31 March 2010

The Unblogged Chronicles (March 2010)

This is another installment of "The Unblogged Chronicles"--mini reviews of all of the books I didn't blog about this month. Enjoy!

The Joy Luck Club (family drama/women's fiction): I have been meaning to read this book, which has become something of a modern day classic, for some time now. This Amy Tan novel tells the story of four immigrant Chinese women and their Americanized daughters through touching vignettes that range from tragic to comedic. As you all well know, I am a huge fan of works that feature multi POVs, and this novel alternates between first person narration from all of the daughters and three of the mothers. The result is a fascinating book with a plot that unravels like a puzzle as you follow each character's development and motivation. This novel isn't packed full of action, per se, but it is an enthralling story anyway. Tan writes an intriguing domestic drama that anyone with relatives can relate to. I look forward to reading more of her work.

Hedda Gabler (tragedy): This Henrik Ibsen drama was part of my assigned reading for World Literature II this semester and is considered one of the classics of modern drama...for good reason. I adored this play--it's a fun read. The protagonist, Hedda, is a fiery, complex female character with a dark side, and this tragedy, which traces her downfall in the course of two days, is superb. All of the characters are well-crafted (Ibsen took one year to plan out their personalities. As a details-obsessed neurotic, I appreciate an author who is obssesive with research.) The Victorian Scandinavian setting is vivid and realistically portrayed, as well. I really wanted to do a blog post on this one, but, alas, I was too busy studying it for a test to have time. Waaa! On the flip side, this play is a lot of fun to analyze in class. ^^

Peony in Love (romance): All right, I must be honest: I have mixed feelings about romances. On one hand, I adore certain classic romances, gothic romances, and historical romances. On the other hand, I am not a big fan of the Happily Ever After endings that are so common in this genre. Meh, I just think they are a bit too pat. Give me a choice between a Happily Ever After and a murder-filled finale where everyone dies, and I'll choose the bloodbath every time. I found this Lisa See novel--a supernatural romance set in 16th century China and loosely based on fact--interesting, though a few parts did drive me a little crazy. (Not crazy enough to make me dislike the book, but crazy enough to make me occasionally roll my eyes.) This novel is the tale of Peony, who pines away from lovesickness, under the influence of the deeply romantic and frequently banned The Peony Pavilion opera, and, after becoming a ghost, influences her husband's subsequent brides to do likewise. The first part, before Peony's death, is good, but it's all very familiar: Girl falls in love with dreamy boy. Girl is trapped in impending arranged marriage and will never see boy again. Girl becomes upset and starts acting crazy. (On a side note: If you decide to go on secret rendezvous with an attractive stranger, please, for the love of God, at some point tell each other your names. It will save everyone a lot of heartbreak, okay? Thank you. This has been a public service announcement by Zella Kate, courtesy of the Lonely Hearts' Club.) I thought that the book improved dramatically after Peony died and became a ghost, primarily because it was unique and provides a fascinating look at traditional Chinese beliefs about the afterlife. The historical detail is well done. Overall, I liked the book, though I thought the beginning was a bit clich├ęd.

Secrets of Eden (literary thriller): Alice Hayward was baptized on Sunday morning. She was murdered by her abusive husband in a murder-suicide on Sunday night. But was it really a murder-suicide? Evidence at the crime suggests it may have been a double homicide and the pastor that baptized Alice, Stephen Drew, is the prime suspect. This brand new Chris Bohjalian novel is told through the POVs of the accused Drew, the DA who believes he's harboring secrets, an author who interjects herself into the investigation because her parents also died in a murder-suicide, and Alice's now orphaned daughter. The only reason I didn't review this is it would have come too soon after Shutter Island. This is an extremely well-written novel. Bohjalian does a marvelous job of maintaining suspense without resorting to overdone plot tricks. I was particularly impressed with how individual each of the character's narration was, especially the sardonic DA, Catherine, and Alice's teenage daughter, Katie. I highly recommend this book.

