Sunday, January 30, 2011

"Right Ho, Jeeves" by P.G. Wodehouse

Summary: Bertram Wooster is upset when he hears that a school friend of his, Gussie Fink-Nottle, has been seeing Bertie's valet, Jeeves, for help with his problem: he loves a woman but is too nervous to ask her to marry him.  Bertie insists on handling the problem himself, and when Aunt Dahlia urgently asks for Bertie's help--and Bertie learns the object of Gussie's affection will also be visiting Aunt Dahlia--he and Gussie travel there.  But in Aunt Dahlia's home are even more troubles: Bertie's cousin Angela has just broken up with her fiance Tuppy and Aunt Dahlia can't bring herself to tell her husband she lost money at baccarat.  Can Bertie fix everything?  Or will Jeeves come to the rescue again?

Musings:  I'd heard of P.G. Wodehouse's books here and there, though I'll confess that it was young Frankie's admiration of his works in The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks that really piqued my interest (and the book is available free on the Kindle--yay!).  Unfortunately for the virgin Wodehouse reader, the author wrote a lot of books in his lifetime, but his Jeeves works are most well-known, and since Right Ho, Jeeves (the second full novel in the Jeeves stories) was recommended on several sites, I began there.

Right Ho, Jeeves is a lot of silly fun, and although it approaches slapstick at times, it never quite goes there.  The novel is told from the first person point of view of Bertie, a decent guy who nonetheless highly overrates his abilities.  Like Austen's Emma, Bertie seeks to solve everyone's problems--and only makes a giant mess in the end.  I kept expecting Bertie to go into Michael Scott land and be just a bumbling fool, but he was always step smarter than that, even though his plans never worked out.

Bertie's foil is the upright straight-man Jeeves, on which decades of English butlers have been based. Like with Bertie, Jeeves wasn't exactly as I expected.  He's calm, cool, and restrained, and he always shows the proper courtesy and respect, but he also has a mischievous side, which I enjoyed.  Not surprisingly there's a push and pull relationship between Jeeves and his employer, with Bertie always trying to maintain the upper hand, and often failing.  Muses Bertie once when trying to secure his authority: "I mean to say, while firmly resolved to tick him off, I didn't want to gash his feelings too deeply.  Even when displaying the iron hand, we Woosters like to keep things fairly matey."  Of course, in the end, Jeeves comes out on top, but without hurting Bertie's feelings too badly.

Wodehouse novels are known for their use of language, and I was happily surprised by the sauciness and humor present in a book published in 1934. I loved Aunt Dahlia's frequent disparagement of Bertie and her insistence on Bertie killing himself.  She once says, "I wonder, Bertie... if you have the fainest conception how perfectly loathsome you look?  A cross between an orgy scene in the movies and some low form of pond life."  Gussie's drunken presentation of prizes is fabulous, as is his attempt to escape Tuppy's wrath.

Right Ho, Jeeves was fun and enjoyable, and I look forward to reading more Wodehouse in the future.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"The Boxcar Children" by Gertrude Chandler Warner

Summary: Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny's parents have died, and now they are without a home.  Wandering around, they find an abandoned boxcar in the woods, and they decide to stay.  With Henry working for the kindly Dr. Moore, the children create a happy life for themselves.

Musings: I've mentioned before that as a child I wanted to live in the woods.  This is the game I played most with my friends (e.g., we'd collect acorns for "food" or build a "raft" out of wooden planks found in the creek).  And although I consumed most of the kid-living-alone-in the wilderness genre of the time (Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain, Island of the Blue Dolphins), rereading The Boxcar Children has cemented the fact that nearly everything I believed about living in the wild came from this one book.

