Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

I love love love this book. Too bad I waited until the movie and all the hype started to get on board. But it's excellent; I sped through the whole thing in less than two days. This truly is the definition of a book that's too good to put down.

Now, ok, it's "young adult lit," sure. Yes the teenage romance is a little tedious. I'm tired of teenage girls who are amazing and talented and beautiful, but don't realize they're amazing and talented and beautiful until she has two equally amazing, talented, and beautiful men fighting over her. Plus, the book being young adult lit, the reader is lead by the hand to certain, small epiphanies, whether plot or character related. As the reader, you have to do very little work. But what is great about Katniss is how strong she is. My hope is that The Hunger Games franchise can eclipse (ha ha) the whole Twilight phenomenon, and girls will aspire to be Katnisses rather than Bellas.

The Hunger Games is like nothing I've read. However, it does read a little like Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire with children fighting in these incredible, demanding challenges, mixed with Shirley Jackson's short story "The Lottery." But The Hunger Games is in a league of it's own. It's violent and fast-paced, and I cried much more than I expected. These characters are easy to become attached to and a generally admirable. The lines between good and evil are fairly clear-cut, as you would expect, but not to a comical degree.

Now, I know what's coming next, Katniss is going to fight the Capitol, and I'm not sure I want that. Part of me wishes this were the only book and not a trilogy. I want to believe people inhabit this insane, brutal world and that's it. But that wouldn't be very redeeming and not quite as "young adult lit" appropriate. So I'll press on with Catching Fire. But my feeling is that The Hunger Games will end up being my favorite of the three.

Monday, July 9, 2012


by John Updike

When discussing this book with a friend who didn't care for it, she said something along the lines of 'He's clearly racist." But I'm not sure this is true. The characters in Updike's novels are frequently described in stereotypical terms, but to me, that seems to be the point. Updike does this to force the reader to confront these descriptions they may or may not have thought or believe themselves, and he does it universally, not just for Ahmad or Tylenol. After all,

Everyone's a little bit racist; it's true.
But everyone is just about as racist as you!
If we all could just admit
That we are racist, a little bit,
And everyone stop being so PC,
Maybe we could live in Harmony!
~ Avenue Q

However, that being said, I don't know how authentic Updike's characters are. Part of me feels like he bought into the terrifying propaganda going around after 9/11 that every Muslim in the Islamic community was plotting against the infidels (a word I really hate). In this way, I have to admit, the book does come across as racist. And I don't know much about Islam, but Terrorist does paint is a something to be afraid of, a religion that True Believers are willing to die for, in a very active, aggressive and terrifying way, taking out as many "unbelievers" as possible. Maybe Updike is just perpetuating stereotypes rather than presenting them as something to be confronted and questioned. I'd prefer to think that's not what he's doing, that he's going beyond that, but perhaps not. Maybe Updike is a racist.

The novel itself is not an easy read; I struggled through the very slow first 50 or so pages. And, in general, Terrorist is a very slow-moving novel. If you're looking for a plot-driven novel this is not it, Terrorist is character-driven. The only real action happens in the last 70 pages. I enjoy that it's character-driven, but being that the characters are based on stereotypes, I don't particularly like this book. 

Overall, I have mixed feelings about Terrorist. I did get caught up in Ahmad's development and his involvement with Excellency Home Furnishings and the imam and the scheme to blow up the Lincoln tunnel, but, again, all of that feels stereotypical in a damaging way, buying into the 9/11 terror propaganda. I'd like to think that Ahmad becomes friends with Mr. Levy, goes to college, and lives happily ever after with Joryleen, but the ending isn't that redemptive. It's. . . a little disappointing, and I don't recommend reading this book.

Friday, June 22, 2012

People of the Book

by Geraldine Brooks

I'm surprised I hadn't read this book sooner. I remember seeing it come and go at the library where I worked, but I never picked it up. I assumed it was a book about religion and missionaries and conversions - a poor assumption. I wish I had taken the time to read the back cover. This time I did pick it up because it was on the staff recommendation shelf (a feature at libraries I happen to really appreciate). (Thanks whoever Meagan is!)

This book is a fascinating, often heartbreaking, historical mystery surrounding the Sarajevo Haggadah, filled with fantastic, brave-faced women, as well as men. Being a book about a Jewish text, the book does deal a lot with religion and religious conflict (so my initial assumptions weren't completely off-base). I had no idea that there was such a long history of antisemitism. People have been unable to get along and killing one another over religious differences for centuries, I just didn't know the specifics of it. But perhaps even more striking is the protective relationships between Muslims and Jews, which is carried throughout the centuries in this novel. The stories of personal struggle and reluctant bravery in the face of death as a result of religious persecution are incredible. Each character struggles with their own religion/religious identity in the face of society-at-large. Brooks is an excellent storyteller and creates a cohesive story from fragments of history, all found in the Sarajevo Haggadah by art conservator Hanna Heath.