Gone, Baby, Gone (hardboiled mystery): I am now a confirmed Lehane nut. Aly simultaneously recommended it to me as I was reading it. (You know what they say about great minds...) This is a gritty, heartrending tale of a kidnapping in the mean streets of Dorchester, Massachusetts and the resulting investigation by private detectives Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro. As with Shutter Island, I loved the twisty plot and the great characters. I also love how Lehane doesn't cop out and go for the blatantly unrealistic happy ending. As with my other Lehane review, I must warn you that this also has loads of profanity and some very disturbing scenes. (If it makes a hardened PI like Patrick cry, it will make you bawl, too. Or at least it made me cry.) My only problem, and it isn't the author's fault, is it is a little hard to follow in parts because this is the fourth book in a series, but Lehane keeps it up to date without bogging you down in details. (I am now going insane trying to find the other books in the series.)

Prayers for Rain (hardboiled mystery): This is the fifth Lehane novel about Gennaro and Kenzie. (I am reduced to reading whichever one I can get my hands on. Pity me! Pity me!) I enjoyed this one--which details the detectives investigation of a sadistic stalker who pushes his victims to commit suicide--but I liked Gone, Baby, Gone just a little better. Reason is in this one the basic plot gets figured out before the denouement and it becomes more an issue of stopping the stalker, rather than a mystery right down to the end. It’s still a great atmospheric read with Lehane’s trademark sardonic wit. And the ending, where Kenzie and Gennaro turn the tables on the stalker, is delicious revenge. *insert standard disclaimer about profanity and adult situations*

Columbine (non-fiction/true crime): The Columbine High School shooting was the first major news story that I remember when it happened. (The fact that I was living in Colorado at the time probably didn't help.) As with true crime in general, it is an event that both horrified and fascinated me. Eleven years after the fact, journalist Dave Cullen re-examines the massacre in this meticulously researched, well-written book that explodes many of the myths about the tragedy. I saw a review that compared it to one of my favorite books--Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. That's high praise from anyone, but this book is reminsicent of Capote's masterpiece. Even the killers bear a disturbing resemblance to the murderers in Capote's book. (That's because murder-spree duos usually have similar psychological mindsets, but that's a story for another day.) Cullen is widely regarded as a foremost authority on the Columbine school shooting. This book proves it.

Greedy Apostrophe (children’s book): Those of you who know me well know that I love punctuation, even to the point of committing vandalism in the name of preserving proper punctuation. *cough* You also know that I adore that most special yet maligned punctuation mark: the apostrophe. *gently picks apostrophe up and holds her high for the world to behold* Is she not dainty and pretty? Is she not flawless? Is she not the epitome of what a punctuation mark should be? (Just agree with me. Please.) Well, as much as I adore the apostrophe, in the wrong hands, this gentle soul can wreak havoc. Greedy Apostrophe: A Cautionary Tale, by Jan Carr, warns of the confusion and horror that can result from abuse of the apostrophe. This is a children's book, so I wouldn't expect you guys to read it, but for those of you with younger relatives, please read this book to them! Alert them to the dangers inherent in using apostrophes to make something plural! Greedy Apostrophe must be stopped! We need your help! :P

P.S. As some of you have already discovered, I am now on Twitter. Stop by and read the ramblings of my diseased mind when you get a chance...if you dare. :)


Next Week: Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis. This is one of my absolute favorite stories from one of my favorite writers. We're reading it for World Lit this semester. I squealed with joy when I saw it on the syllabus.

28 March 2010

Animal Farm

Greetings, gentle readers! I wanted to post a review of something else I read this week to close out my Spring Break book binge week, but I sort of had, you know, homework and some other crazy things come up. I decided to post this review I've had saved up, instead.

The animals of Manor Farm have grown tired of Farmer Jones's oppression. I mean, seriously, they're the ones who do all of the work, while he profits off of their labor. Why shouldn't they just cut the ingrate out of the equation and work for themselves, so they get to enjoy the fruits of their labor? A most reasonable plan if there ever was, even if it was devised by pigs (literally). Soon, the crafty porcine militants have overthrown the farmer and seized control of the land, with the full support of their fellow barnyard creatures. The animals create a paradise of equality, named Animal Farm, built upon the concept that "four legs good; two legs bad." Then a nasty power struggle erupts between the two dominant pig politicians, Snowball and Napoleon, which causes the cozy utopia to implode. Will Animal Farm ever be the same?

