Monday, December 31, 2012

2012: Year in Review

And, so, my fourth year of blogging comes to an end. 2012 was a busy year for me: a move from Pennsylvania to Ohio and a change in jobs. My reading suffered a bit because of the craziness and general busyness (later nights at work; working out four times a week). And, for whatever reason, I've been in a big reading slump for the latter part of the year. Nothing's getting me excited. In fact, when I first sat down and started listing books for my top ten, I could only come up with seven. So here's hoping 2013 will be a better reading year!

My top 10 books read in 2012:
1. The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson (fiction)
2. Quiet by Susan Cain (nonfiction)
3. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (sci-fi)
4. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (fiction)
5. Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick (nonfiction)
6. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (classic nonfiction)
7. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (classic fiction)
8. After the Apocalypse by Maureen McHugh (sci-fi short stories)
9. Among Others by Jo Walton (sci-fi)
10. Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt (fiction)

Total books read and reviewed: 64
As I expected, my reading is down; I read 64 books this year, contrasted with 85 books last year and 109 in 2010. I'm at a little over one a week, which still isn't bad, so I'm not especially dispirited by the numbers.

Fiction read: 46
Nonfiction read: 18
My nonfiction stayed pretty constant with last year; 28% of my reading was nonfiction (compared with 25% last year).

Adult read: 57
Young adult read: 7
As has been the trend over the years, my YA reading continues to decrease (it made up 11% of my reading this year compared with 18% of my reading in 2012). I expect the numbers will stay about the same in 2013.

Female authors: 30
Male authors: 34
This is something I worked hard at this year, and even though having to prep for a new curriculum (and thus reading white men ALL SUMMER) made keeping parity difficult, I still managed to stay fairly equal.

Years published:
- 2012: 25
- 2011: 13
- 2000-2010: 21
- 1990-1999: 3
- 1900-1989: 12
- 1800-1899: 3
No surprises here!

Book sources:
- Total borrowed: 54
- Total purchased: 0
- Total for review: 1 (from NetGalley)
- Total otherwise acquired: 1 (as a gift)
- Total already owned: 8 (these are books I've had for over five years)
Didn't even have to buy one book this year, despite moving to a city with a much slower library system than Philadelphia. I'm coping.

Happy new year and best wishes for 2013!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

"Outliers" by Malcolm Gladwell

I've begun a hunt for a new, contemporary text for my juniors' summer reading (Red Badge of Courage was torturous--for me and for them). I thought Gladwell's Outliers might be the type of interesting and thought-provoking nonfiction that would help start their year in English on a more positive note. I'm still not sure whether it's right for the classroom, but, on a personal level, I found the book interesting and worthwhile.

Like with Gladwell's What the Dog Saw (which I also enjoyed), there are some problems with Gladwell's anecdote-heavy broad social theories, but there are also some really important points. The most important of which, I think, is his primary thesis: that success does not come solely from one individual's hard work. Yes, hard work and a willingness to take advantage of opportunities are essential for success, but so much else--luck, family, culture--combines to allow those at the top to get to the top. And one of our very real problems in America is that we're so individual-focused that we fail to see that one's success (and, I think you have to argue--though Gladwell doesn't much--one's failure) is almost never due to a person's native intelligence or genius. A lack of awareness of this basic fact has huge effects in schooling, where every day I meet kids who believe they "can't" write or read well, rather than seeing reading and writing as skills that can be developed and improved upon.

The earliest parts of the book were the most intriguing for me, particularly the first chapter on the importance of hockey players' birthdays and the two chapters on the fallacy of geniuses. The chapters on culture dragged a bit more for me, and I'm not sure Gladwell did enough to argue that there's not one "right" cultural way (i.e., Asian countries are very successful in math--but so is Finland, which has a hugely different educational system).

At the very least, it might be worthwhile using some of the chapters in my classroom, particularly those showing the importance or practice and perseverance  So often my kids think it's a weakness if they have to spend hours on an essay (and instead praise the student who can "get away" with only spending 30 minutes) rather than recognizing that that effort is what creates success.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

"Lost at Sea" by Jon Ronson

Lost at Sea is a collection of Ronson's previously published (primarily in The Guardian) essays from the last decade. Though the essays are loosely categorized by vague themes, there's no explicit connection between the stories except that most are about sad or strange (and often both) individuals who walk the line between sane and crazy. They're interesting pieces on their own, but taken together, all at once, the essays almost seem repetitive, and I was left thinking, "Wow, Ronson flies around to a lot of places. Does The Guardian pay for that? It must."

But, like I said, individually, each story is certainly interesting, and I like Ronson's style of integrating his personal experiences and narrative into the essay's subject (as he did in The Psychopath Test). There are a good number of essays about famous court cases, including the British Who Wants to be a Millionaire? scandal and a British pop star's child-sex scandal. "Who Killed Richard Cullen?", a prophetic look into the 2007 economic meltdown (though written in 2005) was especially interesting, as I hadn't realized that England had experienced the same problems as the U.S.: banks targeting middle-income people, saddling them with credit card debt, etc. And I liked how Ronson explores interesting people--like a minister who assists individuals looking to commit suicide or a man with a course to convert agnostics--and lets us see both their crazy and their reason.

I think I'd prefer reading Ronson's essays as their originally appeared, but Lost at Sea is a good representation of Ronson's work.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

"The Drowned Cities" by Paolo Bacigalupi

When I requested The Drowned Cities, I didn't realize it was a companion book to Bacigalupi's earlier young adult novel Ship Breaker (which I enjoyed). I was a little disappointed because I was looking forward to Bacigalupi's excellent adult sci-fi, but his YA books are similarly engaging: strong world building, interesting characters, and lots of action.

The Drowned Cities feels a little less sci-fi than Bacigalupi's earlier works, primarily because so much of the book is drawn from real life in its depiction of a nation's chaotic civil war and use of child soldiers. The protagonist of the novel is Mahlia, an orphaned child of a Chinese peacekeeper (though the peacekeepers have long since abandoned the Drowned Cities) and a local woman. Her only friend is Mouse, another orphan who saved her when one of the warring armies cut off one of her hands. When Mouse is taken as a soldier, Mahlia is determined to rescue him, and she attempts to do so with the help of Tool, an enormously strong and dangerous part-human, part-animal augment (and a recurring character from Ship Breaker).

I taught the nonfiction book A Long Way Gone, about child soldiers in Sierra Leone, to my seniors this year, and it's scary how much of Drowned Cities echoes the real life horrors children in such countries have faced. Bacigalupi skillfully shows how such armies indoctrinate their young soldiers, making them feel like part of a team--and ensuring they have no other options.

Tool is probably the most interesting character in the novel, though by the end he felt somewhat unexplored. He's a killing machine on his own for the first time and making real decisions in his life. I like that he's both able to break free of some of his conditioning and show compassion, but that he's also not able or willing to "switch off" the violent part of him--it's who he is, and he accepts that. Mahlia and Mouse serve as good counterparts to each other, and Bacigalupi is even able to make the characters' "why in the hell would they do that?" moments (which are apparently necessary for tension-driven YA) seem believable.

I don't consider myself especially squeamish, so I was a little surprised that one of the most off-putting aspects of the book for me was its intense violence. There is a large amount of graphic and brutal violence done to children and adults, including murder, mutilation, and torture. The violence is realistic in context of modern child soldiers, but it could be strong stuff for the younger end of YA. Nonetheless, Drowned Cities is a worthy companion to Ship Breaker.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"Judging a Book by Its Lover" by Lauren Leto

In the right hands, a book about a love of books can be a wonderful, self-affirming nugget. I love books! And so does this author! And we love them in similar ways, and (hehe), I totally get that feeling all the time--kindred bookworms of the world, unite! I felt that way about Ex Libris by Anne Fadiman because even though Fadiman is way better read than I am, I still experienced a kinship with her.

Though I hoped to find a similar feeling in Judging a Book by Its Lover, Leto just doesn't inspire the same book-lover camaraderie. Leto has a snarkier tone than Fadiman, something I thought I'd enjoy but that instead put me off. Her sarcastic descriptions of the type of people who love a certain author (e.g., "J.K. Rowling: Smart geeks") sometimes rang true, but were never especially funny or insightful. A lot of the book is comprised of lists (how to write like a certain author;"cult favorite" books; summaries of well-known literature; summaries of popular memoirs) that quickly grew tedious. A list billed as an "SAT vocabulary-word cheat sheet" and "a way to make your sentences seem smarter" was so basic--maybe my high school students wouldn't know all the words, but I certainly was comfortable with and regularly use nearly all of them--that I felt offended (really, who's going to be impressed with your use of "compelling" or "inexplicable"?).

