Monday, November 29, 2010

"The World According to Garp" by John Irving

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 21, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, November 18, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

"The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 14, 2010

"The Shipping News" by E. Annie Proulx

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 7, 2010

"Thirteen Reasons Why" by Jay Asher

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 5, 2010

"Room" by Emma Donoghue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Top Ten Books That Made Me Cry


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

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

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

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

3) Where the Red Fern Grows
Notice a theme?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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