Animal Farm is one of my absolute favorite books, and it is my favorite satire. Why? Well, for many reasons. I adore Orwell's other classic, 1984, for its stark style and nightmarish dystopia; I love Animal Farm even more because it's just so...funny. Though 1984 is also a critique of communism, Animal Farm takes on the subject with a much different style, one that is wry and outrageous. What's weird is the book isn't full of overtly humorous dialogue or scenes, yet it is still amusing, primarily because Orwell's anthropomorphic, allegorical retelling of the Russian Revolution is so masterfully crafted. Each stage of the Revolution is covered and all of the major personalities and events are here, from Stalin to Trotsky to bloody purges, and all of the inherent irony and absurdity is highlighted by Orwell's barnyard cast. As a history major who hopes to specialize in the Russian Revolution, the whole concept strikes me as hysterical and the fact that Orwell has every little detail accounted for makes my ubernerd heart happy.

Another reason I like this book is its simplicity. Animal Farm is a novella--my copy is only 120 pages long--and can easily be read in an afternoon. Orwell also relies on a style that is engaging and oddly reminiscent of the tone used in children's fables. The characters, though symbolic, are well-crafted, effective, and memorable, especially the sinister Napoleon, the loyal Boxer, and the cantankerous Benjamin.

I don't believe in reading analysis and background history before tackling most books. I find it distracting and have found that kind of material much more interesting after reading the book in question. Animal Farm is a slight exception. As with most satires, you have to understand what Orwell is lampooning to understand the book. If you have a basic knowledge of what happened during the Russian Revolution, you shouldn't have a problem. If not, do a little bit of reading before picking this one up. You don't need to read Riasanovsky's A History of Russia (unless you just want to. In that case, I highly recommend it), but reading a few encyclopedia articles will definitely give you a much better foundation to approach this book. Using a copy with footnotes that explain key passages wouldn't hurt, either.

Animal Farm is a delightfully acerbic examination of a key event in world history. Orwell's masterpiece reminds me of some weird blend of Russian history, Chicken Run, and Gulliver's Travels. If you love high-quality satire, this book is a must-read. (And after you've read it, please tell me if I am insane for free-associating this book with my all-time favorite album--Pink Floyd's Animals. My mind works in strange ways...)

Next Time: Alas, friends, I must return to my usual schedule of just posting on Wednesdays. My next post, which should fall on the last day of this month, will be this month's edition of "The Unblogged Chronicles." I'll have mini-reviews of a modern day classic, a supernatural romance, a tragedy, a couple of more Lehane novels, a brand-new true crime book, a recently published literary thriller, and a children's book that I think should be enshrined in gold...or made mandatory reading. See you Wednesday!

25 March 2010

The Help

Aibilene has spent most of her life working as a maid for well-to-do white families in Jackson, Mississippi. Her friend Minnie has done likewise, though with her sharp tongue job opportunities are few and far between. The two friends think that nothing will ever change in their world, which is ruled by cooking, cleaning, and ironing for others, though the civil rights movement has been at work for some time in the early 1960s. Then Aibilene is asked by her employer's friend, Skeeter Philan, a well-to-do recent college graduate who is desperate to become a writer but is expected to marry well instead, if she wants things to change. Aibilene is at first reluctant to discover what Skeeter has in mind, but once she finds out what Skeeter's plan is, she reluctantly agrees to help. The project they embark on could lead to both Aibilene and Minnie being fired or worse, and Skeeter being forever shunned, but they decide that the risk is worth it.

After reading Shutter Island, a grim noir set in 1950s Massachusetts, I needed an upbeat read. The Help was the exact opposite of Shutter Island--a bittersweet but ultimately triumphant tale set in 1960s Mississippi--and fit the bill perfectly. This book, which was a surprise bestseller last summer, was recommended to me by both my good friends Maddie and Claire. Thanks so much! I thoroughly enjoyed it!

The Help was author Kathryn Stockett's debut novel and I am very impressed! This is a very well-crafted novel, on all fronts. The plot is an uplifting examination of friendship and courage that is easy to relate to. Stockett also manages to build and maintain a tremendous amount of dramatic tension in what could have been a dreary domestic setting. Rather than relying on false plot twists to sustain reader interest, Stockett uses her characters' interactions with each other to build suspense and the result is a page-turner that I couldn't put down. Stockett also does a superb job of creating authentic period detail. This is a novel that is very much grounded in realism and the author paints a portrait of the South that is biased in neither direction, which is quite refreshing. Rather than being heavy-handed and lecturing about the injustice of the era, she shows it in action, and that is ultimately far more effective and poignant.

