Friday, June 29, 2012

Book Beginnings: ttfn

Every Friday Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Fridays. What you do is share the opening line(s) of the book you are currently reading and briefly discuss what you think about the opening line or the book or whatever else inspires you. Make sure to share your entry with Rose City Reader and in my comments below.

Here's my book beginning:

"Saturday, November 20, 4:45 pm E.S.T.
SnowAngel:        hey there, zoe-cakes. r we studs or what?"

Yep, it's the sequel to ttyl, the second book in Lauren Myracle's instant messaging trilogy. Same characters, only a year later and with some new problems. I'm over halfway through this, and I do like Myracle's style, though some of the conflicts are kind of silly. Believable, yes, but still silly. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Shooter, by Walter Dean Myers (2004)

Walter Dean Myers' Shooter is a multigenre work that takes a look at a fictional school shooting and events leading up to it. We don't actually witness the shooting happen, but learn about it after the fact from interviews, police reports, and a diary. School shootings has been a topic of film and novels ever since the horrible Columbine shootings of 1999, and school violence has become an increasingly greater problem ever since. It's no surprise that people are drawn to these kinds of stories, many of which focus on the character of the shooter or shooters. The media, of course, has its theories as to why these teens snap. Video games are to blame. Bullying. Bad parenting. We need to know why someone would go on a shooting rampage so we can prevent it from happening next time.

The story focuses on three characters, all students of Harrison County High School: Cameron Porter, Leonard Gray (Len), and Carla. Cameron, who was Len's best friend, is the main focus of the novel. We learn that Len was the shooter, and Cameron and Carla were also in the school at the time of the shooting. There were two deaths: Len's and another student's. The interviews are meant to shed light on the character of Len, but also of Cameron, because his participation is somewhat shady. Cameron is shy, a black kid. He and Len are both outsiders, but Len has a strangeness to him that seems to attract the attention of bullies. Len's troubled mind is apparently passed down from his father, though he didn't acquire his father's racism. One day Len's father took Len and Cameron out with his friends to do some shooting, and among the targets was a cardboard cut-out of Martin Luther King, Jr. Len treats it as a harmless joke, and Cameron tries to as well. He looked up to Len to the point that he wasn't able to realize something wasn't quite right with him.

I find that while the novel does some interesting things, it didn't work for me. It was too impassive and not very engaging. The main problem lies in the fact that Cameron isn't very interesting. We get the impression he's intelligent, but he doesn't say very much. At least one interviewer seems to believe he's holding back information, but I think he's just not very comfortable with the interview process. The one interview with Carla proves much more interesting, because she has personality. She's combative with the interviewers and she brings a lot of life to what was becoming a dull, repetitive affair. The second to last section of the novel, which is Len's diary, is also fascinating. Len uses a lot of clever, yet creepy, wordplay, and his language reveals a very troubled mind with a plan. We learn from his diary that he did have a purpose in carrying out his shooting, but I'll leave that for you to discover.

There is an emotional detachment in the way the novel unfolds. As the interviews focus solely on the words spoken by the interviewer and interviewee, we can only guess what it means when someone pauses, but there's no real emotional connection with the speaker. The news reports also add to the detachment, as well as the very final piece, which is cold in its finality. I believe Myers did this on purpose, however, to show how the dissection of tragic events removes their emotional impact. They become mere facts and figures, abstract ideas rather than a real thing with real weight. The purpose is to analyze and determine why such events happen, but Myers' goal is to point out that there aren't always easy answers to those questions. Maybe there are no answers at all. Sure, Len was an outsider and he was troubled, but so were Carla and Cameron, and they had no intention of harming anyone.

As a discussion piece for a book club or a classroom, I think this novel has a lot of potential. However, I would be hard-pressed to recommend it to a friend or family member. It's a very competent work, just not an entertaining one.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesdays is a meme hosted by Should Be Reading. What you do is answer the following three questions:

What are you currently reading?

I decided to read the second book in Lauren Myracle's ttyl trilogy, this one called ttfn. It has me laughing here and there, but it doesn't have the energy of the original, which faltered in the end anyway. We'll see how this ends before I decide if I'm curious enough to read the final book, l8r g8r.

What did you recently finish reading?

If you're curious to know whether a book written entirely in instant message speak is a worthwhile read, feel free to check out my review.

What do you think you'll read next?

I'm thinking about starting A Clash of Kings next. My wife just started A Game of Thrones and she's breezing through it, so I want to stay ahead. At the same time I don't want to spend the next two weeks on just one book, so there's a chance I might read something like Saul Bellow's novella, A Theft.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

ttyl, by Lauren Myracle (2004)

It should come as no surprise that somebody would write a novel entirely in instant messaging format. I don't know if Lauren Myracle was the first to do so, but her novels seem to be the most popular of their type. ttyl was written back when instant messaging services like AOL Instant Messenger were still popular. I can still recall with some nostalgia the blips and bloops for sent and received messages, the ways you could customize your font, and the omnipresent smiley faces. Nowadays AIM is a cyber ghost town. Perhaps you've logged onto your account and found nothing but the wind whistling and the tumbleweeds rolling by. People send text messages nowadays. Still, the novel doesn't seem antiquated or anything. Text messaging isn't really much different from instant messaging. Also, Myracle writes with a vibrant energy that almost carries the novel through to its finish, but falters in its finale.

Myracle positions us, the reader, as an observer of a series of instant messages sent between three different friends: Maddie (screen name, madmaddie), Angel (SnowAngel), and Zoe (zoegirl). Each girl has a different type of font, SnowAngel's in blue, madmaddie's in bolded black, and zoegirl's in normal black font. They also have different personalities. SnowAngel is the social butterfly and craves attention from boys. madmaddie is sarcastic and tends to get down on herself. zoegirl is the good Christian girl who earns straight "A"s.

