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.


Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Freakonomics--Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

July 7, 2010
When I pick up a book, I don't generally reach for non-fiction. However, I had been hearing about Freakonomics for quite awhile, and something about its approach was intriguing to me. I'm no economist, and I don't make it a habit to follow economic trends. However, sociology has always fascinated me, and the premise of this book is an interesting and accessible marriage of the two disciplines. The book's authors challenge long-held assumptions about cause and effect, particularly as seen in the world of economics, and analyzes a variety of sociological phenomena that can be traced as unseen influences on unexpected outcomes. I know, I know--it sounds a little dry and textbook-y, but the beauty of this book is the anecdotal approach. In an easy-going, straightforward manner, the authors draw connections between social events and issues that result in unexpected and less than obvious conclusions about economic repercussions. Definitely worth picking up.


Thursday, May 27, 2010

Catching Fire--Suzanne Collins

May 27, 2010

In her follow-up novel to The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins has not disappointed her audience. Catching Fire picks up back in District 12, with both Kaitness and Peeta sharing honors and wealth as co-victors of the last Hunger Games. Unfortunately, although life has been made easier for them and their families financially, Kaitness' daring plan to outwit the Gamemakers has angered President Snow, who sees her act as one of rebellion against the government. When Kaitness receives a visit from the President, he makes it clear that her final act in the Games has laid the ground work for an uprising against the government, and his sinister threats against her and her loved ones give Kaitness good reason to be wary.

This upcoming year being the 25th anniversary of the Hunger Games, called The Quell, a new twist is added in celebration. In a special broadcast to all districts, President Snow makes his proclamation: The Quell will not consist of new tributes--every district will be required to send two victors from previous years back into the Games to compete 'til the death. Kaitness, who still suffers nightmares from last year's Games, is faced with the certainty of having to be thrown back into the horror. She suspects President Snow's new rule is not coincidence; she is being punished with the very real threat of death so soon after she thought she had escaped for good.

She and Peeta find themselves chosen as the previous victors from District 12 to participate in The Games, so they are sent immediately to Capital City. After grooming and training, they find themselves back in the fray, up against formidable opponents from past years, as well as some older and more frail former victors who have either lost physical or mental prowess in the ensuing years, but who have nonetheless found themselves in the same harrowing position as Kaitness and Peeta.

In The Quell, the tributes encounter new trials created by the Gamemakers, form new alliances, re-think assumptions about one another, and learn once again what it is to face the horrific dangers of The Hunger Games. What makes this time even more difficult is that both Kaitness and Peeta have vowed to ensure the other's survival, even though it means self-sacrifice. Add to that a betrayal Kaitness never sees coming and an ending both powerful and unexpected, and Collins' audience will be holding its breath for the third novel in the series, due out in a couple of months. I know I can't wait to see the final showdown between Kaitness and President Snow.


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Girl Who Owned a City--O.T. Nelson

May 19, 2010
Imagine a deadly virus has wiped out every human on earth over the age of twelve. What would become of the children left behind? O.T. Nelson's short novel The Girl Who Owned a City explores how children, if left to their own devices, might fare in a world devoid of the adults who once kept them safe.

As with many pieces of speculative fiction, the requirement for suspension of disbelief is great. There are problems raised within the novel that somehow seem to solve themselves or become non-issues as the storyline progresses. (An example? Where are all the bodies of all of these adults who have died? They just mysteriously vanished?) There's also the seemingly unbelievable ease with which our protagonist rises from ordinary every-day ten year old girl to leader of the city, commanding attention and negotiating the clandestine building of the fortress that will house the titular city and protect its citizens from outside attack.

Lisa is our protagonist. Initially, there is nothing spectacular about her, but she recognizes the need for action to protect herself, her brother, and her home from looting bands of child-thieves who are also seeking out whatever way they can find to survive. There are no caretakers anymore, and Lisa realizes that she must step into that role if she and her brother are to stay out of harm's way. Within a short span, she teaches herself how to drive, finds first a farm and then an entire warehouse store that has been left untouched by looters. (She is apparently the only one to have remembered its existence.) As she begins to stockpile goods for survival--she calculates that they can survive on what they find in the warehouse for up to a year--she also sees that if she is the only one with food and necessities, she will be the target for attack if she doesn't join forces with the other orphaned children of her neighborhood.

