Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Boy Who Dared

Donna will be shocked that I have now made this contribution! And, I will quickly confide that expectations of flowing, articulate and insightful reviews should cease, as I am a simpleton when it comes to reading, and to analyzing what I've read.

Nonetheless, I recently read The Boy Who Dared by Susan Campbell Bartoletti. The book is historical fiction based on the life of a Nazi Hitler Youth who was ultimately sentenced to be executed for treason against the Hitler regime.

The summary of the book's story is quite simple. It follows the journey of Helmuth, a young German boy, as he grows up and watches monumental change in Germany. Helmuth knows the rules for conduct and behavior in Hitler's Germany, but is suspicious of government activity and disdainful of the Nazi socialist movement and the war. He ultimately engages in activities that brand him a traitor.

My first impression, which was ultimately quite accurate, is that this book is written at about the 5th or 6th grade level. While I found it difficult to engage at this level, I persisted. Plus, I was thinking that, since I have a 5th grader, I might pass it along to her. For a younger person, it is a nice introduction to the historical landscape of Nazi Germany as introduced from a German perspective, as opposed to Jewish accounts from the likes of Anne Frank.

The most engaging part of this book, for me, was actually the author's notes. This section told of the biographical information about Helmuth and the accounts offered to the author through Helmuth's brother and Helmuth's best friend, both of whom ultimately came to the U.S. in the early 1950s. There were pictures of the families and biographical accounts of what happened to all of the major characters in real life after the war. This gave the story a little bit more a human connection.

The book is a quick read. However, probably best suited for the kids...maybe this would be a good one to read at the same time as your child reads it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Lovely Bones--Alice Sebold

November 29, 2010

I had been wanting to read Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones for quite some time, but honestly wasn't sure I could make it through it. I knew, of course, the premise. The novel is told from the perspective of a young girl who is brutally murdered by a serial killer who happens to be her neighbor. This is not a spoiler; we discover this much in the first few pages of the book. Having two daughters (and a son) of my own, the very idea of immersing myself in a storyline so dark and horrifying--the loss of a child in such an unthinkable way--seemed a little too depressing to contemplate.

Nevertheless, when my husband read the book and said it was one of the best books he'd ever read, I knew I needed move the book up to the top of my list. Doug knows me and my sensibilities, and it was on his recommendation that I knew I'd be able to handle the darker aspects of the book. In truth, though it seems unlikely, the book was able to keep a sweet, innocent, and beautiful momentum despite the beginning of the reader's journey. It's an unlikely coming-of-age story for a girl who never actual gets to come of age.

Susie, the protagonist, instead leads a parallel path, maintaining a child-like innocence while simultaneously experiencing life through her sister, who she watches as she moves past the stage of suspended animation in which Susie's untimely death has left her, and through a couple of school mates with whom she maintains an other-worldly connection after her murder. We also see Susie maintain an near-objective perspective as she watches the toll her unsolved murder takes on her parents as they spiral away from each other, each dealing with grief in their own isolated, yet forgivable way. There is no right way to process grief; there is only the most personal, most private journey one can take.

A heavy premise, yes, but a beautiful and poetic story, nonetheless. Sebold gives her characters true voices, believable experiences and emotions. And like real life, she doesn't fall prey to a too-easy ending where everything is neatly wrapped up in a bow. Real life doesn't usually work that way, and Sebold has enough respect for her readers to not simplify that which isn't simple. Life is difficult and messy, and sometimes unfair and cruel. The journey is what's real--the experience along the way.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Doll's House--Henrik Ibsen

November 4, 2010

Ibsen's Doll's House is a commentary on gender roles and their stunting affect on those who attempt to confine themselves within those traditionally accepted roles. Nora, the protagonist, is a woman who has willingly chosen to accept being a 'trophy wife' to her husband Torvald, knowing that it means playing the naive, childish, and helpless counterpart to her husband. Despite having a brain for business and for, frankly, deception and manipulation, she allows her husband to believe her primary thought processes revolve around shopping and being beautiful, because that's what Torvald expects of women.

In exchange for playing this role, Nora expects Torvald to play the role of head of household, caretaker of his charges (including his wife), protector of his domain (which again, includes his wife). One cannot fault Torvald for believing his wife to be devoid of ambition or intelligent thought; he has been conditioned by society to believe this is his role, and encouraged by Nora to relish his part. It is only when a scandal is about to break and Torvald fails miserably in his role as savior and protector that Nora realizes all she has given up in the bargain. Once he turns on her, rather than protecting her, all deals are off. If he isn't willing or able to keep up his end of the bargain in the "Doll's House" they've created for themselves, she can no longer keep up her own role.