The sections of the book that aren't lists (and some that are) are mostly about how to pretend to have read a book you haven't. As a book lover, this somewhat surprised me, as I can think of only one time that I was ever in this situation (and remember, I'm an English major and an English teacher). There's something either wrong with your friends or with you if you're constantly needing to bluff your reading experience.

And, here I fear sounding pretentious, but there has to be something said for taking literary advice from a woman with a degree in political theory and constitutional democracy and whose only other publication is the book version of Texts from Last Night (and whose cover is blurbed by James Frey...yeah...). Leto acknowledges that she's not a "scholar of literature," which is fine, but I did need to buy, somewhere along the way, that I should believe in her. I'm sure if the book had been written differently and I'd enjoyed it more, Leto's credentials wouldn't have mattered, but as I slogged my way through endless lists, I couldn't help but think, "So says the girl whose other book was composed entirely by very drunk people who can't text well."

Leto is best when she focuses on personal stories, such as she does in the first half of the introduction (before the story goes into grating hyperbole) and in "The Spelling Bee." Otherwise the book will only be new--yet completely unappealing--to people who don't read.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

"Thank You, Jeeves" by P.G. Wodehouse

Thank You, Jeeves marks my third entree into the Wooster/Jeeves series, and though it is probably my least favorite of the three, it does have some great Bertram/Jeeves moments.

It's not necessary to summarize the plot, though the novel does begin with Jeeves leaving Bertram's employment upon Bertram's refusal to stop playing the banjolele. Despite his resignation, Jeeves is still present through most of the story, offering the same calm and sage advice as in the other novels. The slapstick isn't quite as laugh-out-loud funny as the previous two books, and the highjinks of Brinkley, Bertram's new valet, are really too outlandish. Add to that that the second half of the book involves two characters in blackface (which I couldn't help but read at least somewhat offensively, even given allowances for the time period)... and I just didn't enjoy myself as much as on previous Wodehouse expeditions.

Nonetheless, the end of the novel, with the reunion of Jeeves and Bertram, was quite touching, and perhaps is my favorite Wodehouse ending thus far.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

"This Is How You Lose Her" by Junot Diaz

I adored The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. It was such a unique book, with a strong voice in Yunior and such deeply felt characterization. Though I read the book a number of years ago (before I began this blog), it's remained a favorite. So I was excited to read Diaz's newest book--This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of short stories primarily centered around the same Yunior--as I hoped it would help break me out of my reading funk.

There were definitely things I liked about the book. Yunior's voice is still there, a combination of America and the Dominican Republic, educated phrases and cultural slang. There are complicated relationships, most interestingly between Yunior and his mother and brother, even though each story is about a girl. And the last story, "A Cheater's Guide to Love," written in the second person (something that shouldn't work but that is so effective here) is outstanding, reminiscent of what made Oscar Wao so powerful.

Yet the rest of the book felt somewhat flat to me. Perhaps because the collection covers Yunior's relationships with so many girls, it becomes harder to empathize, to see him as other than the scumbag all the former girlfriends claim him to be. The recurring motif is, of course, cheating, as Yunior cheats on every single relationship he has, both the relationships he cares about and those he doesn't. He says he has real feelings for some of the women, but it's hard to see all the parading girlfriends as more than flesh in his eyes, and his constant melancholy seems undeserved.

I can see the book as a statement on masculinity, on the simultaneous desire for sex and love without the willingness to make sacrifices for either. For Yunior is, in the end, a coward, despite all his excuses. And yet that theme didn't come through as clearly as I would have liked.

This Is How You Lose Her lacks the scope, humor, and pathos of Oscar Wao, which doesn't make it a bad book, but nonetheless a disappointment in comparison.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"A Land More Kind Than Home" by Wiley Cash

I've been in a reading rut. Nothing I've read recently really excites me. In fact, I went back and looked, and I think Cloud Atlas, in June, was the last book that I really got excited about (Gone Girl almost had me, but the ending turned me off). So, into this slump comes A Land More Kind Than Home, which is an engaging and well-written book with a good pace and interesting characters. Nonetheless, it too did little to move me.

Perhaps that's because there's not a whole lot of new ground in Cash's novel. The piece centers on the Hall family and the "healing" at the church of the mother, Julie Hall, which results in the death of her mute son Christopher "Stump" Hall. The book is narrated by Jess, Stump's younger brother; Clem, the town's sheriff; and Adelaide, an elderly woman who cares for the church children. There's a fanatical and evil minister, Carson Chambliss, and a drunk grandfather Hall. There's small town quietness and the sheriff's old wounds. Despite Stump being at the center of what happens, the reader gets very little idea of who he is. Instead, the book focuses on others' reactions to his death and the relationships that crumble or develop as a result.

Again, it was enjoyable to read and all, but I just find myself with nothing to say now that's it done. The novel is actually a book club pick for December, and I'm not quite sure how we'll sustain an hour or two of discussion on it.

Monday, November 19, 2012

"The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry" by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry seems like it would be a good generic book club selection. I don't mean that as an insult (to the novel or to "chit-chat rather than actually talk about the book" clubs) so much as acknowledgment of what the book is: pleasant and vaguely interesting without being important. The characters are sufficiently sympathetic, and the book isn't overly saccharine. Plus, I like how Joyce has taken the "year off to travel Europe" conceit and applied it to a 60-year-old retiree. Still, there's little to remember in the plot or style.

The protagonist of the novel is Harold Fry; his marriage has been cold for a long time, and neither he nor his wife have moved on from their son's death twenty years ago (it's supposed to be a "big reveal" at the end that the son is dead, but the fact seemed very obvious to me early on). One day, Harold receives a letter from Queenie, a former coworker who left suddenly many years ago and is now dying of cancer. Though initially Harold plans only to mail her a letter in reply, he suddenly gets the urge to walk to Berwick, where she is residing, even though it's hundreds of miles away and even though he's made no preparations. Harold comes to believe that his walk will save Queenie--and maybe himself.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage follows Harold on his journey to Queenie, cataloging the required odd characters he meets along the way and describing his journey into a more purposeful man. Though the book seems ever in danger of dipping into the cliche or maudlin, Joyce does a nice job of keeping an even hand. Harold does grow, and he helps some people, but he doesn't save everyone. And Joyce also mostly acknowledges that there's no real heroism in just walking--I've always been skeptical when I read stories about so-and-so biking 1000 miles for breast cancer or something. Is that supposed to be a big sacrifice? Who wouldn't want to give up working and real world responsibilities for months and just focus on moving forward?

Interestingly, this book paired well with The Middlesteins in its depiction of a 60-something couple who has grown distant. In both cases the couple has stayed together despite the poor relationship, with the woman becoming the nag and the man becoming the silent hermit. Oh, and teenage children hate their parents. The terrors of teenage children and the lovelessness of long-term marriages were so eerily similar in both that I almost felt depressed. I suppose happily married couples aren't interesting to write about.

Joyce's novel would be safe for nearly everyone (though a few of the people Harold meets have decidedly "risque" stories) and does provide a nice contrast with the "finding yourself" stories of the young, but it's nothing that will stay with me.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

"The Middlesteins" by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins seems an apt book for our times, where the American obesity crisis is at an all-time high and weight loss stories, plans, and hysteria are everywhere. On the surface, the novel is about Edie and the effect her obesity and food addiction has on those around her: her husband, her two grown children, her daughter-in-law and grandchildren. But although Edie's unhealthy relationship with food is the crisis which brings the other characters into focus, in the end, The Middlesteins isn't really about food. Instead, it's about the hurts we nurse and the way we use relationships to mend or exacerbate those pains.