Lisa gathers together the child-inhabitants of her neighborhood and promises them safety and food in return for their allegiance and oath to work together in building up defenses against the gangs that are beginning to form in surrounding areas. Here the novel becomes a bit too heavy-handed and preachy, as Lisa none too subtly espouses (sometimes to her neighbors, sometimes merely aloud to herself) her philosophy of life. Life is good--fun, even--when one works to earn what they have. The fun of life is solving problems, and that is how one earns his or her possessions. This philosophy is one that Lisa, and by extension the author, continues to present as TRUTH throughout the novel, at the exclusion of all other viewpoints.

It's a very utilitarian approach to life, pragmatic and somewhat detached. The interesting thing is that this philosophy is in stark contrast to two other viewpoints, seemingly equally important, that Lisa shuns as at best a waste of time, and at worst, detrimental. Jill is a mother-figure of a child who has taken in some of the frightened orphans to live in her home. She takes care of them, looks after their emotional needs, and has the true heart of a humanitarian. This approach, according to Lisa, merely serves to coddle them and leave them helpless and vulnerable. It does, in fact, more harm than good. Although Jill is never quite convinced Lisa is right, for the protection of the children she is willing to work within Lisa's rules and guidelines. The second viewpoint is Craig's, who feels it would be valuable to relocate to the country farm and learn how to grow crops that could feed them all. His ideas of an agrarian lifestyle are nonsense to Lisa, who believes the first priority is to militarize and form a defense so strong that offense is not necessary against adversaries. Charlie, too, reluctantly joins forces with Lisa and abandons his idea in the interest of solidarity and protection.

The most interesting thing about this is that it does not seem that any of these things are mutually exclusive, though they certainly are presented in that way. Lisa does pay a bit of a price for not being as maternal as Jill; the kids think she's bossy and mean. However, the more serious consequence for not incorporating all of these approaches to building up a citizenry is the abandonment of farming as a viable form of self-reliance. This is entirely glossed over within the context of the novel, though. Despite the fact that Lisa initially estimates there is enough food in the warehouse to sustain their little group for a year, as the novel progresses we are taken through not one, but two years of their existence, and the original group grows in numbers as they recruit additional children into their fold. So how do they continue to feed all those mouths? If Craig had been allowed to begin farming, it would be logical that perhaps that's where some of the food was coming from. He wasn't, though, so we are supposed to believe that they simply have found another stash of food that had been unmolested by other bands of children foraging to survive.

Early on, Lisa decides that it is too difficult to adequately protect each individual's home in the neighborhood from gangs once her own home is attacked, and an epiphany leads her to contemplate renovating the nearby school into the fortress that will become their home. After nights of working in secret to prepare (during which time they find all the necessary implements to devise all manner of defense for the building and everything to provide for the needs of all the inhabitants), the entire neighborhood relocates to their new home. Predictably, a band of thieves discover the fortified building (but naturally they didn't see it until it was inhabited) and decide to take it for themselves.

The battle ensues, and for a time it appears the attackers have been successful. Lisa, thought to be dead on the battlefield, recovers and devises a plan to regain control of her city. And here, the biggest expectation of suspension of disbelief--when all is said and done, and Lisa is left to confront the leader of the opposition and she is at his mercy, she simply tells him that the reason the city shouldn't be his is that he didn't EARN it, didn't WORK for it. He should know that it would never be fun or satisfying to lead in this city because he wasn't the one who solved the problems and learned how to build it. He would always be afraid of losing it because it wasn't truly his.

And you know what? He buys it. Sees the wisdom of her words and walks away, and she wins her city back--just like that.