The 10th grade school year has just started, and so has the drama. Each girl has their own conflict to face, and these conflicts mostly end predictably. SnowAngel becomes infatuated with a boy, and they start going out, but then another girl starts to invade her territory. madmaddie is having problems with a girl named Jana, who has a reputation for stabbing her friends in the back. A friendship between Jana and madmaddie blossoms when madmaddie gets her driver's license and a car, a friendship whose fate you can probably guess. zoegirl has perhaps the most interesting conflict. Her English teacher, Mr. H, has begun asking her to go to church and fellowship meetings with him. Her mom, generally restrictive of her daughter's doings, is pleased, and even zoegirl is delighted and happy. Being a teacher and a Christian, zoegirl and her mother obviously put good faith in his intentions, plus he's young and handsome. This relationship develops into the most troubling conflict in the whole story.

Myracle writes with a great deal of energy. Some authors write with so much energy it's overwhelming, but Myracle finds the perfect pitch. There's also a good deal of humor, and I laughed out loud during many parts. She seems to have a good grasp on how teenage girls really speak, and some of her language can be shocking. The girls curse now and then, and there is some graphic sexual language here and there. Alcohol is a factor at one point. For these reasons the book, and the trilogy as a whole, have been among the most challenged books in the country over the past decade. I think Myracle writes the way teenagers really do speak (not all, but many), but parents and other authority figures don't like to admit this. I think teenage girls would find the content enjoyable and relatable.

One of the problems with a story told in this format is that you're getting all of the details either before the fact or after the fact. We see the excitement of two girls planning a surprise party for the other, and then we see them talking about it afterward. In a more traditional narrative, the immediacy would have added to the emotional content of the novel, particularly suspense or fear, but in the way it is told, we know nothing truly terrible could have happened, because the girls are fine enough to send instant messages.

There aren't very many real conflicts until the last two-thirds of the book, and then the formulaic conflicts come into play: friendships being tested and whatnot. One of these simply does not make any sense, but feels forced, and its resolution comes out of nowhere. I feel conflicted about the way the Mr. H situation is handled. I think Myracle portrays that dilemma with a lot of insight into the psyche of a teenage girl. zoegirl doesn't know if she is being victimized or not, and she begins to blame herself. I've seen this kind of behavior in college-aged girls as well, so zoegirl's dialogue with her friends rings true. Also, her friends realize something isn't right, but are afraid to tell her so, out of fear of harming their friendship. This is the wrong decision to make, but I have no doubt many teenage girls would do this. The book reflects reality, but I believe it would be more helpful to young adults if it reflected the better choice.

The novel is the first in a trilogy, with the next two books titled ttfn and l8r g8r. I will read ttfn only because I picked it up at the same library book sale I picked up ttyl, though I'll probably stop there. I enjoyed the book for a while, but its conclusion just doesn't work, and the style of the book can't really hold up. I wouldn't not recommend this to a teenage girl, because she could probably relate to it better, but if that teenage girl happens to be your daughter, I would recommend having a discussion with her about what happens at the end, just to make sure she doesn't come away with any wrong ideas.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury (1953)

To say that Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is about a society that burns book is putting it a bit simplistically. It's not simply the fact that books are burned that's dangerous, it's what's destroyed with the books. The people in Bradbury's dystopian world have been effectively trained to enjoy simple, mindless stimuli, such as television walls that feature characters who are your 'family' and your 'friends.' The rationale is that books are sources of a vast amount of ideas, many of them in conflict with one another, and this clash of ideas makes people unhappy. Burning books is one of many ways to reduce sorrow and confusion in the world, though more to the point it's a way to control people through blissful ignorance.

Guy Montag is a fireman. Not like the firemen of the old days, the ones that put out fires, but a fireman who actually sets things on fire. Things like books, and the houses hiding them. Guy doesn't wonder why he's burning books, he just likes to see them burn. But one day he meets a young girl named Clarisse. Clarisse is different. She likes to walk outside for no reason than to enjoy the weather. She has ideas about things. Like if you rub a dandelion under your chin and it leaves a yellow smudge, you're in love with somebody. Guy is surprised when the dandelion leaves no mark under his chin. He tells her he's married.

His wife, Mildred, floats day-by-day in a state of a coma-like bliss. Soon Guy begins to wonder whether she really is happy. In fact, after meeting Clarisse, he realizes he isn't happy himself. He begins to hate his life: every day coming home to his wife, who is asleep with seashell-shaped headphones in her ears to drown out the world. Mildred can't even fathom that she's not happy. She denies ever swallowing a whole bottle of sleeping pills, causing Guy to have to call for help. Clarisse, by giving Guy a new way to look at the world, has set in motion something that can't be undone. He begins to think about a meeting he had with a man called Faber who seemed to know something about books. And soon his boss, Beatty, begins to suspect something's not right.

Reading the novel reminded me of a song by Serj Tankian, lead singer of the band System of a Down. The song, called "The Unthinking Majority," goes like this:

Controlling tools of your system
Making life more tolerable
Making life more tolerable"

While I doubt Tankian is saying people shouldn't take anti-depressant medication, I think his point is that in seeking things to make us feel better we sacrifice the ability to think critically about our lives. If we're unhappy about something, we need to right that wrong, not find something to make us forget and improve our own individual state of happiness. Bradbury would probably agree, and I think this is the message he is conveying in his novel.

Beatty provides much of the rationale for why society has become what it is. He explains such abstract concepts like philosophy make people unhappy because they are slippery - there is no right or wrong answer. People often hold conflicting ideas about one thing. This uncertainty of what's right and what's wrong creates unhappiness, and books are largely to blame, though complex ideas can certainly be found in other mediums as well. Thus society rewards physical activities, such as running, over intellectual activities. You either run a mile or you don't. The basketball either makes it into the hoop or it doesn't. With concrete things, there are no conflicting ideas.

Of course, one can't get rid of philosophy, but Bradbury's society does make it simpler by presenting to its people only one side of each argument, or no sides at all. That way the people don't have to concern themselves with which side is right. There is only one side. This was made possible though the mass production of books, TV, radio, and other forums for ideas.

Here's what Beatty says:

"Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten- or twelve-line dictionary resume...many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet...was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors."