The real draw of this novel, though, is the characters. Aibilene, Minnie, and Skeeter are all complex characters, each with their own set of flaws and virtues, who are immensely likeable and utterly unforgettable. I am always kvetching about 2-D female characters and Stockett certainly avoids this in her novel. One major strength of this book is the narration, which is written in first person narration that alternates between Aibilene, Minnie, and Skeeter (in addition to one third person chapter). Each character has her own distinctive voice, and the Southern accents in the narration and dialogue are perfect. Overdone accents is a major pet peeve of mine, but Stockett--who was born and raised in Mississippi, went to college in Alabama, and currently lives in Georgia--makes their voices authentic, and the result is a delight to read.

The Help is a wonderful debut novel that is a blast to read. This is a book that truly is heart-warming, a phrase that ol' cynical me rarely applies to a book. I hope Stockett plans on writing more books. If they are anything at all like her first novel, reading them will be a pleasure.

Next Time: Hmm...I am not sure. My spring break is winding down, so I kind of have to, you know, study some this week. I have a couple of books I am reading now, but I am not sure if I'll blog on them. If I do find something to blog about, I'll post a review this weekend and then the next installation of "The Unblogged Chronicles" next week. If I don't come up with something, I'll post "The Unblogged Chronicles" this weekend and have a review ready for next Wednesday. That's the plan, anyway. (Nobody is allowed to mention how much I often don't follow my plans. I don't want to hear it! *covers ears with hands and hums an annoying tune*)

22 March 2010

Shutter Island

Greetings, gentle readers! (Or not so gentle readers, if you prefer that address.) Since this week is my spring break, I am going to blog more than just my usual one post per week (In addition to this post, I plan on doing a midweek post and a post next weekend). Hurray! At least I hope that's a cause for joy... Anyway, I am kicking off this week of book splurges with an excellent book (written by a new favorite author) that was recently adapted for film by one of my favorite directors. Enjoy!

In 1954, US Marshals Teddy Daniels and Chuck Aule are sent to Shutter Island, a maximum security insane asylum located in Boston Harbor where some of the country's most dangerous mentally ill prisoners are housed, to investigate the disappearance of delusional murderess Rachel Solando. Solando seemingly walked through a locked door, past several security checkpoints, and vanished. It doesn't take Daniels and Aule long to realize that something is very amiss with this case, especially when the asylum's staff prove unwilling to fully cooperate with the investigation. With one of the worst storms in recent memory blowing in, Daniels and Aule race to locate Solando. But they soon begin to realize that, in addition to the staff being unhelpul at best, someone on the island is trying to drive them insane...

All right, all right! I have a confession to make! *cough*I am a crime fiction fanatic. In fact, it's probably my favorite genre of genre fiction, with fantasy and horror in the running for a close second. My love for crime fiction is rooted in the fact that I harbor a secret, highly irrational desire to be either a district attorney or a criminal psychologist or an FBI agent specializing in organized crime (this, children, is what happens when you read too many Al Capone bios as a teen). I have gotten over this delusion and know that none of these career choices would fit me, but I still love to live vicariously through crime fiction books and movies. And one of my favorite source for crime movies is Martin Scorsese. (The Departed and Casino are two of my favorite movies EVER!) So when I saw that he and Leonardo DiCaprio had a new thriller out--Shutter Island--I was so psyched to watch it. Then when I read that it was based on a Dennis Lehane book, I wanted to read the book, partly due to my policy of reading books before seeing the movie but also because I have heard a lot of wonderful things about Lehane's work and have been meaning to read his novels for some time. This was my, erm, motive for reading Shutter Island this weekend, and I was not in the least disappointed. This novel is one of the best psychological thrillers I have read and now I am really psyched to see the movie. Yeehaw!