This is a young fiction novel, but I'm fairly certain that even my twelve-year-old self would have cried foul at that. Too easy, too black and white, too 'here is the lesson you're meant to learn.' There's not so much a sense of 'and they all lived happily ever after' as there was a sense of, 'see--I was right all along.' Speculative fiction though it may be, I expect some sense of reality when I spend time with my characters. And the truth is, these characters didn't behave like real people, conflicted and frightened and even desperate in the face of a potentially devastating future. The premise is a really interesting one, yielding rich possibilities to contemplate and weigh, even within the context of young adult fiction. The target age group is intelligent and merits a more substantive read than the author has provided.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

Letting Go, or Breaking Up is Hard to Do

April 25, 2010
I'm a little out of control as a collector of books. I've got hundreds of them, on bookshelves, in boxes, in my classroom. I've got books I've read again and again, and books I've read and would love to read again sometime, and of course I've got stacks and stacks of books that I heard about or read about or grabbed my attention in a bookstore at one point or another.

The problem, besides the obvious storage issue, is that I probably have more books in my possession that I can realistically read in my lifetime. I love to read, but I'm no speed reader, so even if people stop writing interesting books for me to buy or borrow RIGHT NOW, I'm not going to make it to all of my books. I've got to prioritize. For awhile, I rotated genres to help me decide what to read: first I'd read a classic that I hadn't gotten around to yet, and then a teen fiction piece (to help me make recommendations to my students), and then a contemporary modern novel. Often, as a matter of fact, I have all of these going at once---I pick one up according to my mood. I've gotten away from that particular system, but I still follow it loosely. I also throw in some non-fiction every now and again, but those aren't the ones I tend to be drawn toward.

For many years, I never picked up a book I didn't finish. I somehow felt that if I invested time in starting the book it would be somehow wasteful if I didn't follow it through. I'm an optimist, too, so I always wanted to give the authors the benefit of the doubt--if it got published, it was bound to get good eventually. Not so! Sometimes, they start off badly, and they just stay there. I recognize that some books get off to a slow start, having to set up an in-depth back story or highly descriptive setting integral to the plot that will eventually unfold. In some of these books, once we meet our key players and discover the journey they are on, we don't mind so much the hard work we trudged through in the introductory exposition to get to them. If, however, the characters are flat or unsympathetic or simply don't connect with the reader, you never forgive them that dry and uninspired trek at the beginning.

Five or six years ago, I ran into three such consecutive books, causing me to re-think my 'never put down a book once you begin it' philosophy. These were all highly received books by many people's standards; I was SUPPOSED to be able to appreciate them. And yet, there was nothing about these books that made me feel I'd gained something in persevering through--I only felt I had wasted my time. I read, in succession, Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain, Anne Proloux's Shipping News, and Frank McCourt's 'Tis. I had never read anything by the first two authors, but they were book club recommendations and I really tried hard to like them and to have something of significance to share with my group. I got nothing, and couldn't bring myself to like or care about the characters in the least, despite having gotten all the way to the ends of their books with them. And Frank McCourt I already had a connection to, because I read and completely loved Angela's Ashes. 'Tis, it seemed to me, was a lazy capitalization on McCourt's previous success and name recognition; the novel had very little to say and all but undid the fondness and admiration I developed for his character in his first novel. Ultimately, I realized that I have far too many books on my shelf to devote time and energy to the ones that become a chore for me. It's not unlike a relationship whose time has passed; when it's not a two way street, and you're not both contributing to the relationship, sometimes the best thing to do is to part ways.

So how do you know whether the book is eventually going to draw you in? I advise my students to give it at least fifty pages in before they abandon a book they're reading for pleasure. If, by that time, the characters have not made their impression, you are not likely to care about them in another three hundred pages. There are so many characters and worlds and lives to explore; I have given myself permission to set aside the characters that are better suited to someone else's acquaintance. It's okay to let go.


Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Thinking in Pictures--Temple Grandin

April 20, 2010

Temple Grandin's book, Thinking in Pictures, is one I really wanted to like, because its subject is important to me. It's a non-fiction narrative about a highly successful woman whose expertise in her field (she has a Doctorate in Animal Science and has developed mechanisms for humane cattle handling that are widely used across the United States) is likely because of her autism, rather than in spite of it. Her unique way of processing information allowed her to visualize the way in which the animals she was working with would respond to certain stimuli, and therfore enabled her to see ways in which she could make changes to the big business of cattle handling (dairies, for example) that would make the cows calm and compliant in processing.

With her expertise, and using as her examples her experiences in the cattle industry, she gives her readers a glimpse into the different ways people with autism and Asperger's process information. She doesn't just focus on her own particular way of thinking, but on several. These different ways of thinking, if we are aware of them, can help us learn to communicate more effectively--whether it be in education or simply in social situations--with those who have autism or Asperger's. I think awareness is her key impetus here, especially since she has encountered in her lifetime opposition and misunderstanding, depsite her obvious intelligence and determination. Because she had a mother and a couple of key teachers who understood her way of thinking and encouraged her, she was able to capitalize on those differences and succeed.

The book is at times a bit disjointed and often repetitive, but I suppose that it's somewhat illustrative of the very thing she's talking about--this idea of seeing in pictures, or snapshots, or images. Sometimes when we flip through a photo album, we see we may have taken several that are quite similar, with the only variance being a slight shift in the body or a shade of change in the brow or the curve of the mouth. Rather than melding them all into one general description of the picture's subject, Grandin painstakingly describes each photo in her mental album, each image she sees, to detail her unique perspective. Unfortunately for the reader, it is often without segue, or without an explanation for how or why each photo is different, when it seems so similar on the surface. I suppose in that way we can see a little more clearly how her brain processes information. It did, however, make it a bit difficult for me to wade through the book (that, and my general lack of interest in cattle), being not possessed of a brain that processes information in this way. This, too, gives us insight though, as we get a little glimpse of how different it must feel for those with autism or Asperger's to make their way through each and every day in a world not geared towards their ways of thinking.


Monday, March 22, 2010

No Exit--Jean-Paul Sartre

March 22, 2010

"Hell is...other people." In Sartre's existentialism view, this is quite literally true. No Exit is a play that explores the afterlife in a satirical and often humorous way, challenging us to think about the how we define ourselves and the context we build for ourselves in order to create meaning in our world.

At the outset of the play, Garcin has just arrived in the afterlife. He is conducted by a valet to his new 'accomodations,' which is something akin to a mid-level hotel room, albeit one to which he will be confined forever. Still, it's nice enough. The valet is amused by Garcin's queries as to the location of the burning pincers, the hot pokers, the other instruments of torture. Garcin is confused and not a little relieved to learn none of these are part of the environs he would inhabit for all of eternity. This would be much easier than he had anticipated--or so he thought.

Not long after, he is joined by two women, Inez and Estelle. None of the three knew each other in life, and they are left to wonder how they three came to be one another's eternal roommates. In attempting to make connections among themselves, they at first maintain the facade of innocence, feigning surprise at their fate. Soon enough, though, the ugly truth comes out, and they each see the other in all their naked and calculating guilt. They see the blackness and the cowardice in their souls, dependent upon each other to absolve them, to mirror back what they want most to see in themselves--justification.

But, as Inez says, "You are--your life, and nothing else." There is no justification, no way to defend oneself. And yet that is what they continue to do--to seek approval and affirmation from one another, all the while recognizing they have the power to withhold that affirmation from the other two, and thus keep the upper hand. It's a vicious circle, being more drawn to the lure of the power over others than to the desire to work together for a common cause, a greater good. Rather than subverting the desire to wield power over others, each becomes more fierce in attacking the character of the others, knowing what they seek is salvation in each other.

And thus they begin eternity. No end in sight, no change expected. A forever of looking for peace, and a forever of knowing it won't come. Who needs the fires of Hell? Hell is..other people.


Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Hunger Games--Suzanne Collins

March 10, 2010

As I was reading the book (another recommendation by one of my students), I was struck by the same feeling I get that makes horror movies so difficult for me to watch--the hopeless, inescapable feeling of being trapped. In a suspenseful horror movie, the feeling is visceral; I don't want to be there, participating in the experience of walls closing in, killer getting closer, options disappearing.