Of course, this is because in The Boxcar Children, living alone outside has all the wonderful benefits and none of the pesky disadvantages.  The children make a cozy, warm home in the boxcar, they cook delicious stews over their stone fireplace, and they even have a "refrigerator"--a recess behind a waterfall that keeps food cold.  Their days are spent on wonderful crafts (I should also mention I was a bit craft obsessed as a child), making a broom, a cart, or a stuffed animal.  They even build a swimming pool in one fun Sunday!  And a stray dog wanders in and becomes their friend!  Without the distractions of hunger, dirtiness, disease, or cold, it's an idyllic life.  It's pure fantasy, but for children, it's also a great way to show the power of the imagination and the ability to create much out of what is already around you.

Everyone in the book is friendly and goodhearted, from the never-grumpy children to the benevolent Dr. and Mrs. Moore and the children's previously unknown grandfather.  This of course means the book has to completely avoid some basic questions (How did the children's parents die?  If they were so friendly and nice, why did no one look after them?  Why hadn't their grandfather been in their life?  Why don't they seem particularly traumatized by losing their parents?).

My least favorite part of the book as a child was the ending, where the children go to live happily with their grandfather.  Although the grandfather eventually transports the boxcar to his property, it's just not the same.  The children are safely guarded by a parental figure and snug in a real home and real beds.  There's no living in the woods adventure, even though the series continued for another 100-something books.

Like other children's books of the day (the first book was originally published in 1924), The Boxcar Children is more about moralizing than realism, so the goody-two-shoes nature of the book can be a little eye-rolling, though I didn't find it nearly so grating as that of The Secret Garden (another childhood favorite which stood up less well on reread).  In fact, overall I found the novel quite enjoyable, and I think it would be a great read-aloud/read-together book for the early elementary set.

I've classified the novel as "young adult" because I don't have a separate children's tag; Amazon says the reading level is 9-12, though I would think it would be appropriate more for the younger end.

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

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

"The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey" by Walter Mosley

Summary: 91-year-old Ptolemy Grey has a difficult time remembering things, and his thoughts often flutter from one point to another, making it hard for him to piece together any one memory.  When Reggie, his great-grandnephew who checked in on him, dies in a drive-by shooting, Robyn, a young woman living with a member of Ptolemy's family, begins caring for him.  Robyn truly cares about Ptolemy, cleaning up his squalid apartment and showing him love and care.  Ptolemy begins to piece together parts of his life and decides there are things he needs to finish before he dies.

Musings: In some ways The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey is kind of like deciding to buy a giant piece of cake from the grocery store to eat as an afternoon snack instead of just going home and eating the celery you know is already in the fridge.  The celery is better for you, and the cake may ring too sickly sweet once you finish, but gosh do you feel great chomping that cake down.  Ptolemy Grey is filled with "perfect" characters who are exactly as they appear and don't have the nasty habit of disappointing.  You know they won't withstand any kind of characterization scrutiny, but it's still enjoyable to read about good people doing good things and getting proper rewards.  So I guess all of this is a roundabout way of saying I quite enjoyed Ptolemy Grey (even more so than that cake).

Our perfect characters are Ptolemy, a sweet elderly man determined to give to everyone, and Robyn, a beautiful and saintly young woman who devotes her existence to caring, loving, and supporting the nonagenarian.  Robyn instantly likes Ptolemy, listening to him and clearing out his filthy apartment (in what would have been the most uplifting episode of Hoarders ever had it been real).  She never gets bored, angry, or mad with him, and in fact the two spend most of the book mooning over how they would get married if he were forty years younger and she twenty years older.

But, really, I'm sounding critical when I was fully engrossed in the novel.  Ptolemy is an endearing character, and the reader gets a look into various aspects of his life, primarily his relationship as a boy with an elderly man named Coydog McCann.  There's joy in seeing his life improve (and keep improving!) through the love of Robyn.

Most of the book follows Ptolemy's train of thought in the early stages of dementia, so it's a bit surprising when, two-thirds of the way through the book, Ptolemy feels certain he needs to take an experimental drug that will return his memories but shorten his life.  He suddenly has to do certain things before he dies, and I was a little surprised at the sudden assurance.