Any good thriller needs a page-turning plot, and Shutter Island certainly delivers in this respect. The investigation into Soldano's disappearance is a genuine page turner. I started this book in the morning and didn't put it down until I had read the last page. It was that involving! And that harrowing! The story involves a complex brainteaser that will challenge even the most adept suspense readers. I knew something was afoot, but I never saw the truly shocking ending, which is one of the most stunning I have ever read, coming. What sets this novel above typical thriller fare, though, is the overall quality of the novel. Yes, the plot is engaging, but the book is extremely well-written. I was particularly impressed with the characters. Sadly, most crime fiction characters are usually so stereotypical, they are not very interesting. Not so with this novel. Teddy is a sympathetic, intelligent protagonist and Chuck was equally as complex and believable. I also enjoyed the unique setting. I have had a long-standing fascination with mental illness, and this interest was especially piqued during a General Psych class I took my freshman year of college. For that class, I had to do a research project on treatment methods, specifically shock treatment, lobotomies, and psychiatric medication. While researching that paper, I was mortified at what passed as "medical treatment" in most 1950s era mental institutes and, therefore, I found this novel's setting at that exact time period to be quite chilling, in and of itself. Lehane does a great job of recreating that atmosphere.

I enjoyed this novel very much, but I must state a couple of things about it, to be fair. Though I loved the ending and thought it all tied together at the end, it is quite a stunner. When I first read it, I started mentally shouting "NOOOOOOO! That's not right! It cannot be!" Then Lehane laid it all out nicely and I saw I was wrong. Though I thought it was brilliant, I can't argue that the premise is not a bit, well, trippy, which some readers may find too outlandish. I think that would be missing the point of reading a psychological suspense thriller, though. Outlandish premises are the nature of thrillers. Going along for the ride and matching wits with the author is the primary purpose of this genre, and I think Lehane gives the reader plenty to enjoy in that department. This probably boils down to a matter of taste, more so than anything else. Also, in the name of public service announcements, I must warn you: This novel contains a lot of strong language and a few adult scenes. It's nothing gratuitous and certainly not the worst I've ever read, but it is there, in case that sort of thing turns you off.

Shutter Island is a fast-paced, well-crafted thriller that you won't be able to put down. This is a novel you'll want to read twice. I can't wait to read more Lehane novels! I already have reserved more. A new favorite author. Hurray!


Next Time: Hmmm..not sure. I did check another Lehane novel out of the library today, but I wouldn't blog about it, for y'all's sake. Maybe a Cormac McCarthy novel or some of the historical fiction cluttered on my nightstand. I should have the post about on Thursday or Friday. See you then!

17 March 2010

Six Suspects

Nobody liked Vicky Rai. The thuggish, spoiled millionaire made many enemies in his thirty two years on the planet. Of course, that tends to happen when you spend your free time running over the homeless, murdering innocent bartenders, and getting away with it all because your father is a high-ranking (and extremely corrupt) official in the Indian government. As much as everyone despised Rai, his own murder, at a party to celebrate his acquittal on a murder charge no less, shocks everyone and the justice that Rai's victims were deprived of is demanded for him. Six guests are found with firearms and are arrested as suspects. These guests, their stories, and their motives for murder are the focus of Vikas Swarup's inventive, outrageous murder mystery Six Suspects.

If you're anything like me, you are reading Swarup's name and thinking, "Hmmm...that name sounds familiar." Swarup, an Indian diplomat, is the author of the acclaimed novel, Q & A, which was adapted as the hit film Slumdog Millionaire. I have never read Q & A or watched Slumdog Millionaire, but the premise of Six Suspects intrigued me. I have always been fascinated with India, so I was curious to read a contemporary novel written by an Indian author that is set in that country. I also love experimental fiction, which Six Suspects, with its multi POV framework, definitely qualifies. I also love a good murder mystery. So I couldn't resist checking this novel out.

Rather than presenting a standard linear murder mystery plot that starts at the murder and then works through the investigation or starting at the beginning and tracing the murder's cause, Swarup does both. The novel starts with a newspaper article about Rai's murder, moves onto introductions to the suspects -- a corrupt Indian official who may be possessed by the spirit of Gandhi, a doltish Texas tourist, a sharp-tongued Bollywood actress, a charming thief from the slums of Delhi, a disoriented islander from the Andamans in search of a lost tribal heirloom, and Rai's own father -- all of which are conveyed through a variety of methods (first person narration, third person narration, diary entries, and tapped phone conversations) before moving into the stories behind each suspect's motive for killing Vicky and the circumstances behind each one's presence at the party. From there, the novel picks up with newspaper articles to detail the investigation into Rai's murder.