The idea isn't to engage in an in-depth reading of a piece like Hamlet, but to simply tell your neighbors the plot synopsis. Bradbury's dystopian world seeks to prevent its people from thinking by providing constant entertainments that make it impossible to think. The seashells continuously pore noise into one's ears; sleeping pills help one fall into a deep and fast sleep; catchy advertisements play incessantly on the subway train; and at home people turn on the television walls. Faber tells Guy that to be able to think, one must have the leisure to do so - meaning some time for peace and quiet. Peace and quiet is exactly what society avoids, so nobody has the chance to wonder about their society or question what they're told.

Bradbury's concerns are still pertinent to society today, and in fact maybe even more pertinent.. We are a culture obsessed with entertainment. We love TV shows, and some of them are incredibly mindless, though I don't think Bradbury would condemn all TV shows. Some certainly are thought-provoking. Advertisements permeate our culture in just about anything, from what we wear to the places we go, and they can be quite effective in making us feel hungry for a cheeseburger. Many of us have such busy lives that we hardly have time for friends and relatives, much less time to think. Our hectic, stressful lifestyles have certainly taken their toll. Suicides have become increasingly common. They are a way of saying that something needs to change.

As you can see, Fahrenheit 451 is a thought-provoking read. Some of the dialogue and the technology seems archaic today, but that adds to the charm. The mechanical Hound, with a syringe for injecting morphine into its victims, is particularly strange, but oh so devious. As archaic as some of his dialogue and his technology might seem to us now, the novel feels surprisingly contemporary, like it was written today and not 70 years ago. And that's what's frightening.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Book Beginnings: ttyl

Every Friday Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Fridays. What you do is share the opening line(s) of the book you are currently reading and briefly discuss what you think about the opening line or the book or whatever else inspires you. Make sure to share your entry with Rose City Reader and in my comments below.

Here's my book beginning:

"Tuesday, September 7, 5:39 pm
SnowAngel:      hey, mads! 1st day of 10th grade down the tube - wh-hoo!"

-ttyl, by Lauren Myracle

This novel is written entirely in instant messaging format, and yes, Snow Angel's messages are all in blue font. And mads is short for another character, Maddie. I picked up the first two picks on this trilogy at a library book sale because I was curious and they are popular. Expecting not to enjoy it very much, I was pleasantly surprised to find it entertaining, and I'm about halfway through it now. We'll see if it can keep up in the second half.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

War Horse, by Michael Morpurgo (1982)

I waited to see the movie before finally reviewing Michael Morpurgo's War Horse. I don't know why I chose to wait, though I think it's largely thanks to the movie that I ever heard of this book, which was apparently written three decades ago. There are some major differences between the two versions, and I found the book to be better because it has a more focused perspective, though the movie is pretty good, too. The book's main themes don't translate very well to the big screen, I find, as Morpurgo uses the universal love shown to the horse to question why we fight and kill one another.

The novel takes place in a small town in England and begins just before the start of World War I, as Joey is purchased by a drunk farmer. This man is the father of Albert, who names Joey and who Joey calls his true master. Albert does much of the training because his father has no patience with the horse and at one point even tries to shoot him dead. This scene is in the movie too, but Spielberg casts the father as a friendly drunk, a victim of the predatory actions of his landlord, and Albert's mother is the mean one. However, this isn't a fault in the movie. Since the book takes place from the very limited perspective of the horse, Spielberg had a lot of freedom to do whatever he wanted with the human characters in the movie.

Eventually Joey is sold to Captain Nicholls for use in the war, and Albert is so upset he wants to enlist, but he is too young. Captain Nicholls is a very nice man, and even draws sketches of Joey. Joey even makes a friend, Topthorn, the horse of one of Captain Nicholls's peers. The adventures of these two horses land them in German territory, pulling ambulances and eventually heavy artillery. They even spend some time on a French farm with a little girl named Emilie and her grandfather. Emilie is a stock character many of you may recognize. I knew exactly what would happen with her the moment she appeared.

As I said, the story is written from Joey's perspective, in the first person. This was a little awkward for me at first, but Morpurgo does a good job of making the point of view believable. Joey can't talk with other people or animals, though he shares his thoughts with the reader. His interactions with others are the same as you might expect from a horse, which adds to the believability.

Joey's limited knowledge of the world serves to add to the novel's themes. He doesn't understand boundaries, and as such there is no difference in his mind between England and France. He has no idea of nationality. He likes everybody all the same. The men around him, whether German or English or French, admire him as beautiful. Joey serves as a common thread between all people. If everyone can fall in love with a horse, then why can't they love one another, too? There's even a wonderful scene in No Man's Land where a Scotsman and a German wave a temporary truce to free Joey from barbed wire, converse about the tragedies of war, flip a coin for possession of the horse, and sadly reflect that in an hour they might be shooting at each other.

The novel's main weakness is that Joey, as a horse, can't do much to affect the story himself. He is guided along, as if on rails, and his destiny depends on where other men take him. However, Morpurgo writes the story in such a way that this isn't much of a problem. He is a horse, anyway.

This works well as Young Adult fiction, but even adults will find something to enjoy. While there is a lot of violence, much of it occurs outside of Joey's perspective. We know people die, but Joey rarely sees it happen. It's an easy read, and the perspective of horses in World War I is a unique topic. If you like horses and/or you're a war buff, you'll find something to enjoy here.

WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesdays is a meme hosted by Should Be Reading. What you do is answer the following three questions:

What are you currently reading?

I haven't quite started this yet, but I picked up the first two books of Lauren Myracle's young adult trilogy at a library book sale, the first book called ttyl. These are written entirely in instant message format, and I became even more curious when I found that these books are among the most challenged books in the country. Hopefully it's good.

What did you recently finish reading?

I most recently finished reading Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury, and should get the review for that later this week. I'll just say there's a reason it's a classic. I also finished A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin, finally. My review for that is here.

What do you think you'll read next?