By the end of the novel everything is neatly and happily wrapped up; there are no great mysteries revealed nor any sudden failings by our angelic characters.  However, I also felt happy while reading (I found it hard to put down) and after I finished. Ptolemy Grey is a good choice for someone who wants a heart-warming book with a more unique style and a minimum of corniness.

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

Monday, January 24, 2011

"How I Live Now" by Meg Rosoff

Summary: Daisy arrives in England to live with her cousins--Osbert, Isaac, Edmond, and Piper.  She's not thrilled to be there, but she's glad to be away from her "evil" stepmother and ambivalent father.  Once there Daisy finds a relative peaceful existence on her cousins' farm as she grows closer with Edmond and Piper in particular.  Left alone when Aunt Penn goes to Oslo for a speaking engagement and out in the country, she cares little about the Big War that everyone's talking about.  However, soon the world's turmoil comes to them.

Musings: How I Live Now is a very different young adult book, both in its style and in the way it approaches the dystopian genre.  The first thing that everyone who reads this book is likely to notice is the somewhat stream-of-consciousness style.  The book is told from Daisy's point of view, and her thoughts run indiscriminately and indistinctly, much as you might expect from a teenage girl disengaged from the world and herself.  Her run-on sentences and frequent capitalization provide just the right attitude for Daisy, a girl who starves herself and has tortured many a psychologist to feel strength in the face of a father who just doesn't seem to care.  Although in true teenage style Daisy rarely acknowledges the pain she's feeling, the reader can see it's there.  Rosoff's choice in creating this style and tone for the novel is perfect and so different from traditional YA narratives.

War looms over the book from the beginning and eventually is the focus of the novel.  But I liked that, in keeping true to the characters, Daisy first cares little about the war.  She narrates, "I didn't spend much time thinking about the war because I was bored with everyone jabbering on for about the last five years about Would There Be One or Wouldn't There and I happen to know there wasn't anything we could do about it anyway so why even bring the subject up" (15).

In terms of the dystopian genre, How I Live Now is much more along the lines of The Road than most YA dystopians.  There's not a standard plot arc, and the focus is more on Daisy's internal monologue as she survives and matures, even in the worst of situations.  I can see how this might put off some readers, but though I found the storyline and ending a bit unusual, it works with the novel as a whole.

There's an unusual romance that might bother some readers, but I found it true.  The characters aren't completely believable--they're all quirky and odd in unusual ways--but they come together effectively in the novel.

For the style alone, I'd highly recommend How I Live Now for its willingness to go outside standard YA form.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

"Drinking Coffee Elsewhere" by ZZ Packer

Summary: A collection of short stories.

Musings: Packer's eight short stories all focus on disparate individuals, but each one packs an emotional punch.  The majority of the protagonists are young black people, unsure of their place in the world and cautiously trying to reject the forces of their childhood (often the church, family).

Throughout the first few stories I felt a sense of near-hopelessness.  For me, the stories were primarily about the lack of heroism in everyday lives--those big, climactic, change-your-life and stick-up-for-your-belief moments that are the hallmark of feel-good movies are shown to be fairy tales.  There's a lot of sadness as the protagonists realize their limitations, both self-imposed and otherwise. The short story "Our Lady of Peace" stood out to me, perhaps because it's about a young teacher trying to make it at a rowdy public school, and I could empathize.

I also quite liked "Drinking Coffee Elsewhere," about a Dina, a Yale freshman who loses a friendship over her inability to stop "pretending."  Her therapist says, "Constantly saying what one doesn't mean accustoms the mouth to meaningless phrases... Maybe you'll understand that when you finally need to express something truly significant your mouth will revert to the insignificant nonsense it knows so well" (128).  The therapist wonders whether her "pretending" is a survival mechanism: "Black living in a white world" (128).  But with Dina, as with so many of the characters, there's no one clear clause of her dissatisfaction with the world, though racism does run through each piece.  I liked this type of characterizations because it felt real; the characters are multi-dimensional with multi-dimensional problems that have no real fixes.