I thought that Swarup handled the complex plot well. The many-faceted plotline is never confusing, and the murder mystery aspect is handled well. Swarup plays fair with the reader, but I bet you won't guess the murderer's identity. The focus of this novel, though, is each individual suspect. The individual stories range from the commonplace (thwarted love) to the outrageous, but each one is compelling and handled with humor. Six Suspects is also an indictment of India's government, which Swarup portrays as corrupt, but the tale is both hilarious and outlandish enough to prevent this from descending into a heavy-handed lecture about politics.

There was a lot to like about this book, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, though it is over 450 pages, I got wrapped up in it and couldn't put it down. However, as you can imagine, some of the characters were more engaging than others and, hence, some of the stories were better than others. I adored most of the suspects and found many of them sympathetic, even if they really weren't. Shabnam, the Bollywood star, and Eketi, the mischievous islander, both go squarely in this category, as does my absolute favorite of the characters: Munna, the thief. (He reminded me so much of Moist von Lipwig from Discworld. I have a weakness for roguish, good-hearted charmsters...) Even the stories of two of the least-likeable characters, the two government officials, are entertaining. The story of Mohan, the possessed one, is weirdly funny and the story of Jaggarnat, Vicky's father, is an intriguing tale of corruption.

But, and this is a big but, I hated the story line involving Larry, the American tourist. (Pardon me while I stand on my soapbox and scream.) I thought this particular subplot of terrorist kidnapping and mail order brides and mistaken identity, though amusing at times, was horribly over done and melodramatic. I could have handled that, but Larry was intolerable and stereotypical. His first person narration was chock full of irritating yokel sayings, some of which were funny, but the sheer quantity of them was unnerving. It was distracting to read several corny similes like "I was as confused as a cow on Astroturf" on every page. (I'll admit some of them were pretty darn funny, but they're the ones that are unprintable here *sigh* or they are so outrageous that no person with anything remotely resembling brain cells would ever say them seriously.) It was as if Swarup just decided to cram every cheesy Texas saying known to man into Larry's story. It wasn't logical either, because most of Larry's narration was fairly well-spoken and grammatically correct, so it was a glaring inconsistency to me. What aggravated me the most, though, was how stereotypical Larry was. It disappointed me that all of the other characters were so well-crafted and complex, yet Larry was the proverbial idiotic hick who was incapable of realizing anything, whether he was being stood up or mugged. As a Southerner, I think the stereotype that we're all a bunch of toothless ignoramuses has gotten old fast. As a reader, I was vexed that Sawrup choose the easy way out with this character. I really wish that Swarup had developed Larry as well as he did his other characters. (My soapbox rant is officially over.)

Six Suspects is a superb book with a lot to offer -- complex structure, intriguing mystery, and scathing social satire. Overall, I recommend the book for anyone who loves postmodernist experimental fare, mysteries, or Indian culture. Though I was disappointed in Larry, I though the rest of the book, and Swarup's undeniable talent, more than made up for that. I wouldn't mind rereading this book, and I look forward to reading Q & A and the third novel that Swarup is reputedly working on.

Next Week: I can guarantee nothing. My spring break is next week, so I have a lot of books that I am planning on devouring. I do want to try to do at least two, if not three, reviews next week, in addition to this month's installation of "The Unblogged Chronicles." I am thinking it may be some historical fiction, maybe Wolf Hall, but again I am not sure. We shall see. (I have no idea why this is a different font size. Sorry!) *beats computer unmercifully*


10 March 2010

A Separate Peace

Sixteen year old prep student Gene spends most of his days in the summer of 1942 doing whatever his best friend Phineas, better known as Finny, dictates. If Finny thinks they should invent their own game of blitzball during PE, then they do. If Finny thinks they should form a Super Suicide Society of the Summer Session, then they do. If Finny thinks they should cut class and go to the beach in lieu of showing up for a trig test, then they do. Eventually, Gene starts to suspect that his charming, free-spirited friend's impulsive decisions are a deliberate attempt to sabotage his stellar academic record. Gene's suspicions prompt him to lash back at Finny, leading to tragic consequences that neither of the two friends could ever have anticipated.