Each chapter of the novel focuses on a different character, with the chapters on Edie also going back in time to her pre-obesity crisis days. In doing so, I think Attenberg actually does a better job of bringing out the family member characters than Edie herself. We never quite know why Edie, a smart, compelling lawyer, does what she does, and some of the scenes of her fast-food binging seem almost cliche. Rachelle, Edie's high-strung daughter-in-law, is more fully sketched. She wants to help Edie, but she can't do so without driving her family to the extreme (kale salads every night) in overcompensation. I also found Richard, Edie's husband who abandons her, an interesting character. Much like Gone Girl (though the characters in this book are realistic and not psychopaths), Attenberg uses the alternating chapters to offer different points of view of the same character. You can see why Richard is both sympathetic and a jerk, or why Robin (Edie and Richard's daughter) is both loving and spiteful.

And though I said the book isn't about food, it still offers interesting commentary on our relationship with eating. Though I've always been skinny, in recent months my husband and I have switched to a significantly healthier diet in hopes of establishing long-term healthy habits. Though I'm glad of the change, consciously eating differently has made me much more focused on food than ever before. Throughout the week, I find myself switching between extremes--going all "Rachelle" and insisting on super-healthy vegetable-laden meals (even though I hate quinoa and am only mildly better with kale) and then swinging to an "Edie" and binging on desserts at work. I don't want to be either extreme, but I find it really challenging to be at a happy medium. Attenberg too suggests that there's not one right or wrong way and that our food--and personal--relationships will always be complicated.

The Middlesteins is a very quick read, and I'd recommend it for its smart use of point of view as well as its topical subject matter.

Monday, November 12, 2012

"Fooling Houdini" by Alex Stone

Like many, I suppose, I had a very brief flirtation with magic as a kid. I must have received the magic kit for a birthday (it seems like a grandparent gift) sometime in elementary school, and I spent some time fooling with the plastic magic wand and other assorted tricks the box contained. At some point I reached an unwarranted level of confidence and even put on a show for my neighbors--albeit a show where one trick actually required the audience to close their eyes as I made a ball "disappear" by hiding it behind the grill. That show was the end of my magic career.

Nonetheless, in Fooling Houdini, Stone has a point when he argues that magic is something that appeals to many of us, as audience or performer, but that there's something special in being able to fool and delight another person. With that in mind, Fooling Houdini explores various wide-ranging topics related to the fooling and delighting that is magic: early and modern con games; the psychology of fooling; the magic of mindreading; the importance of touch in performing magic; the importance placed on secrecy; the shuffle; the role of mathematics. The book isn't always completely focused (it reminded me some of Ronson's The Psychopath Test in that way), but it is interesting. Stone also reveals the processes behind a number of magic tricks (mostly card tricks, his specialty), which I enjoyed, as I agree with Stone that knowing the science behind a trick doesn't diminish the awe of seeing it performed any. For me the parts focused on magic specifically were more interesting than the chapters on psychology only because I've read so many other books (Thinking Fast and Slow, Moonwalking with Einstein, The Mind's Eye) that address the psychology of the human mind more thoroughly.

Once I finished, the book Fooling Houdini reminded me the most of was Foer's Moonwalking with Einstein, which is even mentioned and referenced in Stone's book. Like Foer, Stone begins and ends his book with a competition--a memory competition for Foer, a close-up magic competition for Stone. Both men also center their books and their exploration of their topics through the personal lens of training and improving their craft. For this reason, almost as much of Fooling Houdini is about Stone's personal quest to find his place as a magician as it is about magic in general. Depending on how much you invest in Stone's journey may affect how much you enjoy the book; I found his personal story a bit uninteresting in the beginning, though it grew on me by the end.

Though the book is probably too simplistic for people who have studied magic or psychology, it is an easy dip into many of the unknowns related to magic.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

"Midnight's Children" by Salman Rushdie

The basic premise of Rushdie's Midnight's Children sounds almost like it could be a YA fantasy/dystopian novel (admittedly, a surprisingly worldly and non-European YA given the current state of the genre): on midnight the day of India's independence from Britain, several hundred babies, "midnight's children," are born. Each of these children is endowed with a special gift or power, none more so than the two male babies born right at midnight: Saleem and Shiva. Unbeknownst to either boy or either boy's family, the two babies are switched shortly after birth by a kind-hearted but wrong-headed nurse. Narrated by Saleem, Midnight's Children follows the boy as he grows up and discovers his powers of telepathy and his ability to communicate with and bring together, in his mind, all of midnight's children. As Saleem's life mirrors the development of India as a country, his life also irrevocably heads toward confrontation with Shiva, his rival.

Although I knew going in that this wasn't going to be an action-oriented kid-with-powers adventure, I guess part of me hoped that Midnight's Children would, I don't know, be an interesting mash-up of fantasy and history, YA and political understanding. After all, Rushie's Luka and the Fire of Life, which I enjoyed,  had that kind of tone. Instead, Midnight's Children is magical realism, history, and stream of consciousness in the most annoying way possible.

I've never enjoyed the South American magical realists, and if I thought that Indian magical realism would somehow be different, I was wrong. Midnight's Children takes place firmly in the real world; there are weird coincidences and odd characters, but almost no fantasy. Though Saleem can, at various points in his life, enter others' minds or smell emotions, neither skill figures much into the book. Instead, most of the novel is a very slow exploration of his childhood. This might have been tolerable if the novel wasn't narrated by Saleem's adult self. Saleem the narrator constantly stops the book to interrupt, to backtrack, to spend pages and pages on Indian history that he sees as influenced by his life and then to foreshadow ominously the book's ending. Though part of the book's conceit is that Saleem sees his life and India's life as intertwined, it's very difficult for someone with little knowledge of Indian history to follow (that's certainly a problem with me as a reader, not Rushdie as a writer, but it was nonetheless an issue for me). The constant foreshadowing of doom was tiresome; either leave it be, or get on with it!

For fans of magical realism (if you, ahem, somehow enjoyed One Hundred Years of Solitude), pointless constant foreshadowing by an excessively involved narrator (e.g., Book Thief), and books of enormous length and casts of characters, Midnight's Children is probably a great choice.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

"Redshirts" by John Scalzi

Redshirts should be right up my alley: sci-fi! humor! action! The book is based on the tendency of Star Trek to kill off random unnamed characters (wearing redshirts) in whatever conflict of the week was occurring. In his book, Scalzi takes these unnamed redshirts and makes them his main characters, then follows them as they begin to realize the extraordinarily high death toll of low-level crew members who go on away missions. Though I'm no Trekkie, I grew up watching Star Trek: The Next Generation with my family, and I'm a fan of more current sci-fi space shows like Battlestar Galactica. So, it was especially disappointing when Redshirts was such a let down.

First, the characters. Though there are a number of "redshirt" characters, they're virtually indistinguishable from each other. Each is given a basic back story (Dahl studied at a religious order; Duvall is a flirty and forward woman), but that back story never plays a role in what they say or how they act. Though some of their interchangeability could be blamed on their very existence as redshirts (who are, of course, completely interchangeable), that explanation doesn't make the book any more fun to read. Without caring about the characters, I'm not going to buy a story.

Secondly, almost the entirety of the book is dialogue. I actually began hoping for a paragraph of description. Instead, it's constant speech as characters expose and discuss what's happening. And, because the characters are virtually interchangeable, so is their dialogue. As names popped up of who was speaking, I had to pause and try to remember who each person was. Nothing about one character's speech distinguished him or her from any other character.

As the book hurtled toward its end, things became more and more unbelievable (which, again, I suppose could be some sort of meta-commentary on the state of poor sci-fi--but that still doesn't make the book better!). The number of people who rather easily believed that fictional characters were alive and visiting them was rather staggering. And, since I didn't care nor could I distinguish the characters, it didn't really matter to me if everything turned out right.

Once the story ends, the book itself doesn't end, but instead continues with three unnecessary "codas" about other characters. The first is utterly dull, the second is vaguely interesting but unimportant, and the third makes little sense other than providing an expected happy ending.

There was some great opportunity for parody and satire in Redshirts that is wasted, though the book does a good job of pointing out some of the funnier tropes used in space sci-fi. There was room to explore some issues around that. Why do we rely on silly tropes? Why can't we create drama without death? But, Scalzi largely ignores these issues to instead create a fast-paced and mostly hollow novel.