When I thought all the stories were going to bleak, there seemed to be an upturn.  Again, no magical changes, but small, unexpected moments, like help coming from an unusual place or finding an amount of courage within yourself.

Packer's stories are brisk, and though individual-focused, each story is populated with interesting characters and quickly-moving situations.  Unlike some short story collections, I couldn't just move from one story to the next.  I found I needed a break to digest what I had read; it meant it took me longer than normal to read the book, but I think the piece was more meaningful as a whole that way.

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

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Persons of Color Reading Challenge 2011

I've signed up again for the POC Reading Challenge.  I read 21 books for the challenge last year, so this year I'm going to sign up for level 5 (16-25 books).

As I noted in my wrap-up post for the 2010 challenge, I was disappointed that a large number of the books I read had protagonists of color but were written by white authors.  For this year, I'm only going to count books written by authors of color, though perhaps I'll include other books in a separate list.  I'm hoping this will help me to discover new authors!

Books read:
1. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer
2. The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley
3. Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami
4. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
5. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
6. Complications by Atul Gawande
7. Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez
8. Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie
9. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders by Daniyal Mueenuddin
10. The Broken Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin
11. Pym by Mat Johnson
12. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese 
13. Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami 
14. River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh 
15. The Kingdom of Gods by N.K. Jemisin 
16. Is Everybody Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling 
17. Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

Books by white authors with protagonists of color: (not counted toward challenge)
- Gardens of Water by Alan Drew
- Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
- The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
- Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Monday, January 17, 2011

"Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley

Summary: Bernard is a bit different in a world where social castes are determined before one is even born and social conditioning ensures stability and order.  He likes Lenina, and although "everybody belongs to everybody else" and multiple sexual partners are encouraged, he finds himself nervous to approach her.  He does eventually ask for a date, and they visit the reservation, a place separate and unconditioned, where they meet John, a "savage" born to a mother from Bernard's world.  This encounter leads to questions about the nature of happiness and stability.

Musings: I've done one of the most terrible jobs I think I've ever done summarizing the book above, but I think it's hard to describe the world of Brave New World accurately.  Although it takes place in a somewhat typical dystopian setting, the novel is especially compelling because of the way in which Huxley makes all of the world's structures logical--though still terrifying.  Happiness, or perhaps more accurately, contentedness, is the goal of Brave New World's society, and such happiness is created through the elimination of want and desire.  It's a world of immediate gratification, where everyone is given anything he/she wants at a moment's notice and any desire that can't be granted is conditioned away at a young age.  The concept that the world will be stable when everyone has what he/she wants is unassailable, and it makes some of the more outrageous practices in the novel, such as the lack of love relationships and the encouragement of promiscuity, also reasonable.

Brave New World really has two protagonists: Bernard and John.  Neither is content, and although Bernard seems the weaker of the two (he bemoans his alienation from others but also eagerly milks his later popularity), John "the savage" is really no better.  He demonizes Bernard and Lenina's existence and sees self-deprivation as a way to pureness, but he helps no one, including himself.

Huxley has created a world with no "good" options--the mindless acceptance of the majority of the people is obviously not desirable, but the "savage" land John comes from is given little attention and is not particularly praised either.  The lack of options is especially evident in the treatment of women.  In Bernard's world, bodies are simply objects for sexual consumption, but this seems especially true of women.  Women are described in terms of their physical attractiveness and are "had" by any man who wants.  On the other hand, John divides women completely into virgins and whores and uses their existence only as a means for his own self-deprivation.

I've read Brave New World a number of times now, and I still find it a compelling piece.  This time I did get a bit bored about half-way through, but I put it to the side and enjoyed finishing it a week or two later.  Even today I think it offers relevant commentary about the price of happiness and the pleasure of discontent.