Unless I really don't like ttyl, I will probably read its sequel, ttfn. I'm still on the lookout for The Perks of Being a Wallflower, though, and if I get my hands on that, it will be the next book I read.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A Game of Thrones, by George R. R. Martin (1996)

As a blogger commented in one of my posts, this is the hot thing to read right now. This is surprising when you consider the book was written in 1996, though when you factor in the currently running HBO TV series based on the book series, I guess it's not so surprising. One word sums up this book: daunting. You've heard from your friends and family how great it is, but the book is just so...massive. And there are four more in the series, A Song of Ice and Fire, that are even longer! I could give you a page length, but that would be meaningless because it varies depending on whether you have the hardcover, large paperback, or small paperback. Besides, it says nothing about how quick you'll read it. The hardcover version of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows was 700 or 800 pages, but it was a fairly quick read. The version of A Game of Thrones I read was just under 700 pages, but it took me a week and a half of solid reading to get through it because it is so much more complex than Rowling's novel. So yes, this is a daunting read, but once you start getting into it, it's incredible.

The novel is written from the perspectives of eight different characters. A majority of these, six to be precise, are members of the Stark family, holders of the northern realm of Winterfell in the Seven Kingdoms, whose king is Robert Barratheon. Ned Stark is the lord of Winterfell, soon to become Hand of the King upon the sudden death of Jon Arryn, the previous Hand. Catelyn Stark, his wife, would prefer not to see him go, but soon becomes involved in events she would not have anticipated. Ned and Catelyn have six children, of whom four are given a point of view. These are Jon Snow, Ned's only bastard son, a fact that Jon is reminded of constantly; Bran, the second oldest son, who is fond of climbing; Sansa, the oldest daughter, who is in love with the bratty Prince Joffrey and is in line to marry him; and Arya, the youngest daughter, who doesn't want to be a lady like her sister but prefers adventure. Each character contributes something to the story, though I think Bran's and Arya's perspectives add the least, particularly towards the end of the novel. I have no doubt they play a larger role later in the series. The two Stark children I did not mention is Robb, the oldest, and Rickon, the youngest.

Tyrion Lannister from the HBO series
The other two perspectives come from two other houses. Tyrion Lannister is the dwarf son of Tywin Lannister and brother to Jaime Lannister. Jaime served as Hand to the previous king, Aerys Targaryen, and earned the name Kingslayer upon killing him and claiming the throne for Robert Barratheon. Tyrion bitterly realizes the only reason that, as a dwarf, he was not left to die in this cruel world is because he was born a Lannister. However, this does not mean his family is accepting of him, and he is fully aware of this. As he lacks the physical prowess of his brother, he instead sharpens his mind by reading books. He is my favorite character and provides the funniest dialogue.
Daenerys Targaryen from the HBO series

Daenerys Targaryen is the eighth and final perspective. She and her brother, Viserys, are the last of the Targaryen line. Viserys calls himself the true heir to the throne, and he plots to win it back by marrying his sister, referred to as Dany, to the leader of a people called the Dothraki, who live across the sea from the Seven Kingdoms. His intention is to use the massive and powerful Dothraki force to take back his crown. Dany begins the novel as a meek girl, but after she marries the Dothraki leader Khal Drogo, she grows stronger as a character.

There are so many other characters and plot lines that it's impossible to describe them all, especially without giving away spoilers. If the above list seems daunting, I assure you that after a few chapters things will become much clearer. George R. R. Martin does an excellent job of developing his characters, even his side ones, and pretty soon you know who is who, and you start getting an idea of background information that leads to the novel's current events. Fortunately Martin also provides plenty of reminders as to who is who and what is what, otherwise I would have been flipping back and forth through the book far too often.
Catelyn Stark from the HBO series

Along with developing characters and plotlines, Martin also provides new and interesting information in each chapter. In this way he keeps his readers interested and wanting to read more. Once the early introductions begin, the plot truly sets in motion, and it is filled with mystery and intrigue. At the end of each chapter you want to know what happens next. The final 200 pages or so are particularly good. This is where most of the action is, but the action is not boring, as it often tends to be in fantasy adventure stories. For one, Martin knows how to build up suspense, and he realizes the importance of letting the reader know what's at stake. Too many fantasy stories I've read are far too pleased with the fight scenes and grow annoyed with all of that other stuff, like character and story, but for Martin the action is perhaps the least important aspect. First he lets us get to know his characters, and then he lets us know why we should care about the action.

This is not a fantasy story for the kids. Its massive length is one indication of this, but also its content. The violence can be very graphic, with lots of innards spilling out and blood pouring from wounds. There are also several sex scenes, mostly involving Dany and Khal Drogo. The themes, as a result, are much more mature than you would find in a Young Adult fantasy tale. Martin tackles the politics of power, introducing a huge host conflicting interests that make the game of thrones so complicated and impossible to predict. Characters make decisions that have dire consequences, though they seem the right thing to do at the time.

Ned Stark from the HBO series
The story plays out like the dramas of real historical games of thrones, and as such you will find that no character, no matter how much you love them, is safe from death. Several times I laughed, several times I felt saddened, and at other times I was angry with the novel's villains. Though using the word villains may oversimplify the story, particularly since we see things mostly from the perspective of the Starks. I don't know if it's so easy to say who is truly good and who is truly evil. Certainly some are more evil or more good than others. There are some characters who do a very good job of hiding where their true allegiance falls, and what their true intentions are. Ned Stark sets himself up as a good guy because his values place honor as the most important quality in a man. Where that gets him I will not say.

In the end I say you should go and read this book. Grab it from your bookshelf, where you look at it daily, contemplating whether today is the day you will begin. No, you may not have a life until you finish it, but I guarantee you will enjoy your time with it. Of course, Martin sets up such enticing cliffhangers at the end that you might just dive into the next one, and the one after that, cursing the author for writing such an addiction.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Embroideries, by Marjane Satrapi (2005)

Graphic novels have become very popular during the past decade, though some still write them off as comic books for kids. People who call them that have probably never read a graphic novel. I am pretty new to the genre, I admit, Embroideries being only the third graphic novel I've read and the first by Marjane Satrapi. If there's someone who can show that the genre is not just for kids, it is Satrapi.