I feel like I've said this several times recently, but I think Redshirts would work better as a movie. The pacing might feel less frenetic, and it would help to have visuals on each character in order to distinguish them. But, until the movie comes out, I'd skip the book.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

"Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn

Gone Girl seems to have been the hot book of the season (when I first requested it at the library, I was number 900-something on the waiting list), and it's easy to see why: it's a mystery, psychological thriller, and CSI/Law & Order episode all in one. The premise is that Nick's wife Amy disappears the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary, and soon signs point to Nick as a murderer. In alternating chapters with Nick's narration of the present and Amy's diary entries of the past, the reader learns about their imploding marriage while uncovering what really happened that morning.

The book is divided into three sections, and I was totally hooked in the first. Amy and Nick were very much real people--albeit seriously flawed people who were tearing one another apart--and you could see how their marriage might have arrived at the point it did. I could identify with Amy's early "pretending" in the relationship, feigning being the "cool girl" (the girl who looks great without trying; who doesn't mind when her boyfriend/husband blows her off; the girl who's up for pizza and beer and football and never insists on doing those "girly" things) because she wants Nick to like her and she wants them to have a good relationship. And I could also understand Nick, who often felt like a failure and ended up blaming Amy, regardless of her role in the matter. They were still awful people to each other most of the time, but there was human-ness in their feelings and behavior.

In this first section, there's lots of excitement and tension as more and more is revealed. It's clear that both Amy and Nick are, to some extent, unreliable narrators, which constantly kept me guessing about what really happened. In fact, I was so excited, I emailed my sister and recommended the book to her when I was barely half way through.

However, my enthusiasm dimmed some by the second section. (SPOILERS AHEAD) Instead of both Amy and Nick seeming real but flawed, Amy turns out to be absolutely nuts. I no longer was reading a book about a troubled marriage gone very wrong; instead I was reading a cable criminal drama (which had borrowed liberally from Sleeping with the Enemy) about a psychopath. Once this section opens, much of the mystery is gone.

The third section brings in a final disappointing twist: both Amy and Nick are nuts. Certifiably crazy. Though the ending was quite creepy, it was also unsatisfying after all the early build up.

I think I'd still recommend the book, even though the end half of the book didn't live up to the first half.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

"Let's Pretend This Never Happened" by Jenny Lawson

Though I'd never heard of Jenny Lawson or her blog before, Let's Pretend This Never Happened came on my radar as a funny memoir, so I was game. The book covers Lawson's childhood in Texas with her taxidermist father and patient mother through her marriage to Victor and the birth of her child Hailey. Each chapter is a new story, most of which are centered on her family's strange habits, Lawson's anxiety and OCD, and her absurd arguments with her husband.

On the down side, you can see the blog origins of Lawson's writing. Some of the stories and particularly the style can get repetitive, especially Lawson's hyperbole about injuries and fear of death. But, then, I was often laughing out loud and even reread portions of chapters to my husband--so all that previous stuff didn't really matter. I think I was most hysterical during her OD'ing on laxatives/rapist in the bathroom story, though her anecdotes from her time in HR were also fabulous. Helpful photos accompany the stories, which are always appreciated.

Let's Pretend This Never Happened isn't great writing, but it is funny, especially if you empathize with or, perhaps, occasionally share Lawson's quirks.

Friday, October 12, 2012

"Tell the Wolves I'm Home" by Carol Rifka Brunt

I usually turn my nose up at contemporary fiction that deals with relationships and families, thinking it will be boring and uninteresting. But then I read a book like Tell the Wolves I'm Home and realize that a novel that's (on the surface) about a lonely teenage girl can be just as engaging as science fiction and fantasy.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home follows the relationship between fourteen-year-old June and the adult Toby. June is a loner and rather weird: she's obsessed with the middle ages (she often goes into the woods to pretend she's back in time) and is deeply (and secretly) in love with her Uncle Finn. Toby is Finn's boyfriend and the person June's family blames for giving Finn AIDS. When Finn dies, June is heartbroken, but she and Toby slowly start to find happiness through their friendship with one another.

What I really loved about the book is that it's so messy. June is in love with her uncle, even if she doesn't want to admit it, and she doesn't know how to deal with feelings she knows are wrong. And her relationship with Toby, while different, is hardly any more appropriate. They drink and smoke together; Toby in no way seems to view her as a young girl. And, at their hearts, both June and Toby are deeply wounded. June from the loss of Finn and her growing estrangement from her older sister Greta; Toby from the loss of purpose and sense of self-worth in his life. They do need each other, even though it's hardly a relationship any sane adult could condone.

At first I was a little bothered because June seemed rather young for her age, but the more I read, the more it made sense. June is naive and innocent; she understands the world simply and resists seeing beyond that. She's so defined by the way she has defined other people that she's often unable to have real relationships.

I enjoyed all the characters in the novel--and even cried a bit at the end. Tell the Wolves I'm Home keeps things quick with short chapters and lots of dialogue, so I both raced to the end and didn't want it to finish.

Monday, October 8, 2012

"Drift" by Rachel Maddow

Though I've been making inroads in my nonfiction reading, I still tend to stay in the narrative arena, so Rachel Maddow's Drift wins the award for "first political nonfiction book I've read." Hurrah! Actually, it's my new book club's choice for November (though I just realized I won't be able to attend that meeting because of stupid parent teacher conferences), so I don't really get kudos for a new reading habit. Nonetheless.

My general and relatively uninformed opinion of the military is "giant pit of money spending," so going in I assumed the book would be about the military's bloated budget. And while Maddow does discuss our enormous increase in military spending over the last few decades--and the absolutely absurd amount of money we spend on the military compared to all other countries combined--it's not her primary thesis. Instead, her basic argument in Drift is that the military has drifted (aha!) away from what the Founders intended: namely, that it would be difficult to go to war and the decision to do so would be public and would be felt by civilian life.

Instead, argues Maddow, we've eroded Congress' power to declare war, over-empowered the president to do so, and have segregated war-making from civilian life by outsourcing work to private contractors and using more covert missions. In doing so we've made war making easier and unaccountable to the public.

I'm not someone who believes our Founders are infallible idols to whom all modern decisions must be deferred. But, Maddow does make a compelling argument for the dangers of unchecked executive power, something which the Founders tried to avoid. And Congress is not off the hook either, for they've been complicit in allowing presidents to wield such power in order to avoid making the difficult decisions themselves. In truth, what Maddow's really arguing is that we've all become complicit in allowing the "messy" work of war-making to happen outside our sphere of awareness, letting our soldiers and other countries' civilians suffer instead.

Maddow's greatest sarcasm is saved for her criticism of our outdated, dangerous, and prolific nuclear capacity. Here I think it's especially difficult to argue the need for keeping such expensive and superfluous weapons decades after the end of the Cold War. Of course, Maddow makes the sound point that once something's big, it's hard to dismantle or even reduce it--whether the "it" is an excessive number of nuclear arms or a huge military budget.

I don't know a lot about Maddow, but given her reputation, I thought the book would be more... entertaining. I was more engaged by the end, but the beginning (e.g., Reagan war-making propaganda) read more like a textbook and was sometimes dull.

Though Maddow is obviously liberal, the book didn't come off to me as anti-military. However, Maddow is arguing against being blindly pro-military without any economic or moral assessment of what the military is doing, and she is against a constant war-making mindset. I think that's something to get behind.

Reading Drift seemed especially appropriate given the recent spate of news about the military: the uselessness of post-9/11 anti-terrorism surveillance; the overabundance of military suicides. News articles like these and books like Drift suggest we can't look at the military with a "you're with us or against us" mentality. There are problems with the military's organization and--yes--budget, and they have to be dealt with if we hope to have any chance of prospering in the future.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

"Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness" by Alexandra Fuller

I feel like sometimes my reading choices take on unintentional themes, and it wasn't until I was nearly finished with Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness that I realized its commonalities with The Secret River, which I read a few weeks ago. Perhaps the reason I didn't notice the similarities sooner is because the tone of each is so different, even though both concern white colonial families at the end (Cocktail Hour) or the beginning (Secret River) of colonization.

Whereas Secret River uses a dramatic storyline to address the rising hostilities between white settlers and aborigines in Australia, Cocktail Hour is a memoir and history of author Alexandra Fuller's parents' lives in Africa, first in Kenya and later in Zimbabwe. The story is primarily focused on Fuller's mother, Nicola, and though the book contains many tragedies, including the death of three of Fuller's siblings, the tone overall is much lighter than Secret River. Here the focus is less on the colonial-native hostilities and more on Nicola as a character.