Books are different for me, though I can't quite tell why. I have a vivid imagination; I can see clearly what I'm reading. For some reason, though, I don't feel quite like I have to live through the situation in order to experience it. Despite being fully engrossed and present in the story, I am not made to feel I am in peril. I get to experience the cathartic release ("Thank goodness it's not me!") from a removed spectator position, rather than participant. It's fascinating and entralling and riveting, and I love it.

The Hunger Games is another book set in the post-modern world, a dystopian society that is simultaneously familiar and foreign. The country is divided into twelve districts, many of which are suffering economically. Kaitness and her family are barely eeking out a living (by illegally hunting) in District 12, the most distressed of all the districts. Hunger is a constant companion, and the well-being of her sister and her mother are the sole focus of her days.

That is, until the annual reaping, wherein each district is obliged to offer up two tributes to participate in The Hunger Games, sacrifices to the Capitol which provides for their safety. All children and young adults are eligible, at a certain age, to become selected, and in this particular year, Kaitness' beloved younger sister is selected. Desperate to protect her, Kaitness offers up herself as this year's female tribute. Along with her, District 12 sends Peeta, the local baker's son. They will represent their District in the fight-to-the-death struggle that is The Hunger Game.

All tributes, two from each district, are transported to the Capitol, where they are fed, trained, and prepared for a brutal, televised competition in a wilderness designed to test their strength, cunning, and perseverence. It's closely followed by all the inhabitants of each district who are hoping a win will bring money and food and respect to their families and neighbors. Ultimately, there can only be one survivor who will reap the benefits of wealth and adoration, both for themselves and for their district. Once chosen, a tribute has no option. It's kill or be killed, survive at all costs. Alliances can be made initially, but trust is a hard-won commodity, since there is the ever-present knowledge that if there is to be but one victor, alliances can only survive so long.

Kaitness and Peeta face ruthless opponents, devastating wildfires, attacks by genetically engineered beasts, starvation, and lack of water. There are ambushes, broken alliances, and loss of friendship. The most difficult trial, though, that they must face is the knowledge that the bond they form with one another will become the most painful thing of all. To end the Games, either Kaitness or Peeta, or both, must fall.

Part Running Man, part Logan's Run, part Rollerball, part The Lottery, part Survivor, and part Big Brother, with Lord of the Flies thrown in for good measure, it's the kind of book that has appeal for the young adults for whom it's written and their parents as well. I couldn't put it down, and when I did finish, I felt the need to run right out and get a copy of the second novel in this gripping trilogy.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Running Out of Time--Margaret Peterson Haddix

February 15, 2010

At the recommendation of one of my students, I picked up this young fiction novel after we read The Handmaid's Tale in class. The elements of a dystopian society are juxtaposed with modern society. In an elementary and somewhat simplistic way, the issues of unchecked power and abuse of modern science and technology are explored. Actually, I was reminded, as I was reading, of the movie "The Village," though I expect the intended audience is not yet old enough to watch that film.

In the novel, Jessie is a young girl growing up in 1840, a simpler time of hard work and rustic, rugged values. However, in her tiny little town of Clifton, a powerful outbreak of diptheria threatens the lives of many of the children of the village. With great trepidation, her mother, the one who is called to tend to the sick and dying, reveals an almost unbelievable secret. The year is NOT, as Jessie believes, 1840. It is actually 1996, and Jessie and all of her neighbors are living in an elaborate frontier village that the world outside views through hidden cameras as a tourist attraction. Several years past, the adults banded together to escape the growing danger and instability of the outside world and with the help of a few powerful men on the outside, set up a virtually self-sustaining and isolated society. They had agreed for the sake of authenticity to raise the children of the villiage to believe they were from that earlier time.