There's no real plot, but many conversations between several women while the men take their after lunch naps. The novel is autobiographical, starring Satrapi herself as one of the characters, and everyone else consists of members of her family. The main topics of conversation are love, sex, and marriage, with most of the marriages not working out very well for the women. One woman is arranged to marry a man many decades older than her, and when he tries to consummate their marriage she is so horrified that she runs away and hides at her aunt's house until her husband dies of old age. Another woman marries a man who lives in another country and is so busy he sends to their wedding a framed picture of himself. This marriage does not end very well either. Satrapi's characters are fed up with the conservative views their Iranian society holds towards women. The women as youths have naive ideas about love and marriage, ideas which are shattered once they face the reality of marriage in a society that doesn't give them much of a say in the matter. These are women who have been hurt and have learned their lesson. Some are happily married, it seems, while others are happily single.

Satrapi's art is simple, with only as much detail as necessary, but has a style that is uniquely hers. She draws in black and white only, in contrast to many popular comics and graphic novels. She avoids being flashy, but focuses more on the themes and ideas that fill her novel. This isn't to say the pictures don't add to the story. They are richly evocative of whatever mood Satrapi sets. Being black and white, the images contrast with the colorful nature of its cast. Doing so also helps Satrapi aim her work at a more mature audience.

Reading this reminded me of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, for the two novels share similar themes. In both we see life from the perspectives of multiple generations and from many different women. Both also don't have much of a plot, but instead focus on themes that thread the many different stories being told. We find that in both cases, in China and Iran, the women have limited rights when it comes to relations and marriage. There's an East/West dichotomy in both as well, though Satrapi seeks to sever that dichotomy, and perhaps Tan does too.

Embroideries, in being shorter, is much more focused than Tan's novel, meaning it deals with a smaller number of thematic issues. And I must add that this is definitely a novel for adults. There is no nudity, but there are some mature images and language. However, it is a very funny novel. Some of the humor comes from the shock value, but Satrapi's wit supplies most of the laughs. This is a novel about women's rights, and I think what it has to say stretches beyond Iranian borders. It certainly has many elements that are unique to Iranian culture, but sex, love, and marriage are universal themes. A controversial book in any culture, but worth reading.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Book Beginnings: Fahrenheit 451

Every Friday Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Fridays. What you do is share the opening line(s) of the book you are currently reading and briefly discuss what you think about the opening line or the book or whatever else inspires you. Make sure to share your entry with Rose City Reader and in my comments below.

Here's my book beginning:

"It was a pleasure to burn."

 -Fahrenheit 451, by Ray Bradbury

I'm am still reading A Game of Thrones, but I'll finish it this weekend. Instead of using the same book I used last week, I decided to use the book I will probably read next. I've only read one short story by Bradbury, and I figured it was about time I started reading more of his work.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson (2008)

Chains, by Laurie Halse Anderson, has many similarities with The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. Both were written in 2008. Both are the first book in a trilogy. Both have a young female protagonist raised in a society that abuses them. Both of these young girls have a younger sister to look after. Here the differences end. Where The Hunger Games is futuristic, Chains is historical. Anderson does a much better job of developing her main character, who isn't shy about talking about how she feels about her society. Chains was a National Book Award finalist and won the Scott O'Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and it has a hero who actually tries to do something about her situation. Yet this novel was much less read than The Hunger Games, though perhaps that's because it's escapist, where Anderson's novel faces a historical reality some Americans still don't like to discuss: slavery.

Upon the death of their mistress, Isabel and her sister Ruth are sold to the Locktons, despite Isabel's claim that their mistress' will should have left them free. The Locktons are British loyalists, and they make a return to a rebel-held New York, where there is a sizable slave population. The rebels suspect the Locktons are Tories, and for this reason Curzon, a slave boy to the army commander, asks Isabel to spy for them, promising her freedom. Isabel is hesitant, unsure of who to trust.

Her sister, Ruth, becomes a personal maid to Mrs. Lockton, which worries Isabel because her sister is simple and prone to seizures and Mrs. Lockton is not a very nice lady. This serves as Isabel's biggest concern until it escalates into a confrontation. In the meantime, Isabel also finds herself dragged into Curzon's spy games, and it doesn't take any sneaking around or listening in secret because Mr. Lockton and his fellow Tories discuss their plans right in front of her, as though she's just another piece of furniture. Another key character is Lady Seymour, the aunt to Mr. Lockton, who is much more kind to Isabel than Mrs. Lockton. Also of mention is Isabel's only friend in the house, a servant named Becky, though their friendship isn't built on very solid foundations. War soon disrupts everyone's daily lives.

Isabel is a very strong character, and smart, not entirely helpless to her situation. Mostly she finds it best to obey her mistress, as many slaves did, but we also see her sneaking off to do her own thing, or rebelling in some other small way, and sometimes rebelling in much more dangerous ways. Anderson does a good job of showing what it must have been like to be a slave. Isabel does not simply acquiesce to her mistress' demands, but she fights or cheats if forced to go against her own values. She also contemplates her situation and has her own ideas about it. This is something I wish I saw more of in The Hunger Games.

This is a very well-researched historical novel. Anderson uses a neat literary trick to make it feel like it is a true story, where she inserts quotes from real historical documents at the start of each chapter. These quotes parallel the main story and make it seem as though Isabel was pulled straight out of a real historical narrative. Anderson also taught me a few things I didn't know about slavery and the Revolutionary War, rather than just regurgitate the same old thing.

I will admit the novel does sometimes feel detached, though it is written from Isabel's perspective. It felt as though Isabel was more historian than slave at times, and when the novel should have been emotionally involved it seemed at too much of a distance. I cared about Isabel, but her narrative voice brought me to the present, to the now, rather than to the past, where it belonged. Though this may sound like an odd criticism, I think the writing was perhaps a little too refined.

Still, I would highly recommend this book. If you have not read much, or anything, about slavery, this is a good start. It isn't too graphic, though some terrible things do happen, and it has a lot to teach. Even those who have read everything about slavery will be intrigued by it. Its setting, in Revolutionary War-era New York, is fascinating. I also don't know how many novels about slavery spawned sequels. Just as the novel started to become a little sleepy, its exhilarating conclusion slapped me wide awake and had me excited to get my hands on the next book, Forged.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesdays is a meme hosted by Should Be Reading. What you do is answer the following three questions:

What are you currently reading?