Much of the appeal of Cocktail Hour is in the voyeuristic appeal of seeing a life so very different from our own. Growing up on a farm in Africa sounds exotic and exciting, though Fuller realistically portrays the benefits and drawbacks of such a lifestyle. This storyline is enhanced by its central protagonist Nicola, a brash and unapologetic woman in love with Africa, even if it's not hers to take.

And here, of course, lies the problem at the core of the story, even if the theme isn't always explicit. Nicola and her husband Tim certainly do love Africa--the land and its (white) people. But while that love is real and genuine, it's also not sufficient cause to take a country from its native people. By the end, the Fullers get permission from a local chief and local government officials to run a farm, which also employs native people. This seems an appropriate compromise which works for both, but it's not the result of a sudden "we should be fair to black Africans!" epiphany. It's a result of necessity, which doesn't make it bad, but it does expose a realistic truth of post-colonial Africa.

However, much of this commentary and the heaviness that comes with the death of Fuller's siblings comes towards the end of the book. The rest of the piece is much lighter and often funny. Because Cocktail Hour covers a range of several decades, at times the book feels pieced together and jumpy. That didn't stop me from enjoying it or Fuller's writing, though.

Monday, September 24, 2012

"Shout Her Lovely Name" by Natalie Serber

I've recently begun teaching at an all-boys school after being at a coed school for five years. When I tell people about the change, they often suggest that I must be happy to be free of the "drama" that girls cause. Truthfully, I'm not sure what to make of that. On the one hand, I know there's certainly "drama" in female relationships and experiences (I used to have my students write narrative essays, and I always got a few about giant, overblown showdowns between friends or parents.), but at the same time, I didn't feel that bled too much into the classroom. The vast majority of teenage girls I worked with were pleasant, engaged, and friendly--with me and the other students.

This introduction serves as a segue into my attitude toward Shout Her Lovely Name, a collection of short stories primarily about the relationships between mothers and teenage daughters. In every story, these relationships are tense and fraught. The daughters hate their mothers and refuse to engage in any manner; the mothers feel helpless and lost. Though, again, I know these types of difficult relationships are commonplace, I guess they just felt too utterly pessimistic for my experiences. Not only did I see plenty of female students with positive mother-daughter relationships as a teacher, but I myself had a happy and loving relationship with my mother as a teenager. It wasn't perfect, of course, but all in all we got along. Even my sister, who went through significantly more "drama" than me and thus had several fraught parent-child moments, still didn't hate my mom and scream terrible names at her.

There's nothing wrong with depicting these challenging relationships, but I almost feel that Serber is presenting them as an inevitability of women rather than the experiences of some. This theme so bothered me that I couldn't enjoy the book as much as I'd like to. After all, the pieces and characters are interesting, and I like that multiple stories follow Ruby and Nora (a mother-daughter pair, though the mother's the terror in these) over the years.

The book is quick, and I'd give Serber another go if she wrote about a different topic.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

"The Secret River" by Kate Grenville

Oh, my, it's been nearly two weeks since my last review. I blame it partially on my inability to find something good to read because my new library system has ENORMOUS lengthy hold times for EVERY book I want to read. Almost makes me want to move back to Philadelphia, where apparently no one read since I got every book I requested within a week or two. Sigh. I actually got halfway through two other books (The Watch, which was utterly terrible, and LeGuin's Earthsea, which I just couldn't get in to) before finally finding something I could read with The Secret River.

The Secret River takes place during the colonization of New South Wales, Australia by British prisoners. Though this particular colonization story wasn't one I was familiar with, it's not too surprising that the basic trajectory of Western colonization is the same everywhere. Commandeer native land. Push out or kill natives. Make the new land into your homeland as near as possible.

Grenville's novel follows the Thornhill family. William and Sal are a poor but happy London couple until illness pushes them to desperation. When William is caught stealing wood, he avoids a hanging by agreeing to settle in Australia. Poor and landless in England, William is eager to have a place of his own in the new country, even if Sal only wants to return home. He finds what he thinks to be the perfect spot to claim as his "one hundred acres," regardless of the fact that black natives are inhabiting the area.

What makes the novel interesting is the way in which it's so easy to see decent, caring people turn cruel and selfish. William and Sal love each other and their family, but their own desires--particularly William's insistence on taking the land he wants--trump the rights of anyone else. There's not only racism to play, for as soon as William is freed as a prisoner, he looks down upon those who remain so.

Though the story wasn't particularly novel, and I would have preferred more immediacy in some of the plot lines (the book covers a rather large stretch of time, so sometimes it felt as though events were being summarized), it was still an engaging look at yet another shameful piece of history.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

"The Killing Moon" by N.K. Jemisin

I don't know how Jemisin writes so quickly, but it seems like every time I look into what she's working on, she's already written two new books. So, it came to some surprise to me that she'd written The Killing Moon (and its sequel) so soon after the end of her Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy. But, hey, Jemisin's speed is good news to me, as it means never waiting for the next book!

In some ways I think the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms trilogy is a hard act to follow. I enjoyed the series' worldbuilding and particularly the conceit of gods being used as human slaves. Throughout the three books, Jemisin was able to explore very different characters while still keeping the focus on individual relationships. With The Killing Moon, Jemisin has to start over with her worldbuilding, which this time was a little less interesting to me. In this series, the city of Gujaareh lives in obedience to Hananja's law. The principle servants of Hananja are Gatherers, who control dreams as a way of bringing peace--and death. Ehiru, an esteemed and experienced Gatherer, and Nijiri, his devoted apprentice, are the two main characters, with the foreign Kisua ambassador Sunandi making a third.

Though the worldbuilding and religion got a bit murky for me, the character relationships, particularly between Ehiru and Nijiri, are just as strong. On the other hand, Sunandi felt a bit like the odd one out, and I'm not sure her role in the novel is as important. Regardless, the book came to an appropriate, exciting, and heartbreaking denouement.

I was trying to decide why I've been such a fan of Jemisin's fantasy, and in the "extra" self-interview included at the end of the novel, I think I discovered why. Jemisin is one of few fantasy writers who includes no inspiration from medieval Europe. No castles, knights, or jousting. She said this book was loosely inspired by Egyptian history, and it's clear that drawing from a different originating point makes her books feel different and new. Her fantasy feels fresh in a way that A Game of Thrones, for example, doesn't, regardless of its characters or plot..

I'm sure I'll read The Shadowed Sun (the sequel to The Killing Moon) soon enough--just in time to discover the newest four books Jemisin's written.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

"Cat's Eye" by Margaret Atwood

To begin, a big "yay," as Cat's Eye marks my first post-required summer reading book. I've finished reading all the new books I'll be teaching this year (and school has started), so I can go back to reading novels of my choosing.

I'm a fan of Atwood's dystopians, but I'd never picked up Cat's Eye, which has been sitting on my shelf for years (must have bought it at a library sale or something). I was hesitant to read it now, but did so out of desperation, as the books I'd requested at the library hadn't come in yet and I had few other options. My reluctance came from the book's subject matter, which sounded dull. After reading I still appreciate Atwood as a writer, but I think my instincts about about what I'd think of the plot were right.

Cat's Eye is told from the point of view of Elaine, a 40-something painter who's returning to her hometown of Toronto for a retrospective of her art. As Elaine meanders through Toronto, she thinks back to her childhood and particularly her complicated and, at times, abusive relationship with her friend Cordelia.

Now, to be fair, this summary has no appeal whatsoever to me, so perhaps I was doomed from the start to dislike the book. Nonetheless, there were a number of things that bothered me. First, there's the melancholy, foggy tone which seems to characterize "literary fiction" and seems almost cliche. More irksome for me was the characterization of Elaine, who is portrayed as graying and aged when I don't think most people think of your 40s as ancient. I can understand that perhaps Elaine simply feels old, but other people treat her as dowdy and gone too, with a young journalist even calling her "crotchety" in the title of an article. Really? What 40-year-old is "crotchety"? If the book hadn't said otherwise, I'd easily have assumed Elaine was in her 70s or 80s.