***This book qualifies for the Back to the Classics Challenge (reread from high school/college category).

Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Something Rotten" by Jasper Fforde

Summary: Thursday Next has led Jurisfiction, the policing department in Book World, for two years, and she is tired of it.  It's time to return to the real world, with her son Friday, and work at getting back her eradicated husband Landen.  But when Thursday returns, she has more than just her husband to worry about--Yorrick Kaine, a fictional character, is seeking to take over Britain, Goliath Corporation is hard at work turning itself into a recognized religion, and the world may end if Thursday can't get the Swindon Mallets croquet team to win the Superhoop.

Musings: Something Rotten is the fourth book in the Thursday Next series, and although there's nothing new here, the fourth installment of the series continues to be enjoyable.  Now that Thursday is back in the real world, there are somewhat fewer literary allusions, which I did miss.  However, Thursday is accompanied home by Hamlet, and it was fun to see his dithering and soliloquizing about his role and characterization.

Like in the other Thursday Next books, there's a couple dozen plot lines occurring simultaneously, but it's not difficult to keep everything straight.  I was happy to see some plot lines from previous books resolved or new dimensions given to old characters.

Something Rotten is as absurd as all Fforde's works, though I think this book may have overly-relied on absurdity for comic moments; I didn't find it nearly as funny as some of the others.  However, I was looking forward to Something Rotten as a light read, and it didn't disappoint.

- See my reviews of book one in the series, The Eyre Affair, book two, Lost in a Good Book, and book three, The Well of Lost Plots

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

"The Things They Carried" by Tim O'Brien

I totally missed it, but I celebrated my second blogging anniversary yesterday on January 10th.  Woot!

Summary: O'Brien's collection of fictional short stories cover his time in the Vietnam War, his relationships with his fellow soldiers, and the continuing presence the war has had in his and other's lives, even decades later.

Musings: I don't know why it took so long for me to read this 20th century classic, but I'm so glad I finally did.  O'Brien's novel is special not only for the stories it tells and its sense of intimate camaraderie with the reader, but for its reflection on the nature of truth in story telling.

I've found myself more and more compelled by this issue of why we write, the nature and importance (or lack thereof) of "truth" in writing, and the intricate relationship built between author and reader.  I've mentioned it before, but in Life of Pi the author Martel has a fabulous quote about fiction "twisting reality" to "bring out its essence," and O'Brien makes the same argument in The Things They Carried.  He makes this argument not only through the strength of his fictional-as-truth stories, but through his own reflections on the nature of his writing.  As O'Brien argues, this understanding of what constitutes "truth" is all the more important in war stories, since these are stories which have been so told and mythologized and dramatized since the beginning of human history that it's easy to overlook the complex, paradoxical effects such wars have on individuals and their (and our) ability to see things like we used to.  O'Brien writes, "In war you lose your sense of the definite, hence your sense of truth itself, and therefore it's safe to say that in a true war story nothing is ever absolutely true" (82).

It's the sense of "truth" and "reality" which pervades O'Brien's stories that makes them so compelling.  He writes and talks about the stories in such a way as to make you believe you are reading a memoir, and by the end, it's clear that The Things They Carried is a memoir--of his life and others'.  Even though the stories aren't true, the essence is there.

***This book qualifies for the Back to the Classics Challenge (wartime setting category).

Friday, January 7, 2011

"Ella Minnow Pea" by Mark Dunn

Summary: The island of Nollop is named after the famed inventor of the sentence "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog," which uses all 26 letters of the alphabet.  The academic-minded inhabitants of the island are proud of their heritage until a day when a tile of the letter "z" ominously falls from the monument celebrating Nollop's accomplishment.  Nollop's council decides the felled letter is a sign from Nollop himself and quickly outlaw the usage of the fallen letter in written and oral communication.  As more letters begin to fall, the Nollopians find themselves further constrained in their use of language, and more and more people slip up, despite the severe consequences, including expulsion from Nollop.  Written in letters between the island's inhabitants, Ella Minnow Pea follows Nollopians desperate to save their island from letter eradication.