I'm a little more than halfway through A Game of Thrones now, and I'm really enjoying it. It's a very complex novel, and I am very curious to see how everything plays out. Also, I watched the first three episodes of the show this weekend, which seems to follow the book very closely. It also gave me some faces to connect with the characters.

What did you recently finish reading?

I read Ray Bradbury's short story, "The Pedestrian," which somebody shared on my facebook account following his death. It's the first thing I've read by him, and I really liked it. It's about a man who walks the streets at night alone because everybody else is inside their homes watching TV. Here's a link to the story: The Pedestrian.

What do you think you'll read next?

I was planning on reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Steven Chbosky, but none of the libraries I checked had a copy available. I assume with the movie coming out it's in high demand. If I can get my hands on it, that's what I'll read next. If not, I will read Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Go Ask Alice, by Anonymous (1971)

The novel, Go Ask Alice, claims to be based on the diary of a real life teenage girl. Whether this claim is true or not, the novel, written in the form of diary entries, is a harrowing look at the way drugs destroy one girl's life. The book has a clear objective in mind: to scare teenagers readers from using drugs. And the editors seem to have a pretty good idea of how to convince teens without being pedantic. Its portrayal of drugs is realistic and gritty, and the book pulls no punches. Teenagers will find a protagonist they can relate to, and a tone that avoids being preachy. A book like this can be important for some teens to read; it's not every parent who talks honestly about drugs with their kids.

The protagonist of the story does not appear to have a name. Her story begins sweetly. She has a nice family. Two parents and two siblings, a brother and a sister, both younger than her. Her family is well-off. She has the usual conflicts: she hates her parents' rules and she's got some boy troubles. When her family moves to another state she thinks things will improve, except she has a hard time making new friends. Over the summer she returns home to stay with her grandparents, which is not as fun as she imagined, and then some old friends invite her to a party, where somebody slips her LSD. She has the night of her life, and she can't wait to have LSD again. In fact, she wants to experiment with more drugs. And when she returns home she seeks out friends who can help her get drugs. Soon her life revolves around drugs, and at another key moment in the novel she runs off with a friend to Los Angeles. I will say no more about the plot.

The novel begins a little slow, and it's not until the protagonist starts trying drugs that it picks up. The early diary entries are stiff and sound more like a Victorian age girl than a girl from the 1970s. They have the feel of an adult writing with a purpose rather than a real girl writing real diary entries. Once she starts talking about her newly acquired drug habits, the book becomes much more compelling and seems to offer a better glimpse into the mind of a teenage girl. There are moments when she realizes she should stop using drugs, but her body aches for them.

In the middle sections the novel's tone changes dramatically, as though to show how drugs have altered her personality. There is much more profanity, as well as controversial scenes involving sex and graphic drug use. The novel has been on the most challenged book list for the past 40 years, making number 18 on the list in just this past decade. The drugs, profanity, and sex are the major reasons for its being challenged, though there are also objections to the fact the girl is a runaway. I think many parents are worried their children will emulate the behavior they see in the book, and some simply don't want their kids exposed to its ideas or content.

I believe most kids are smart enough to realize the book's purpose is not to make drugs seem like a good time, but to show teenagers the consequences of drug use. In order to effectively do that, sometimes it's best to expose teens to the real dangers. Most teens have likely encountered drugs anyway, without the knowledge of their parents, and if a majority of their friends say they're cool, teens are more likely to use them, no matter what their parents say. It's easier, but much less effective, for an adult to simply tell their kids to say no to drugs, but Go Ask Alice shows them why they should say no.

This is not for the light of heart, but I'd recommend it for teenagers and adults.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Saturday Snapshot - The Universal Appeal of A Game of Thrones

Saturday Snapshot is hosted by At Home with Books.

My cat, Orange Man, wanted to know what all the hype was about. He would prefer it if there were direcats instead of direwolves, otherwise two paws up so far.

The Gammage Cup, by Carol Kendall (1959)

"When something happens, something else always happens."

This quote is a sample of the whimsical writing you'll find in Carol Kendall's wonderful fantasy tale, The Gammage Cup. The whimsy is not without substance, and much of the story's content is a document of American attitudes towards conformity and individualism during the Cold War era. The Minnipin people find themselves threatened by a race of beings who were no doubt inspired by the red scare, and their only hope lies on the shoulders of a handful of individuals proud of their uniqueness.

900 years ago, the Minnipins settled in the Land Between the Mountains, which is protected on all sides by mountains and has no way in except a river that hasn't dried up for centuries. The leader of these Minnipins was one called Gammage, who had a cup, and as they scoured the land, Minnipins remained behind at key places to build towns. Some 400 years later, Fooley the Brave flew a balloon over the mountains and returned some months later with artifacts from the Land Beyond the Mountain. An accident caused him to lose his memory, and some of the artifacts were mislabeled, as a result. The Minnipins devote their lives to the findings of Fooley. His descendants are the town's leaders, called Periods, and named such things as Co., Bros., and Etc. because those abbreviations were found in Fooley's journal and they seemed important. The Minnipins devote their lives to making their towns look just like those pictures Fooley brought back, and as such they all have green doors and wear green cloaks. Well, almost all of them do.

There is a handful of nonconformists. Muggles, as the main character, hovers somewhere between conformity and nonconformity. She doesn't want to be an outsider, but she does like the outsiders who reside in the town, and her personality just doesn't allow her to follow every single Minnipin convention anyway. The other nonconformists include Gummy, who composes poetry that goes against Minnipin convention; Curley Green, who likes to paint actual landscapes and people rather than the arbitrary symbols the Minnipins favor; and Walter the Earl, who likes to dig up history, and the version of history he knows is not the same as the official history. Also important is Mingy the Moneykeeper, who doesn't want to spend money on superficial things like decorations, but would rather set up a sick fund. These five are important because they eventually find themselves outcasts when their nonconformist ways threaten the town's prize for best-looking town, whose prize is the Gammage Cup.

The real threat to the Minnipins, of course, is not these five outcasts, but mindless conformity. Tyranny begins to rear its ugly head as the Periods establish fines for idling. Also, the Mushroom people, or the Hairless Ones, are making a return, long forgotten because Gammage defeated them many centuries ago.