Cat's Eye does have some interesting things about female friendship. Cordelia is horrifically psychologically abusive to Elaine when they are children, but they later become best friends as high schoolers without acknowledging the past hurts. Decades later, Elaine is in some ways still chased by her history with Cordelia and unable to move past the injuries. Elaine comments on how much easier it is to forgive men than women, something I can relate to. I can look back on old boyfriends with some fondness and nostalgia, deserved or not, but hold old grudges against girlfriends with fervor.

Atwood is a great writer, but the tone, structure, and characters of Cat's Eye just weren't for me.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

"The Natural" by Bernard Malamud

I'm not a fan of baseball; it's slow and full of statistics, and they play way too many games for me to care. Thus it's not surprising that The Natural is probably only the second baseball book I've read, and, like the first (YA historical novel The Last Days of Summer), I only did so because it's a book I'll be teaching. But, despite my attitude toward the sport, I'll admit that America's pastime is a perfect backdrop with which to explore the American dream and its connections to masculinity.

For me, The Natural is a somewhat odd book, following the late-career emergence of Roy Hobbs, a "natural" hitter and fielder. Hobbs' early career was derailed by a crazy lady with a penchant for shooting top athletes, and when Hobbs finally makes the major leagues in his mid-30s, playing for the Knights, he's determined that his moment of glory has finally come. But the novel isn't an underdog story, but instead a tale of a man's insatiable desire to finally be a star--and thus achieve happiness. Hobbs is a sympathetic character, but he's also grossly naive, believing that elusive satisfaction is available solely by becoming a baseball legend and acquiring Memo, a red-head who had dated the Knights' recently deceased star player.

There's beautiful description throughout of the way Hobbs looks at the world, which allows the reader to understand where Hobbs is coming from while also seeing how deluded he is.

The Natural isn't really my thing, but it provides an excellent character study and would undoubtedly be a big draw for baseball fans.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

"Amped" by Daniel H. Wilson

I thoroughly enjoyed Wilson's first novel, Robopocalypse, a fun and action-filled account of the war between man and robot. It wasn't particularly novel or thought-provoking, but, like a good summer blockbuster, I had a great time reading it. Wilson's most recent book, Amped, is more ambitious in the themes and issues it addresses, but unfortunately it's also less successful.

In the world of Amped, certain individuals have chosen to be implanted with neural devices. Some of these devices cure medical problems, like seizures, or improve brain function for mentally retarded children. Others enhance children with slight difficulties, such as the auto-focus implant, which can turn a distracted kid into an academic whiz. As the book begins, conflict is simmering between "amps" and "reggies" (people without the implant), who claim amps are being unfairly advantaged. The Supreme Court essentially rules that amps don't have legal rights, and a fierce anti-amp backlash emerges, led by Senator Joseph Vaughn of the Pure Human Citizens Council. Our protagonist, Owen, is a teacher with an implant to stave off seizures, but as he's forced on the run, he learns his father, a doctor, actually implanted him with secret military technology. Owen joins other amps living out West as war between amps and reggies brews.

Firstly, there's some interesting stuff here. There's the issue of technological enhancements and the ethical questions that come along with them. How much is too much? Is there a point where people are no longer human? Do we create two tiers of citizens if some people are amped and others aren't? There's also interesting legal questions, particularly around the Supreme Court's ruling (which, for example, says that because amps are mentally superior, "reggies" are essentially handicapped in any dealings with them, making contracts unfair). Then there are the social issues about the way we treat people who are different. But, none of these interesting questions take center stage in the novel.

Instead, we get Owen on the run, eventually getting to the amp colony of Eden. There he meets Lyle, another military amp, and Lucy, whom Owen falls in love with, most likely because she's the only female character in the book. Owen learns to use his amp powers, but even though they make him a hard-core bad-ass fighter, the scenes are pretty dull. Meanwhile the reggies go all nuts about amps and become hate-spewing villains immediately. As we finally start to reach the end, we go through a dozen or so "twists" to the point where none of the evil guys make any sense. Oh, and in the end, everything's fine, and the answer to "is there a limit to how we should use technology?" is apparently "no."

The pace drags throughout and Owen is uniformly boring. This is actually a rare case where a movie version might be better than the book, as the fight scenes could be ramped up and listening to Owen's rambling inner monologue could be eliminated.

I listened to the audiobook version, which was fine, but nothing special. I'd recommend Wilson's Robopocalypse instead.

Friday, July 27, 2012

"Into the Wild" by Jon Krakauer

Several years ago I saw the movie Into the Wild, a fictionalized narrative of the life and death of Chris McCandless, a young man who left his good home to hitchhike to Alaska and live alone in the wilderness. He was discovered, several months later, starved to death, despite being within several miles of civilization. The movie, of course, is based on Krakauer's nonfiction book. When I saw the movie, I was mostly disgusted by the character and the movie's basic theme. The film seemed to be romanticizing the pointless journey of a self-absorbed and stuck-up kid who looked down upon everyone else and society.  Fortunately, however, I came away from Krakauer's book with a much more nuanced view of McCandless. Mostly this is because Krakauer acknowledges my reaction and willingly explores McCandless' faults. But, he also puts those faults and McCandless' goals in perspective, and though he doesn't romanticize McCandless' journey like the movie, he does offer insight into why such an odyssey would appeal to a young man like McCandless.

Contrary to public opinion, though he was reckless, McCandless wasn't stupid, and he probably would have survived except for a few devastating, but easily made, mistakes. In the end (and I'd agree), Krakauer seems to suggest that McCandless' greatest flaw was the hubris of the young. He rejected his parents because they had faults, rather than recognizing them as human. He rejected all trappings of society (money, housing, jobs, plentiful food) in an effort to find "purity" in nature rather than dealing with the world the way it is. By removing himself from it, I think he tried to take the easy way out--perhaps not easy physically, but I'd argue it's a lot easier to focus only on basic needs (food, water) than to try and work with society (and plan for retirement or set up health insurance or get the car fixed).

I'll be teaching American Lit in the fall, and I'd like to eventually include Into the Wild in the curriculum because it fits in so well with basic American themes (trying to find one's self; rebelling against the pressures around you) and connects so clearly to major American works (Thoreau's transcendentalism; the call of the wild in Huck Finn). It'd be neat to compare it to Kerouac's On the Road as well.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

"The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" by Mark Twain

This has been an all-classics summer as I've been reading through the new books I'll be teaching this year. Some I had never read before (like Red Badge of Courage) and some I'd read but barely remembered (like The Scarlet Letter). A few I debated on (deciding, for example, against reading The Great Gatsby now because I reread it only a few years ago), and I was on the fence about Huck Finn since I don't think I've read it since college. I chose to reread and thoroughly enjoyed it, but I was also surprised by just how familiar the entire book was to me. Heck, I remembered it better, even though it's been probably nine years since I read it, than I now remember Red Badge of Courage, which I finished a couple weeks ago.

My excellent recall is probably due to Huck Finn's memorable storyline and iconic narrator. We all can't help but love Huck Finn who, despite his awful upbringing, is at heart a decent and loyal boy. Of course, we love him all the more because he is convinced of his own wickedness yet struggles mightily to do the right thing. When he tricks Jim for fun and sees how hurt Jim is by his actions, he apologizes and changes his ways. He's even able to evolve beyond the social mores of his time and choose to assist Jim in his escape from slavery. Nonetheless, Huck wouldn't be any fun if he were all "heart of gold." He's also inventive and intelligent, reminding me of Odysseus in his skill (most of the time anyway) in lying.

The book is best when it focuses on Jim and Huck's travels, including the indelible American image of the small raft on the Mississippi river. When the "king" and "duke" join the caravan, the book is more humorous, but it also shifts away from Huck and Jim's central relationship and largely ignores the fact that Jim is separated from his family and running for his life.

This leads to the almost intolerable last quarter of the book, when Jim is captured and Huck is reunited with Tom Sawyer. Though Huck is for freeing Jim and escaping quickly, he allows Tom to talk him into a complicated and convoluted plan created solely for Tom's amusement. Though I think this is probably true to life--as a teacher, I often see students who are good and decent on their own but turn into asses with their friends--it's also frustrating as a reader. Huck and Tom not only put Jim, but Tom's Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas, though hell, and though Huck sees the pointlessness of it all, he doesn't really seem to consider the pain he's inflicting. Because the book's a comedy, their actions are in the end largely innocuous--Tom isn't seriously hurt; Aunt Sally and Uncle Silas forgive; Jim is deus ex machina-ed out of slavery--but that doesn't change the fact that we lose some of that good side of Huck we'd come to love.

