bad.  Dain and Jessica drive each other mutually crazy, and neither one has the upper hand for long.  The misunderstandings and frustration reminded me a lot of Austen (it's true!), and their aggravation with each other is probably the best part of the book.  I don't know if I buy the "he's so mean and stubborn and rude he's just dreamy" vibe, but it wasn't really distracting.  Dain and Jessica are round characters, and I could even sympathize with Dain some when he came to care for Jessica but worried about hurting her.  The book's appropriately steamy without getting icky, and it was nice to read a book where I knew everything would turn out happy and perfect in the end.  I tried to keep my "feminist watch" on a reduced buzz while I read, and fortunately the book is not too cringe-worthy in that regard, although I do find the violence/anger turning to sexual energy/lust motif sometimes problematic.

I guess the most I can say about the book is that I don't have much to say, which I don't intend necessarily as criticism.  It was a fun and light story of flirting and romping.  I don't think I'll be racing to try any other romances soon, but Lord of Scoundrels was an innocuous enough read, and it was certainly more diverting than a number of modern critically-received novels.