In many ways this is a simplistic story of good vs. evil. The Minnipins only naively fall into evil ways, doing what they believe is right, but it is the rugged individualists, the outcasts, who are the real heroes. I think one can view this as an allegory for the red scare vs. American democracy. The Mushroom people have no personalities and it is unquestionably the right thing to do to kill them all. If nobody among the Minnipins was brave enough to assert their own unique individuality, the Mushroom people would have defeated them easily, because the Minnipins, in embracing unquestioning conformity, were blind to the threat of invaders. Kendall seems to be reminding readers that it is the nonconformists who protect and represent American democracy. In this way, the tale is very simplistic, a relic of a time when people believed Communism was an unquestionable evil and that it presented a grave threat to democracy. It is in the language and characters that the novel shines, however.

Muggles is a fun heroine. She struggles between conformity and nonconformity, and in the end proves herself the strongest of all Minnipins. Not by virtue of battle, but by virtue of character. She rises as the leader of the five outcasts, and it is on her leadership that they survive on their own. And while she has a mostly cheerful disposition, Kendall provides her with some character depth, as she has some moments of profound doubts and depression. This helps cement the story with some substance.

The language is plenty fun too. The start of each chapter has a quote from Muggles or a poem by Gummy. Gummy's poetry litters the entire story, and much of it had me laughing. Some of the names of the places, too, is hilarious. It shows what happens to creativity when everybody conforms to a single set of standards. The name of the main town is Slipper-on-the-Water because Gammage lost a slipper on the river where the town was built. The streets have such names as Street Going to the River and Street Going Nowhere. Certainly practical, but not very imaginative. To give an example of how much fun the language is, I will share a passage:

"Then they heard it, though afterward they never could agree as to exactly what they heard. Mingy said it was a fat sort of noise, Walter the Earl claimed that it was an approaching kind of thing, but Curley Green described it as just a soundlike sound."

I could quote many, many passages like this, as well as Gummy's poems, but it'll be easier if you just read the book. In today's age of angst-filled and romance-focused fantasy, The Gammage Cup is refreshing. It is not angsty, and it has no romance. It is lighthearted through and through, and even its black and white depiction of good and evil had me feeling nostalgic. I find that the final 30 pages or so falter, but until then, it's a very enjoyable read.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Book Beginnings: A Game of Thrones

Every Friday Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Fridays. What you do is share the opening line(s) of the book you are currently reading and briefly discuss what you think about the opening line or the book or whatever else inspires you. Make sure to share your entry with Rose City Reader and in my comments below.

Here's my book beginning:

" 'We should start back,' Gared urged as the woods began to grow dark around them. 'The wildlings are dead.' "

-A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin

An ominous opening. I'm a little more than 150 pages into the book and I'm enjoying it so far. There are a lot of characters and a lot of events, but I think I've got a grasp on most of it now.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Cat Among the Pigeons, by Agatha Christie (1959)

This is my first experience with Agatha Christie. Mystery is not a genre I read a lot of, but Christie is so well-known I thought I'd give it a shot. Many novels do have elements of mystery in them, of course, particularly in hiding certain plot points or motivations until the end, so I am familiar with the conventions. I find that mystery, like many other things in life, is at its best before everything is revealed. Monster movies are always scarier when you don't see the monster than when you do. Cat Among the Pigeons is no different. I think it has a satisfying reveal, but Christie cheats a little to throw us off track.

When a murder happens at an illustrious all-girl's school, Meadowbank, Inspector Kelsey is just as puzzled as the headmistress, Miss Bulstrode, about who would commit murder at such a place, and why. The reader knows a little bit more about the circumstances leading up to the motivation for murder, having to do with a revolution in Ramat and the death of Ramat's crown prince. The prince's valuable jewels were smuggled into the school with his most trusted advisor's niece, unknown to her. However, somebody else must have known. Was it one of the mistresses: Miss Rich, Madame Blanche, Miss Vansittart, Miss Johnson, or Miss Chadwick? Was it the secretary, Ann Shapland, one of the servants, or a student? Added to the mix is Miss Bulstrode's consideration to retire and hand off her headmistress position, a gardener who is a little more than he says he is, and a young princess who was in line to wed the recently deceased crown prince of Ramat. This is a lot to consider, and it'll be up to Hercule Poirot to clear it all up.

Overall an enjoyable book. I like Christie's writing style. She sprinkles plenty of wit and humor throughout her storytelling. There is a general feeling amongst the characters that there is a cat among the pigeons. Somebody doesn't belong, but nobody can put their finger on who. The reader will have their guesses, of course, based on evidence and hunches. Christie throws out plenty of red herrings, and it's our job to try and see past these distractions. I had an idea of who the murderer was, but I was proved wrong. At first I was okay with this, but as Christie revealed more details I felt like she cheated. Something happens that leads us off the trail of the killer, and while there is motivation behind this something that happens, it is nonetheless difficult to believe it would happen. I will leave this vague so as not to spoil anything for you.

Other than this, there was plenty to enjoy. The description of the workings of Meadowbank were fun to read, as was getting to know the key characters like Miss Bulstrode, who seems to amaze everybody, even the narrator. The introduction of Hercule Poirot feels random, but I guess it is necessary to solve the mystery. The early scenes in Ramat were also effective. There's a brief moment of interesting political discussion that took me off guard. The prince of Ramat can't understand why his people want to rebel against him. He wants to enact welfare programs to help his people, where his father was a murderous tyrant. Yet they want to oust the nice one. He's hurt and bewildered by these developments. It's as though his people aren't ready for a progressive leader just yet. The prince is left wondering the same thing as Miss Bulsrode - why murder at all?

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

WWW Wednesdays

WWW Wednesdays is a meme hosted by Should Be Reading. What you do is answer the following three questions:

What are you currently reading?

A Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin. I decided to see what the hype was for myself. So far it's pretty good, though I'm having troubles keeping up with all of the characters. This one will probably take me a little while to get through.

What did you recently finish reading?

The Gammage Cup, by Carol Kendall, was an entertaining, whimsical fantasy tale written in the late 1950s, and it deals with themes of individuality and conformity, or groupthink (i.e. Communism).