Nonetheless, Huck Finn is an excellent adventure story in its own right and so clearly has a central place in American history, making is one of those rare high school required reading books that I think teenagers will actually enjoy.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"The Scarlet Letter" by Nathaniel Hawthorne

When I mentioned reading The Scarlet Letter to a friend, she immediately responded with, "Ugh, I do not feel bad for Hester at all." I was a little taken aback. Is that a common reaction? That Hester's "sin" of having sex with a man she loves is so bad that we feel her and her daughter entirely deserving of being shunned and reviled by her community for years? I found nothing to judge in Hester and her actions. She accepts the town's judgment of her and devotes her life to her daughter, Pearl, and doing good in the community. So what if she doesn't really repent of her crime? Maybe there was nothing to repent of, you Puritans!

Now, if you're looking for an unsympathetic character, I'd go with Hester's partner in "crime," the Rev. Dimmesdale. I don't fault him for sleeping with Hester, and perhaps not even for keeping it a secret, but I do find fault in his grandiose sense of self-worth. He berates himself for years over his crime, moaning to his congregation that his faults are the blackest of those there. And, you know, maybe his sin just wasn't all that bad? Maybe God just doesn't care that much about it. At the same time, he drinks in the adoration of his congregation. It seems Hawthorne is trying to portray him as worse off than Hester for living a lie--suggesting that the congregation's praise only makes his sin feel worse--but I think he rather likes being an adored sinner. Dimmesdale does come to peace and some redemption at the end by confessing his actions in front of the town. But then he also conveniently dies, relieving him from having to face the consequences, which I think are far, far harder to live through than the confession itself. Hester deals with that for her whole life.

The secondary characters are somewhat odd. First, there's Pearl herself, who is constantly referred to as an elf, or devil, or sprite because she's not a quiet, static, obedient little girl. She's also frequently associated with the Scarlet Letter itself, an ostentatious badge of shame upon Hester. Yet Pearl doesn't seem to have a real personality. Hawthorne avoids the suggestion that any oddness, perhaps, arises from being raised, from birth, ostracized from the community. And I certainly don't buy this "Dimmesdale dies and his kiss changes her" crap. What is this, Hawthorne, Beauty and the Beast?

Then there's Mr. Chillingworth (what a fabulous name), Hester's husband who devotes his life to seeking revenge upon Dimmesdale. But why? I can understand a man might be angry his wife slept with another man, but we're not given any special motivation for Chillingworth. He's an empty, evil vessel and seems completely unnecessary for the story.

But, Hawthorne isn't interested in these characters as much as I am. He's much more focused on the nature of guilt, sin, and revenge and the way in which these negative traits consume an individual (e.g. Chillingworth literally starts looking evil once he begins his campaign against Dimmesdale). I find guilt and sin largely dull, as were some sections of the novel. Nonetheless, I mostly appreciated the text, and I'm sure I enjoyed it significantly more than I must have in high school.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

"The Crucible" by Arthur Miller

In four years of blogging, this is the first play I've read and reviewed. Like most people, I imagine, I just find it weird to sit down and read a play solo. But, I'm teaching The Crucible this fall, so a rereading of this high school staple was necessary.

What I was most struck by is just what great drama The Crucible, a retelling of the Salem Witch trials, makes. I mean, I was angry reading it! I wanted to spit at that smug Abby and knock Danforth senseless. I tensed in frustration as Proctor desperately tries to save his wife's life. And, I even shed a tear at John Proctor and Elizabeth's last conversation as John refuses to save himself by lying and admitting to being a witch. If a play can stir that much emotion read silently, I can only imagine the scenes on stage.

Like the other great play I've taught at the high school level, Inherit the Wind, there's not a ton of depth to The Crucible. Don't get me wrong--there's excellent characterization, clear conflict, and compelling themes, but most of what it is is on the surface. In terms of a text to read, that doesn't bother me, though I have found it can be challenging to pull much from the simpler plays in the classroom. We'll see how it goes this fall, though given my male students' frequent desire to play Juliet, at the very least I do think teenage boys will be clamoring to cry witch as a hysteric teenage girl.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

"A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway

After the rather unpleasant experience of reading A Red Badge of Courage, I wasn't looking forward to A Farewell to Arms. No matter that they're in different wars (Civil War vs. WWI), have different protagonists (a young untested soldier vs. an American ambulance driver with the Italian forces), and focus on different events (bravery in battle vs. ...well, I'm not sure in the case of Farewell), I went a bit reluctantly into Hemingway's novel. In the end, of course, all war books are not the same, and I appreciated Farewell immensely more.

The best part of A Farewell to Arms is Hemingway's sparse and unsentimental style, which could come off dull but instead seems an apt reflection of the inner thoughts of the protagonist, Henry. Much of his life is routine, and he thinks in that manner, only occasionally pausing to reflect on his life or the people in it. Like the young protagonist of A Red Badge of Courage, Henry is ambivalent about war. He feels a sense of duty in doing his job correctly, but the fighting doesn't inflame his passions or mean much to him. Unlike the youth in Red Badge, though, Henry feels no guilt in this. He's more interested in being good to his friends and in being with Catherine, an English nurse with whom he's fallen in love.

The back flap of my novel seems to describe A Farewell to Arms as a love story, but although Henry and Catherine's relationship is central to the novel, it's hard to describe the book as a romance (at least in the way that most of us think of the term). One of the reasons is because Henry thinks of his relationship matter-of-factly through most of the book, which is perhaps realistic in the situation but not especially heartstrings-pulling. Another reason, for me, is because Catherine is such a flat character. Though we know she initially pursues her flirtation with Henry in order to overcome the death of a fiance, she so quickly subsumes her life into Henry's that it's hard to think of her as a full-bodied person. In my review of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, I lamented that the love interest Maria is "frail and delicate, ...and it is only through her relationship with Robert that she feels whole again. She gives herself to Robert fully and desires nothing else but to provide for his needs." The same is true of Catherine, who dedicates herself solely to Henry, eventually becoming a somewhat cloying partner who fails to recognize Henry's need (and, hey, perhaps her own need? c'mon) for some kind of purpose and independence.

The ending of the novel is almost surprising, especially in contrast to the end of Red Badge. At the end of Crane's work, the youth believes he has become a man and grown from his experience in war. Even the cynical Catch-22 ends with hope. In contrast, A Farewell to Arms ends with no such lesson. Henry has survived war, and people have died, and nothing is different.

Though I had problems with Catherine, Hemingway's writing style is enough to make A Farewell to Arms compelling, and it does make an interesting study in contrast with Red Badge.

Monday, July 2, 2012

"The Red Badge of Courage" by Stephen Crane

Somehow I was never assigned this classic text in high school or college, so this was a first reading for me. I was happily surprised by the short length, though I must have been channeling my inner sulky teenager as I read, because the book felt interminable. Now that I've finished, I can look back with more interest in Crane's work, but man, I do empathize with the generations of teenagers who have slogged through it (I'm a teacher, so note to other teachers: just because a book features a teenage protagonist and is about war does not mean teenagers will like it).

The Red Badge of Courage takes places over several days in the Civil War, and is related from the point of view of Henry (who is more often called the "youth"), a young and untested soldier. Prior to their first real engagement, Henry worries that he will turn cowardly and run in the battle. He later does so and feels ashamed and concerned that others will discover him. However, in later battles, he fights brazenly in an almost crazed manner and decides, in the end, that he has become a man.

To be fair, the exploration of Henry's mental state throughout the battles is well-done. As many critics have noted, Red Badge of Courage was one of the first works to complicate the mythology of war as glorious and soldiers as selflessly courageous and heroic. Instead, Henry goes through a barrage of emotions, from fear to shame to arrogance to self-reflection. Henry doesn't fight because he loves his country or he hates his enemy; instead, when he does fight, he does so for more complicated reasons: fear at being branded a coward; anger at a colonel who calls them "pack mules;" unreasoned group enthusiasm.

