Sunday, October 31, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

"Wildthorn" by Jane Eagland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 23, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 17, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 16, 2010

"The Scorch Trials" by James Dashner

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

"The Passage" by Justin Cronin

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 4, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 2, 2010

"Super Sad True Love Story" by Gary Shteyngart

Summary: Lenny Abramov has been in Rome for a year, working for his employer in the Post-Human Service division, which seeks to extend (rich) clients' lives permanently.  In Rome he meets Eunice Park, a young Korean-American woman, and instantly falls in love.  When Lenny and Eunice return to the United States, they move in together, but the world is falling apart around them: "The country is crushed by a credit crisis, riots break out in New York's Central Park, the city's streets are lined with national Guard Tanks on every corner, the dollar is so over, and our patient Chinese creditors may just be ready to foreclose on the whole mess" (inside flap).

Musings: Super Sad True Love Story has received a lot of critical praise and hype recently, and I was drawn to Shteyngart's classification as a modern absurdist and satiric writer.

Love Story's initial focus seems to be a critique of modern America, particularly the proliferation of technology.  Individuals are glued to their apparati (essentially advanced cell phones), devices which allow everything from constant shopping (primarily at sexually explicit stores) to the ranking of other individuals (in areas such as "personality" and "f*@kability").  People stream their life and feelings for the public at large, and books are mostly a thing of the past--"printed, bound media artifacts."  Sound familiar?  And, for me, the problem was it all did sound too familiar.  Not only are those concerns something that are, essentially, the concerns of many real people today, they're also concerns that are familiar topics for YA dystopians.  It was like reading a Feed or Uglies with older main characters.  But, of course, reading about teenagers hooked to media is one thing, but reading about older characters just seems, well, pathetic.  And though that may be the point, it also made it difficult for me to enjoy the book.

Lenny himself drove me crazy, as he seemed reminiscent of other modern male protagonists.  He's pathetic and unattractive, hopelessly obsessed with Eunice, desperate to be loved, and dull.  Eunice is facing the demons of an abusive father and needy family, but she hides so much of herself that it's hard to feel much for her.

I felt bored through much of the first two-thirds of the book as Lenny and Eunice push and pull without changing, growing, or moving forward in any meaningful way.  However, after the crisis that occurs, I began to warm to the novel some.  Perhaps it was my familiarity with the post-apocalyptic genre, but I became more interested in what would happen to the country and the characters.  In this section I felt that Shteyngart was also able to show that our reliance on technology and constant need to be connected is both problematic and an undeniable part of our lives.  Writing about people who committed suicide after all apparati lost connection, Lenny recalls, "One [young man who committed suicide] wrote, quite eloquently, about how he 'reached out to life,' but found there only 'walls and thoughts and faces,' which weren't enough.  He needed to be ranked, to know his place in the world.  And that may sound ridiculous, but I can understand him.  We are all bored out of our f*@king minds.  My hands are itching for connection" (270).

The book is very crude and explicit sexually, which even I found somewhat distracting.  Again, there's probably a point in that, but it got a bit lost.  In terms of political messages, I liked that it presented a United States that is no longer a superpower, with individuals not ready to accept that.  Like much of the novel, the scenario is only too plausible in the near future.

Super Sad True Love Story is an interesting book with plenty to discuss, though I don't know that it's deserving of the amount of praise it receives.  In particular, I thought it was sad that a book like this can receive so much recognition while YA novels that address similar issues are often overlooked by critics because of the intended audience.