It's an interesting display of gender roles of a certain era, but the exaggerated characters can be somewhat grating. Or perhaps they aren't so exaggerated after all, and we've just come so far as a whole society that they just seem that way. At any rate, I do find the theme of being true to one's self an important one. Another prominent theme, the idea that the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons, is woven beautifully throughout the play, and is one of my favorite aspects of the work.


Sunday, October 17, 2010

Mockingjay--Suzanne Collins

October 17, 2010

In the third and final installment of The Hunger Games Trilogy, we see the violent showdown between Kaitness and President Snow as the rebels rally together in an uprising against the Capital.

Kaitness, having become the reluctant symbol of the uprising, focuses on her personal vendetta against President Snow, Having twice become responsible for pressing her into the harrowing Hunger Games and for the deaths of so many people she knew and cared about, Snow becomes the reason Kaitness chooses to accept her role as rebel leader. Along the way, she must decide who she can trust going into a battle where she once again risks losing those she loves. By her side are Gale and Peeta, each fighting their own battles as well as they face some of the most dangerous and deadly traps ever seen. Fighting their way into the Capital to face President Snow will be as difficult as anything they faced in The Hunger Games, but now the lives of all the citizens are at stake.

Mockingjay is a fitting conclusion to the trilogy, with a satisfying ending after the crescendo of the quest to reach their villain. There are shocks and surprises, layers peeled back one layer at a time to keep the reader intrigued and guessing. If I have one complaint it might be that the ending is a bit too quiet and sedate after the high-tension action of most of the rest of the book, and a bit too quick as well. It's almost as if the author wasn't quite sure how to effectively say goodbye to the characters she had become so close to throughout her journey as a their creator. The epilogue, however, leaves the door open to the possibility that we haven't seen the last of them. If that were the case, I'm sure I wouldn't be the only one anxiously awaiting a reunion.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

Eat Pray Love--Elizabeth Gilbert

October 7, 2010
Seems lots of people are talking about Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love these days. Oprah touted the book as one of her Oprah Book Club picks, and then more recently Julia Roberts helmed the film project. The book, and presumably its author, are enjoying quite a ride.
I'm not always prey to the big pop culture movements, but let's face it--often I am. So I jumped on the bandwagon to see what all the fuss was about. I fully intend to see the movie, but thought I wanted to read the book first. (That's usually the best order of things, in my opinion, even if it's not always the most practical way to go about it.) Fortunately, my daughter got a copy for her birthday that she was willing to loan me, so I didn't even have to go purchase it.

The movie has been showcased as a 'chick' movie, and after having read the book, I would venture to say rightfully so. It's a journey of recovery of self, a process of re-learning to be oneself and to become comfortable with the self who is one's constant companion. How can you be a good companion, the idea goes, if you can't even be a good companion to your own inner self? If you don't know who you are, how can you share that you with anyone else in a true and meaningful way? Men in our society, aren't conditioned to think this way in general. It is what it is; they are who they are. Women, on the other hand, tend to be conditioned to over-analyze, internalize, and otherwise worry, fret, and second-guess all the emotions and relationships that somehow make up what we casually fit under the over-arching umbrella of Self Esteem. Capital S, Capital E. That is who we are.

So we are introduced to Liz, an emotional wreck of a woman who has lost her Self--it took off on a walk with Esteem and failed to leave a forwarding address. A series of failed, clingy, and desperate relationships, in addition to a crisis of lack of a biological clock telling her it was time to get herself into mommy-gear, left her in a crumpled sobbing mess on her bathroom floor for the umpteenth time. Something in her suddenly spoke calmly, clearly. It was time to make a change--break out of the reality of the mess she had made of her life and find who she really was.

How fortuitous then, that she had the means to take a time-out for not just a day or two, or even a week. Her career as an author afforded her the opportunity to multi-task, as we women are wont to do, and take a year's physical and metaphorical journey on as a writing assignment. She could find enlightenment and pay the bills at the end of the road, once the book was published. Quite a luxury, that. Clearly it worked out for her, but I'm not sure most of us who might have the same degree of crisis of self would have the same serendipitous circumstance. But I digress; this is not, presumably, a self-help book. If it were it would be making some pretty arrogant assumptions about most people's realities. Just run off and travel around the world for a year, just soaking in the experience? No problem!