On a related note, is book binding still an art? Conservators must still be in demand for the World's ancient texts; but does the world still have craftsman book binders? In the world of self-published ebooks, it feels like it's probably an ancient and near-lost, if not entirely lost, art. I understand the need for progress, but I don't want to live in a world of self-published ebooks. I want authors with editors and agents and publishers and real book binders (although, I don't know that I ever have lived in that world.). I suppose, on the one hand, it's an impractical art, but I wonder if it is still practiced. It must be, somewhere.

One small editorial issue I have with this book is the chapters. The book begins with numbered chapters and abandons them for sections. Why bother to have chapters at all?

I loved being taken through the pages of history by Hanna and her curiosity and skill. Her own personal story of strength and change sits nicely within that of the haggadah. I recommend this book for anyone interested in history, the art of the book, religion, travel, or resilient characters.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

This Side of Brightness

by Colum McCann

I was first introduced to Colum McCann via my contemporary Irish fiction course; we read Let the Great World Spin. McCann is a skilled and vivid writer, and he is very much a New York writer, as opposed to an Irish writer, despite being Irish. The beauty is in the details. McCann writes about what is unique and easily overlooked about New York.

The premise of This Side of Brightness is fascinating: tunnel people. The novel follows the lives of those who built the subway tunnels and those who inhabit them. I did have a little difficulty with the initial chapters because it was difficult for me to visualize, not only the process of digging the tunnels but the navigation of the tunnels and nests and cubby holes.

But I completely love this book; I couldn't put it down. McCann's characters felt real and true, and I didn't expect to get so invested in Treefrog. His underground world is amazing. I also enjoy when the characters in a novel are gradually shown to be intertwined, I feel like your brought along on the journey and develop with the characters. The ending of the novel is a little walking-off-into-the-sunset, but I can forgive that because I'm not sure there would be abetter way to end the novel. I highly, highly recommend reading This Side of Brightness, it is the perfect balance of love, heartache, danger, and true humanity.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Fourth Hand

by John Irving

The downside of living in a city: The wait list for Irivng's latest novel In One Person is 180 people long. Well, not a problem, Irving has plenty of other novels. I tend to steer clear of prolific writers (I think 13 novels deserves the title prolific, and that's not including his screenplays) on principle. That principle being that contemporary prolific writers are too commercial and, well, not worth reading: Nicholas Sparks, Danielle Steele, James Paterson. But Irving is a truly great American novelist.

After reading The World According to Garp, it quickly became one of my favorite books. I think Irving has a fantastic writing style. There is a clear narrative voice, but it is crafted in a way that is not intrusive or obtrusive. It's like sitting down and being told a story by some really likable guy.

All this being said, the plot is...weird. It's too borderline sci-fi for me, with the hallucinatory blue pills and the interconnected dream premonitions. And, to be honest, I didn't even know that hand transplants were real or even possible. But what I really love about Irving is how thoroughly he constructs human relationships. I think if this book were written by anyone else, I probably would have given up on this book, but because it's Irving I stuck it out.

Patrick Wallingford is an interesting fellow; he's neither likable nor wholly unlikable. Irving's constant switching between calling him "Patrick" or "Wallingford," or sometimes "Patrick Wallingford" embodies Patrick's identity crisis and his self-determined journey to become a better person. I take issue with his feelings for Mrs. Clausen. First of all, that he continues to refer to her as Mrs. Clausen I actually find a little creepy. Although, she is such a part of the Clausen clan and never quite Patrick's, I understand that choice. But, his love for Mrs. Clausen just doesn't seem sincere. It comes out of a dream and bizarre circumstances, and suddenly he's madly in love. I think really what it is, is that he's more in love with being a father and the idea of family. I don't like how he basically steps in as a surrogate Otto Clausen and then gradually assumes his life: his hand, his wife, his cabin, his clothes; it's a little, again, creepy. But his acceptance by the family at the Packers game is almost heartwarming. However, all my issues with Patrick were somewhat resolved in my favorite chapter, chapter 11, "Up North." It is in this penultimate chapter that the novel seems to settle and Patrick himself seems to settle, and it's full of lovely, simple moments with Mrs. Clausen and little Otto. That is where the novel seemed most genuine. The final scene of the novel I certainly didn't love, and I have mixed feelings about the way Irving writes about sex. Generally I like that the unrealistic romance is taken out of it; I just wanted a more delicate way of closing their story, I suppose.