Scott recently recommended John Knowles' classic coming of age tale, A Separate Peace, to me, and I read it over the weekend. I had heard a lot of great things about this book (and I love a good coming of age story to start with) but had never read it before. I wish now that I had -- it's a new favorite! I started this book Friday evening and finished it early Saturday morning. Yes, it's that good. I loved Knowles' writing style. His prose is elegant and lyrical yet highly readable. Knowles' description of WWII era New England boarding school life is also realistic and makes for a unique backdrop. The petty rivalries between the students and the outrageous diversions that they develop to stave off boredom especially rang true. A Separate Peace is also a compelling study of the joy of friendship and the insidious influence of envy. It's definitely one of the more moving books I have read recently. (You may want a hankie handy for the tear-jerker ending.) That being said, the book isn't a totally depressing read. There is a lot of wit and humor present as well.

As much as I loved the style, setting, and plot, the real draw for me were the characters, who were complex and exceptionally well-constructed. I sympathized with Gene, the novel's sensitive, intellectual protagonist, but I adored Finny. We all know a Finny, that upbeat, charismatic, and devil-may-care friend whose carefree personality is one that you both admire and detest. I read many novels that have strong main characters, but very few books have as strong of a supporting cast as A Separate Peace. Knowles created a vivid mix of equally interesting and realistic characters in Gene and Finny's classmates, which range from the misunderstood Leper to the enigmatic Brinker to the insufferable Quackenbush (Admit it: You laughed at the name. Don't lie! I saw you giggle as you were reading this blog post.)

I highly recommend this novel. A Separate Peace is a superb book on every level. Well-written and moving, this novel features some memorable characters that are well-worth getting to know.


By the way, I love getting book recommendations, so please always feel free to suggest books to me. I'll read them as soon as possible. :)

Next Week: Vikas Swarup's Six Suspects.

I also have two announcements. Hey, don't run! They'll be quick. I promise. First, you may have noticed the new pages I have been adding to my blog. (Just humor me and pretend that you did. *points covertly to top of page*) I have added "What's All This, Then", which is a history of my blog; "And You Are...", which includes more information about me then you would ever wish to know; and "What's Next?", which is where I will be posting the books on my TBR list that I plan on reading in the not-so-distant future. I plan on adding a few more pages over the next couple of weeks and will point them out when I do get them finished.

Now, for the other announcement. My good friend over at Ergo, Scott, tagged me to predict my future. I have to tag ten other bloggers and make predictions about where I will be in ten years. I would mention that Scott is an excellent friend (and blogger) with an outrageous sense of humor and impeccable taste in books, but he insisted that I am not allowed to tag him back, so I won't. Be that way, Scott. ;)

Hmmm...where will I be in ten years? In ten years I will be thirty -- the age of Hamlet. This intrigues me, because Hamlet is not only one of my favorite characters who I insist upon dragging into every conversation, but I once took a personality test that said Hamlet was the literary character that I am most like. The similarities between the Prince and myself were truly scary. (Of course, I also once scored as Lady Macbeth and Sweeney Todd on similar tests, so maybe I shouldn't take these too seriously...) Regardless, I wonder: When I am thirty will I also develop an alarming case of insanity that involves my being responsible for the murders of several people? (Gee, I hope not...) Will I wander around a spooky Danish castle reeling off witty non-sequitors and shrieking "Fie on it!"? (Gee, I hope so...) Will I be an indecisive emotional basketcase? (Gee, I already am...) I wonder about these things, but the thorny question that I really ponder: Will I still be in college, like Hamlet was? (Gee, I bet so...) That is the question! I mean, I plan on sticking around and earning master's degrees in English and history then getting a Ph.D. in history, so it's very likely I'll be one of those pathetic ABD grad students, slaving away on some dry dissertation that only the insane, drunk, or academic would plod their way through. That's all right, though. Maybe if I am busy writing a dissertation on the political beliefs of Russian Revolutionaries, I will be too distracted to sword fight anyone named Laertes...

Enough of my nonsense! Now for the ten bloggers I have tagged:

Jean (Discarded Darlings) -- for her always amusing observations on writing.

Aly (My Seriously Unserious Life) -- for always being so cheerful and upbeat.

Bec (Propose With Oreos) -- for her funny, informative "How to" articles

N.A. (Zac Serves it right) -- for her original, engaging series on Zac the cafateria worker.

Math is a Plentiful Harvest (Math is a Plentiful Harvest) -- for her superb poems and essays.

Ryan (The Dark Corner of the Mind) -- for his always excellent take on writing.