I read somewhere that Red Badge was the first anti-war novel, and I'm not sure whether or not I agree. At the end, Henry comes to some peace within himself, believing that he has finally become a man. When I first read the ending, I was angry, thinking Crane equated war with being a man. But, others have argued that the ending is ironic, as Henry's arrogance shows he hasn't really changed or grown. Furthermore, the novel ends with the line, "He had been an animal blistered and sweating in the heat and pain of war. He turned now with a lover’s thirst to images of tranquil skies, fresh meadows, cool brooks—an existence of soft and eternal peace." Perhaps his turning away from war suggests that war is animalistic and that being at peace with nature is truly human. Truthfully, I'm not sure yet of which interpretation I support.

There are some interesting things going on in Crane's work, but I found myself skimming and falling asleep while reading. Maybe war books just aren't for me (comforting thought, since A Farewell to Arms is next--blech).

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"A Long Way Gone" by Ishmael Beah

With a lot of popular nonfiction, I'm left with a dilemma. Can a book be "good" just because it has a compelling story? Actually, I already talked about this in my review of Unbroken, so I won't rehash it here, but I finished A Long Way Gone with much of the same sentiment.

The book is written by Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier in Sierra Leone. The book recounts the initial attack on his village, his long exodus from his hometown, his initiation into the army, and his eventual rehabilitation. Though he does later immigrate to the United States, that portion of his tale is not included.

Beah obviously has a compelling and troubling story. The near apathy he had to develop in order to psychologically survive what was happening is horrifying, and even worse is how easy it was for boys like him, in those circumstances, to become merciless killers. Surprisingly, relatively little time is spent on Beah's time in the army (much more time is spent on his ceaseless walking), though I didn't mind being spared at least some of the gory details. Ultimately, Beah's story is one of survival in the face of terror, and his ability to recover and develop compassion after being a soldier is remarkable.

Nonetheless, I had a hard time being absorbed in the story. Beah recounts his tale straightforwardly, point by point (even though the piece isn't entirely chronological), as if he were speaking to a friend. That style probably appeals to some people, but I found it dull and lifeless. Without any sense of style or narrative convention, the pace felt plodding, with no tension or climax. Even Beah's transformation after being released from the army has no emotional charge; his terror or joy are described to, but not felt by, the reader.

Certainly Beah's novel describes an atrocity that some people probably still aren't familiar with. And I think the book's style and structure might appeal especially to weaker readers. I'm sure it can be a book used well, even if it wasn't great for me.

Monday, June 25, 2012

"The Power and the Glory" by Graham Greene

I'd never heard of The Power and the Glory before it was given to me by a friend. Written in 1940, the novel takes place in Mexico during a time in which Catholicism has been outlawed and priests are being hunted and killed. The book follows one priest as he attempts to escape while trying to reconcile his failures as a man of God.

In The Power and the Glory, the setting is elaborately rendered, with the heat, stench, and oppressiveness of the Mexican rainy season weighing down constantly (oddly, the atmosphere reminded me of The Great Gatsby). The unnamed "whiskey priest" is fully described, particularly his ambivalent attitude toward his vocation. The reader can feel his pain, fear, and fleeting hope through each plodding (not in a "boring plot" way but in an "inexorable march towards a dreaded fate" kind of way) moment of the novel.

The whiskey priest is tortured by the knowledge that his only solace is in duties (praying, serving the sacrament) he can no longer perform, both because they are outlawed and because the priest is unable to repent of his sins. There's of course something very human in a man who hates and yet cannot abandon his transgressions (his child; his drinking), which perhaps is what makes the whiskey priest so relatable.

After reading the novel, I was left with one central issue. (but first, a related tangent) I don't believe in God, and my husband does. For him, there's comfort in knowing that there's something greater than himself and that there's a purpose to existence. On the other hand, I find a lack of God far more reassuring. If there's no Plan and Purpose in life, then we can live life more fully and freely, unconstrained by arbitrary rules of what we "should" do. The novel, to me, seems to describe the danger and pain of (a certain type of) religious belief. In The Power and the Glory, the whiskey priest is tormented by his failure. He's failed to perform his duties as a priest; he's failed to abide by religious rules. Then what's the point of his Catholicism? He's miserable with his unworthiness, which gets him no where.

This point is made especially clear in the end when the whiskey priest is executed after finally (willingly) being caught by the police. His death is juxtaposed with a woman reading an obviously mythologized story of Juan, a saint who contently prays the night before he's executed and exclaims, "Hail, Christ the King" as he's killed. In contrast, the whiskey priest stays up that night in fear, drinking, and when he wakes, it is "with a huge feeling of hope which suddenly and completely left him at the first sight of the prison yard.... He felt only an immense disappointment because he had to go to God empty-handed, with nothing done at all" (210). What is the point of a religion which only highlights and reinforces humans' unavoidable inadequacies?

On the other hand, the priest's greatest sense of comfort comes when he spends the night in filthy jail, pushed up close to all kinds of people. He's repelled by the pious and judgmental Catholic woman and instead sees beauty in the world around him. Damning the people with him, even the couple having sex, for their sins seems pointless. Compassion, instead, is the only obvious answer. Even in such a place, none of the "brutes" turns him in for reward money once they learn he is a priest.

Though to me the novel is a call for a care for human life and possibilities over dogma, perhaps Green is instead advocating for religion focused not on damnation but on love (something many denominations today certainly do).

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

"Catch-22" by Joseph Heller

Though audiobooks obviously take me longer to "read" than traditional novels, I still typically finish one or so a month. I've been listening to Catch-22 since mid-March, which means this one took me three months to finish. Oops. It was life craziness, not the book, that caused the lengthy timeline, but in some ways I'm glad it took the time it did as that meant I got to savor the novel for a long while.

Even people not familiar with Heller's work typically know what a catch-22 is: an inescapable paradox that today would perhaps be phrased simply as "FML." In the novel, the term refers to the predicament of Yossarian, a bombadier in World War 2, who desperately wants to escape further flight duty in order to avoid being killed. The "catch-22" is simple:
- Any pilot who is crazy cannot fly.
- Any pilot who does not want to fly must ask to be grounded.
- Any pilot who asks to be grounded is sane, and thus must fly.
It's bureaucracy at its best, and though most of us will never serve in war, I think we can all identify with daily absurdities inherent in the idea of catch-22.

The novel is probably best known for its structure. It's non-linear, and even though Yossarian is the protagonist, the presence of a third-person omniscient narrator means that a reader follows multiple characters. The story is more a series of vignettes than a traditional narrative, and the majority of the book is comprised of dialogue between the characters.

This roundabout dialogue is one of the book's highlights, as it draws attention to the maddening nature of communication and the trivial and mundane state of much of our existence. Take this exchange between the downtrodden and timid chaplain and Colonel Cathcart:
“Haven’t you got anything humorous that stays away from waters and valleys and God? I’d like to keep away from the subject of religion altogether if we can."
The chaplain was apologetic. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m afraid all the prayers I know are rather somber in tone and make at least some passing reference to God.”
“Then let’s get some new ones.”
Intelligence, common sense, and human decency are constantly squashed for greed and self-interest. Nonetheless, most of the novel maintains a humorous tone, and the characters' constant exasperation is more funny than saddening.

In the last part of the novel, however, Heller's tone takes an abrupt turn. Many of Yossarian's friends die in succession, and Yossarian wanders through Italy facing cruelty at every turn. Though we might have laughed when a whore beat Orr over the head with a shoe early in the novel, there's no way to laugh when Aarfy rapes and kills a maid. Though the first part of the novel clearly establishes the absurdity of war, this part cements the real depravity of war and human nature.

Given that turn, and perhaps familiar with cynics like Golding (Lord of the Flies) and Orwell (1984), I was surprised that Catch-22 ends with a thoroughly hopeful conclusion. Heller seems to be arguing that life is shitty and frustrating, but that you choose whether to be defined and shaped by that.

I've had a lot of success with listening to classic novels on audiobook, and I would highly recommend this audio version. The narrator, Jay O. Sanders, did an excellent job with an enormous range of characters' voices (though whenever he did a Southern accent he ended up sounding like a parody of George W. Bush, which made me giggle). The dialogue is definitely enhanced by hearing tone (rising annoyance; calm patronization).

As a last thought, though the books are remarkably different, I kept thinking of The Things They Carried while listening. Perhaps because I think both achieve Truth--particularly about something as mythologized as war--through fiction.