Musings: Dunn has created a cute concept in Ella Minnow Pea.  The gradual eradication of letters could easily become tiresome, but Dunn keeps the book short enough to maintain the reader's interest.  It's fun to see the change from early letters, which have free use of the alphabet or have only eradicated lesser-used letters like "z," to the final letters, which are written in difficult-to-decipher phonetic-like spellings using the few letters left to the Nollopians.

The story, of course, is a bit silly, though the extremes to which the council goes to enforce the rules (whippings and even some deaths!) seem somewhat out of place in what should be a light-hearted book.  In a book dedicated primarily to a conceit, there's not a lot in the way of character development (several people all of a sudden fall in love) or even real plot.

Nonetheless, Ella Minnow Pea is a fun book for lovers of language.

Monday, January 3, 2011

"Speak" by Laurie Halse Anderson

Summary: Melinda is beginning her freshman year of high school as a total outcast with no friends.  Everyone hates her for calling the cops at a party over the summer, but none of them knows the real reason she called.  Feeling completely alone, Melinda retreats into herself and chooses to rarely speak until she slowly begins to find herself again.

Musings: I think I had put off reading Speak for so long because I was worried about it being overly depressing.  But while Speak addresses a teenager dealing with depression and rape, it's also a book that shows how life can be rebuilt, even after trauma.

What I liked best about Speak was how realistic is is.  With the exception of Melinda's rapist, the characters are multi-dimensional and neither pure good or evil.  Melinda is largely ignored by the students at school, rather than actively bullied, but there are people who are willing to get to know her--when she is able to put herself out there.  When Melinda's one friend in the beginning of the school year, Heather, "dumps" Melinda, she says that it's because Melinda is no fun and always depressed.  And while you feel bad for Melinda to experience such rejection, you know what Heather is saying is also true.  Even the teachers in the novel are well-rounded, none of them being giant insensitive jerks like you so often see in literature, but also few of them able to do much beyond the academic problems.

In creating realistic characters, Anderson exposes the way in which so much of the trauma teenagers face can be easily overlooked, leading to desperate teens who feel there is no one they can talk to.  Melinda's parents are especially guilty in this regard, as they rarely give Melinda the chance to talk about what she is feeling.

Melinda's recovery comes slowly, and she experiences no "magical" cure.  Best of all, there's not a new boyfriend who washes all the bad memories away.  Instead, Melinda finds strength through art, awareness of what she wants, and tentative steps towards new friendships.  Things aren't perfect when the book ends, but they are getting better.

My only disappointment in the novel was Melinda's dramatic confrontation with her rapist at the end.  Unlike the rest of the novel, it felt fake and unbelievable, and it provides Melinda vindication in a way few rape victims will ever experience.

Melinda's voice is authentic and compelling; she can be snarky and underestimate people in a way that many people can relate to.  The book is a quick read (I finished it in under two hours), and despite being nearly 12 years old, it doesn't feel dated at all.

***This book qualifies for the Back to the Classics Challenge (banned book category).

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Back to the Classics Challenge 2011

Like last year, I want to choose challenges this year that help me to read beyond my "comfort zone," and the
Back to the Classics Challenge 2011 is perfect for that.  In compiling a potential to-read list, I noticed many books could qualify for any number of categories, so I know I'll have a lot of options.  (Some books are repeated on multiple lists, but I would only count them for one category)

Potential books to read:

1. A Banned Book
- Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

2. A Book with a Wartime Setting (can be any war)
- The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

3. A Pulitzer Prize (Fiction) Winner or Runner Up
- In Other Rooms, Other Wonders  by Daniyal Mueenuddin (runner-up 2010)

4. A Children's/Young Adult Classic
- The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
- The Pigman by Paul Zindel
- A Separate Peace by John Knowles

5. 19th Century Classic
- Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

6. 20th Century Classic
- On the Road by Jack Kerouac

7. A Book you think should be considered a 21st Century Classic

8. Re-Read a book from your High School/College Classes

- Brave New World by Aldous Huxley