Jourdie (I Read This!) -- for his great book reviews and literary analysis articles.

Rose (Shadowland) -- for her haunting, beautiful poems.

Lucy (Amusing Seth) -- for her amazing blog posts and great links.

Glenda (Schemer's World) -- for her hilarious take on writing and life.


03 March 2010

Of Mice and Men

Migrant agricultural workers George Milton and Lennie Small wander from farm to farm looking for work in Depression-era California. Finding work isn't so much a problem for these two friends as keeping jobs, for the good-hearted but simple-minded Lennie has such a propensity for trouble that even smooth-talking George can't convince employers to keep them for long. When the two arrive at a ranch in Salinas County, they are determined to stay until they make enough to buy a small farm where they can be their own boss, beholden to no one. But George and Lennie's plan goes tragically awry when their bullying boss, Curley, targets Lennie as his next victim.

I know I promised you historical fiction last week, but I just didn't have time to read any historical fiction this week. I also realized that this would be my fiftieth post on my blog *throws confetti*, so I wanted to pick something special to review. Also, I have been promising my good friend Maddie for quite some time that I would review a book by her favorite author, John Steinbeck. Finally, I wanted to return to a normal-sized post after frightening you guys with those behemoths from the past two weeks. With all of these thoughts swimming around in my poor diseased mind, I saw my Of Mice and Men copy -- one of my absolute favorite books ever -- on the shelf and knew that was what I had to blog about.

So exactly why is this slender little novella one of my favorites? Well, first and foremost, George and Lennie are two of my favorite literary characters...period. I sympathize with the put-upon George, who masks his sensitive side with biting sarcasm, and poor Lennie's child-like innocence and vulnerability just breaks my heart. Curley is also one of the most vile characters in literature. We have all met a Curley (read: idiotic bully), and the resulting collision between the sadistic, spoiled rancher and the workers he mistreats is one of the most compelling, heartbreaking confrontations I have ever read. When I first read this book, the shocking ending (which I refuse to divulge, in case you haven't read it) made me sob relentlessly and turned me into an emotional pile of goo for a day. The ending still makes me weep every time I read it. *dabs eyes with hankie* The emotional intensity of this novella is the primary reason I adore it so much, but I also love the realism Steinbeck employs in his portrayal of the setting. The rugged life of Depression-era migrant workers comes to life with Steinbeck's dialogue and narration.

I think this book is a masterpiece, but I would be remiss if I didn't discuss the controversy that surrounds Of Mice and Men. Though this book is widely regarded as a classic of 20th century literature (rightly so!), Of Mice and Men is one of the most censored books in US history. As late as the 1990s, this novella was the second most banned book in this country and it still remains a frequent target of censors. Why? Welllll, the book is chalk full of profanity, the plot is morbid, and some of the characters espouse racism and are insensitive toward the mentally handicapped Lennie. I think these critics who dismiss this book as offensive are missing the point of this novel. Yes, the language is heavy. There is profanity on virtually every page. However, the cursing is never gratuitous and is essential to understanding several of the characters. I have read books that had less language than Of Mice and Men that offended me far more, because the language was not necessary. I am also not going to deny the book is morbid, but I think attacks that this book is racist or discriminatory are utter nonsense. There is a huge difference between a book where the author advocates despicable platforms and a book that reveals how despicable those beliefs are by showing them in action. I think showing the consequences of these actions is a far more effective means of condemning these ideas than merely lecturing about them. I think the philosophical issues that this novella explore would have nowhere near the powerful effect if these elements of the book were not present.

Of Mice and Men is a powerful tale about friendship, dreams, and justice. If you have never read this superb story, I beg you to pick it up and give it a read. This is one of those books that stay with you long after you put it down.


Next Week: I just got several books from the library that I can't wait to read and blog about. I can't guarantee what next week will be, but it is likely the review will cover Vikas Swarup's Six Suspects (an experimental mystery set in modern-day India and written by the author of Q & A, which was turned into the acclaimed film Slumdog Millionaire), Lisa See's Peony in Love (a supernatural romance set in 17th century China), Hilary Mantel's Booker Prize winning Wolf Hall (a historical fiction piece about Elizabethan England suggested to me by James), or, if I get it in later this week as planned, John Knowles' classic coming of age tragedy A Separate Peace (suggested to me by Scott).