The Fourth Hand is a good book; it's no Garp, but it's good. The personal relationship are the best part, and I'm willing to overlook most of what I did not enjoy about the book because of his writing style.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Sleepwalk with Me

and other painfully true stories
by Mike Birbiglia

I wanted to really enjoy this book, but I didn't. Don't get me wrong, I really like Mike Birbiglia; I think he is hilarious and just nerdy and self-deprecating enough as a comedian, plus he's a great storyteller. So, it follows that his book should be great. After reading the first few pages of his book however, I was not so thrilled. I've listened to a lot of his comedy, and my first impression was that the book was just a written down, slightly edited version of his stand-up; I recognized many of the anecdotes. He lengthens the anecdotes and adds others, but for the most part, the book is just an expanded version of his stand up.

I also don't love the structure of the story Birbiglia is trying to tell of his life. I get that it's a memoir and he gets a lot of leeway, but he jumps around too much to put together a chronological picture of his growing up and his developing career. Plus I think he tells the "La Quinta Inn" joke twice.

Having listened to a lot of Birbiglia's stand up it's amusing to me that the jokes I recognize I can hear him saying in his own voice in my head. If you haven't listened to his standup, particularly the CD by the same name, then definitely read the book. I especially appreciated his chapter about Mitch Hedberg, who was a great comedian as well. I like the "tour of the brain" type of comedy.

When a comedian writes a book, I almost immediately jump to read it: Craig Ferguson, Lewis Black (ok I only have two examples which is not exactly sufficient evidence). But, the fact is, just because you can write jokes, doesn't mean you can write a book (the fiction book Ferguson wrote wasn't all that impressive). I want to read Michael Ian Black's book, but now I'm a little hesitant. Also, I can't help but scoff at the irony of a man who's not "great at reading" writing a book. (Birbiglia, not Black. I have no idea if Black thinks he's good at reading or not.)

And if, Mike Birbiglia, you do get a Google alert from this post, I want to say I respect you as a comedian, you're book just fell a little short for me, and I only think you're slightly "pawkward."

Saturday, May 19, 2012

One Day

by David Nicholls

I cannot adequately express how wonderfully satisfying it is to be so thoroughly engrossed in a book. I mean, my reading for grad school has been engrossing, for sure, but reading for grad school is drastically different from reading for fun. I have to actively look for nuances and metaphors and allegory and deeper meaning, when sometimes, I just want to read and enjoy a book. No, I'm not spending my free time reading Plato, and I am perfectly happy with that. And this is such an enjoyable book.

Granted, it's a little cliched. A riff on the classic good girl pining after the bad boy. And yes, it is a little infuriating that when Dexter finally realizes how much he loves and needs and has depended on Emma, she drops everything, her potentially wonderful boyfriend in Paris, to finally fulfill her dream of being with Dex. Dex and Em. Em and Dex. But, feminist feelings and cliches aside, this is a really enjoyable book. Perfect of the nerdy girl hopeless romantic.

I really enjoy the format of this book, I think it was a smart move. Occasionally you may feel like, Oh really? Every important thing that happened to these two people happened on St. Swithin's day? Get over it. It's clever and it really works for this book; it moves the relationship along nicely.

This is a great, complicated love story to get wrapped up in. I haven't seen the film version, and I don't know that I will. All I know is that I think this book is absolutely worth reading. While I don't love the ending (not the trip to Scotland, the events leading up to that) and I do think the story is just a touch too long, it's a great love story to get caught up in.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Infernals

by John Connolly

"Free time" is a rare commodity as a graduate student, and so I've let this blog fall to the wayside. It was bound to happen. And it took a little while, but I reminded myself that, yes, I do in fact still love to read.My list of books to read is getting longer and longer and I'm easing my way into it. Let's start with something fun and easy.

"The Infernals" (titled "Hell's Bells" in the UK; apparently that's just not a phrase we recognize in the States. I always find it interesting how covers and titles differ between the US and the UK.) is John Connolly's sequel to "The Gates. I fell in love with "The Gates" and eagerly awaited its sequel. I love everything about this book and think Connolly is truly a wonderful writer. "The Infernals" is a perfect mixture of fantasy, sciencefiction, fact, and wit. And, of course, I can't resist a good coming-of-age story. Samuel Johnson is an endearing hero with excellent companions to help him along the way, especially his dog Boswell and the somewhat inept demon Nurd.

This time Samuel has to battle his way out of hell, and the demons he encounters are epic. His encounter with a former weapons manufacturer is my favorite episode. Connolly creates backstories for his demons and prisoners of Hell in an extremely well-crafted way, and it's nice to know that not everyone is without redemption.

"The Infernals" is a fast but thoroughly engrossing read and ended all too soon for me. But, if I'm not mistaken I think there is a third book to come out in the series, and if so I cannot wait to see where Samuel's adventures lead him.