For Liz, it was indeed no problem. The book is, as you might expect, divided up into three distinct parts, or journeys. During the first, in Italy, Liz sets out to just enjoy the culture and the food and revel in just being. She's a bit whiny in this section, but I suppose that's to be expected when one is first learning to hear one's inner voice without the filter of someone else's perspective or eyes. It's uncomfortable to look so closely into the mirror, confronting those unwanted pieces of self that have grown strong and cumbersome and weighty. It's like dragging a small child to the bathroom to make him brush his teeth. He doesn't want to do it, whines about it, but ultimately is better off for it. At least she gets to do it while eating great Italian pasta and speaking a mellifluous language.

The next leg of the journey takes her to India, where her focus is prayer. Honestly, this section dragged a bit and almost made me want to abandon her there. I don't by any means have anything against a spiritual journey; I think the idea of seeking a closer connection to God and finding one's place in the grand design can be a beautiful and powerful one. Here, though, Liz is still so preoccupied and distracted and self-absorbed that it's a little difficult to like her. I just wanted her to abandon herself to her spiritual pursuit, but she was never really capable. I was glad when she proceeded to the final leg of her journey--love in Indonesia.

Indonesia was where this really became a story for me. The people she met there come alive through her words. They are vibrant, touching, flawed, and beautiful. And she, too, comes alive, bringing her journey full circle. It is here that she is, after months of contemplating herself and learning to be who she is, able to reach out and give herself to others, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Having learned to love and care for herself, she is able to stop focusing on herself and redirect her energies toward helping and giving to others, which ultimately gives her the strength and purpose that she lacked before her journey began. In the end, I guess that's the message, and one the rest of us take away even if we can't travel to Italy, India, and Indonesia; take care of yourself, take care of others, and you find your place in the greater fabric of the universe.


Friday, September 24, 2010

Hedda Gabler--Henrik Ibsen

September 24, 2010

Henrik Ibsen's Hedda Gabler is the precursor to the modern soap opera. Hedda is the controlling, manipulative protagonist who insinuates her wills and whims into the lives of others. Her bookish, clueless husband is simply thrilled to have landed the beautiful Miss Hedda, and his myopic viewpoint doesn't allow him to see her with any clarity. His focus is on his research (which he spent most of their honeymoon engaged in), and the idea of being married to her--the idealistic vision he has for their future.

Hedda, meanwhile, loathes the romantic notion of 'family', including children, and how strict social contraints seek to subsume her into the proper role of wife and mother. She feels she is above relinquishing control, and certainly, she's too fiercely independent to passively slip into the traditional female role. Instead, she fully intends to carry on a torrid affair with the judge who is, in fact, her intellectual and moral equal (and who ultimately becomes one of the catalysts for her eventual undoing), as well as manipulating a former lover who was too given to lapse into battles with alcoholism to ever provide for her future monetarily, but who was, in truth, probably the one human being she could have loved. She also capriciously manipulates her husband's relatives and her own former schoolmates, largely out of boredom. This is not a pleasant person, to say the least, but as is often the case with soap opera divas, she has enough mental acuity to spin her personality in such a way that her victims fall willingly under her spell, becoming accomplices in their own dramatic downfalls.

Every calculated move, however, somehow falls into place in a way Hedda could not have forseen, and suddenly she realizes that all the puppets she danced so tightly together have spun out of her control, and taken on a life of their own, just as she is coming to grips with another new life she didn't bank on. In fine dramatic soap opera form, Hedda decides to wrest back control in the only way she knows how--with definitive finality.


Monday, August 16, 2010

The End of the World As We Know It--Robert Goolrick

August 16, 2010
The End of the World As We Know It, by Robert Goolrick, is a memoir of one of the worst kinds of tragedies that can happen to a small child whose world is meant to be protected by the very ones who betray that trust. The aftermath of the abuse and the family's compilicity in protecting the facade of the perfect family at the expense of the well-being of the child is saddening and horrific.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of human rights activists, however, I'm going to attempt to separate Goolrick's actual experiences from his skill in conveying those experiences. His writing, though it may have served a purpose and been cathartic for him, perhaps should have been best left to a journal or diary, or perhaps even notes in his psychiatrist's file. Although he endures, as a four year old, abuse that certainly elicits empathy, we don't get to know the protagonist in any real way, or even know anything at all about the tragedy that so profoundly shapes who he is, until three-quarters of the way through the book. Up until that time, his 'big reveal', if you will, the aloofness of the character, the lack of any real knowledge of who he is and what makes him tick, makes it very difficult for a reader to connect with him or to care much about him. As a human being, once the reveal comes we understand why he is the way he is; as an author, it is too much of a risk to make ones readers wait until nearly the end of the novel to find out why we should care about him.