The only real modern advances would be medical--medicine would be sent in secretly to the village on a regular basis in order to maintain the health of the inhabitants. Within the past few months however, just prior to the diptheria outbreak, the medicine stopped being delivered, with no explanation. Jessie's mom sends her on a dangerous mission out in the real world--a world completely unfamiliar to her, to seek help and to find out why this has happened. The village is heavily guarded so that no one can either exit or enter, but Jessie must find a way to escape--lives are at stake.

As Jessie makes her way to 1996, readers follow her journey not only to find help, but to find answers as well. How did the village come to be? Why? Whose interests are being served? Why has the medicine stopped coming? Why is the outside of the village so heavily guarded? We as readers are not disappointed as Jessie explores all of these questions. The author's writing style is at times a bit choppy and occasionally heavy-handed, but I was impressed at the way in which she was able to address some fairly complex issues in a novel geared at a young audience. Kids who enjoy this novel might find their way a few years down the road to an appreciation of 1984, Brave New World, The Road, and yes, The Handmaid's Tale.


Friday, February 12, 2010

The Handmaid's Tale--Margaret Atwood

When I first read The Handmaid's Tale some 25 years ago, it had a profound effect on me. All these years later, I find that the basic message still holds true.

The novel is set in the not very distant future. The damage we have done to the environment has taken its toll on fertility rates, as well as the water and food supplies. Feminist mores of society have also become more extreme, adding to the drop in childbirth rates. An extremist group, feeling like a move away from traditionalist values is to blame for the ever-alarming direction society is moving in, enacts a coup and in one fell swoop violently guns down the members of Congress in session. Swift and immediate repercussions are the freezing of all bank accounts by women and halting of international travel. (Extreme reliance on technology in the society make this possible--everything, including money, is all automated.) The Constitution is suspended in order to 'enact emergency measures to stablize society.' In the blink of an eye, all systems are in place for a reversion to a completely patriarchal and near-dictatorial system of government.

In this new system, there is a distinct hierarchy designed to maintain patriarchal rule while simultaneously building back up the population. Those who are still fertile but are not considered worthy to be wives of the elite become Handmaids, vessels for the sole purpose of reproduction. Hearkening back to the Old Testament, the Handmaids' bodies are 'borrowed' for surrogacy by Commanders and their wives who are unable to have children. They are reduced to that basic biological function. Once they have successfully managed to produce a child, that child is given to the Commander and his wife to raise as their own.

Offred, the main character is one of these Handmaids. She is a former feminist, daughter of a feminist, and is now in service under her Commander. The society is ruled through such fear and intimidation that she dares not rebel, though her position is what one would consider degrading and subservient. The unexpected happens, though, when her Commander summons her for a clandestine meeting at night behind closed doors. What they do there Scrabble. The written word has been denied women in this society, as has free conversation. It turns out, this is what the Commander most misses about the old society--the ability to converse, engage in word play, enjoy verbal banter. He misses the emotional and intellectual connection that has been eradicated in this highly regulated, compartmentalized society. She learns, in her undercover meetings with the fairly high ranking Commander, the impetus for the coup, what they hoped to accomplish, what they still hope to attain in this newly restructured society.

Through the Commander, Atwood warns of extremism: extreme political views, extreme social views, extreme religious views, and extreme reliance on technology--all elements we battle in our own contemporary world. When one group superimposes its own singular viewpoint on others, everyone in society loses. Even those whose will is powerfully enforced will find that something is lost. The Commander says, "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs." He says this to justify the sacrifices made by some, presumably for the greater good. What he doesn't realize, though, is that he, too, has sacrificed something, and that what they thought was the greater good might not have been so after all.

A caveat: if you decide to pick up this book (and I think you should), be sure to read the Historical Notes at the end. I have recommended this book to friends and students many times and have realized that the notes at the end can be misleading. It looks like an addendum--perhaps Atwood's research notes. Many bypass this section as they might a preface or a forward. However, in this case, it is, in fact, part of the novel itself. If you don't read it, you haven't actually read the end of the book, and it does make a difference. Offred says in the novel, "Context is all," and here the Historical Notes, closing chapter in the book, give a new context that has bearing on the perspective of the rest of the novel.