What do you think you'll read next?

I'll probably take a break from A Game of Thrones to quickly read The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but Stephen Chbosky. A friend of mine recommended it, and it's also coming out as a movie with Emma Watson (Hermione). 

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins (2008)

"I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice..."

-Martin Luther King, Jr. in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail"

I started reading The Hunger Games with the expectation that I would like it. I had heard some positive things, and the premise sounded intriguing. From the moment I started the book, though, I realized it was going to be difficult for me to fall in love with it, and the further I got in the less I enjoyed it. I didn't dislike it because it is popular, I just didn't find it engaging.

In a dystopic United States, the Capital rules over 12 Districts (the 13th was destroyed following a failed revolution), and to keep its power over these districts the Capital hosts what is called the Hunger Games. Each district gives up two tributes, aged between 12 and 18, to participate in these games. These tributes are either chosen in a lottery or they may volunteer themselves. The point of the game is to be the last person surviving. The winner brings home food and wealth for their district until the next game.

The story takes place from the point of view of Katniss Everdeen, whose father died in a mining accident and whose mother has become useless. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss in the movie, which is ironic, because in her first big role, Winter's Bone, she plays the same character in a realistic story. Katniss hunts with her only friend, Gale, and makes all the sacrifices she can to ensure her younger sister, Primrose, is not selected to be in the games. However, this is not enough. Primrose is selected in the lottery and Katniss immediately volunteers in her place. Going with her as tribute is Peeta, the baker's son, who likes Katniss, though she doesn't know it. From here begins their training and then the games themselves.

The story is, technically, well-written, but its style is not very engaging. Katniss, as the narrative voice, is too apathetic. She doesn't show compassion towards others, except maybe her sister, and even that is evident only in her decision to take her place in the games. Her sole focus is in hunting and surviving. She's very narrow-minded. She never seems to consider the broader scope of the society she lives in. Human history provides many examples of people in harsh conditions who consider how to make life better not only for themselves but for others. Consider slavery. Frederick Douglass learned to read and write while enslaved, and escaping wasn't enough for him. He fought to free all of the slaves. Katniss instead chooses to tolerate her life and hope that neither she nor her sister get selected to participate in the games. It never once crosses her mind to try and do something proactive.

Of course, readers of the novel understand that Collins is not endorsing a society that makes use of child violence for entertainment. I've heard and read many discussions of people saying how horrible the slaughter is, but this discussion does not happen within the novel. The viewpoints of the characters are not discussed, not even in the sense that many of us talk about the violence in our large cities. The problem with the violence is that it plays out more like a Hollywood action movie, which serves the goal of making it exciting rather than a condemnation of violence. These teenagers fight one another more like action heroes/villains and cold-blooded, experienced assassins than frightened, inexperienced teens. The novel's message would have been more effective had Collins instilled the sense of terror of battle, or a sense that these teenagers are being forced to kill when none of them want to. And with an exception of one character, the deaths are not seen as tragic, but as one less obstacle in the way of Katniss winning. In Howard Fast's The Hessian, grown men prepare to ambush a troop of Hessian soldiers. As they wait for the Hessians to arrive, they shiver with fear that they'll die. And when the ambush is an overwhelming success, they grow sick at the sight and smell of death. That level of humanity is missing here.

What also struck me was the lack of emotion during the lottery process. Where are the mothers and fathers crying out in agony, fighting desperately for their children? Why aren't the teens themselves overwhelmed with fear? They all accept their fate like sheep. Nobody fights for their own survival, or the survival of loved ones. They simply accept their fates. This is why I included the Martin Luther King quote at the start of this review. The people of Panem accept a negative peace in order to avoid tension rather than a positive peace. I can't help but think of King's condemnation of those who silently watch and do nothing, believing that justice will prevail eventually but feeling no need to fight for it. The novel views Katniss as a strong female character, but she doesn't fight except when her own survival depends on it. To me that's cowardice. And it's short-sighted. She's no stronger than her mother because she's just as mute when it comes to her society. She would rather tolerate her life than fight to make it better for her and her people. Her only form of rebellion is to say, I refuse to have any children. That's good for her, but what about the generations to come?

At one point in the novel, Gale wonders what would happen if everybody refused to watch the games. This is an interesting question, but it's the wrong one. The right question to ask would be, what if the tributes refused to fight?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman (1996)

Neverwhere was simultaneously a novel and TV series
I've seen a trend in the two Gaiman novels I have read so far (and I have seen Stardust so I know it's true in that story as well) of parallel fantasy worlds concealed within the real world of London, and even the world as a whole. Those who reside in this fantasy world are very much aware of those in the real world, but those in the real world have no clue about the fantasy world, and if they do become aware of it, they cease to exist in the real world. This isn't entirely original, I know, and anybody can point to Harry Potter as another story that uses this trope, though some of the details are different, but Gaiman makes it feel fresh. He has very quickly become one of my favorite authors.

The story centers around Richard Mayhew, who moves to London for a boring desk job. He is engaged to Jessica, a beautiful, stuck-up woman with connections to very wealthy men. Richard can hardly believe he's with such a beautiful woman, and it never occurs to him he might be happier without her. However, one night as the couple rushes to meet with one of her wealthy bosses for dinner, they stumble upon a woman who appears out of thin air, lying on the sidewalk and bleeding. Jessica seems more annoyed than distressed by this person, and when Richard decides to carry her to his apartment (the woman requested not to be taken to a hospital), it's no surprise later when he receives a call from Jessica breaking off their engagement. This will turn out to be the least of his worries.

The woman he carried to his apartment is called Door, and she comes from London Below. She can speak with rats and has the ability to open doors, even those not meant to be opened. She was chased and injured by Mister Croup and Mister Vandemar, two sadistic assassins, not unlike the man Jack from The Graveyard Book. Richard becomes involved by seeking the aid of the Marquis de Carabas, a very quirky and shady, but resourceful character. When Door finally returns to London Below, Richard thinks his life will go back to normal, minus Jessica. However, when he wakes up the next day, it is as though he doesn't exist. People ignore him, somebody else has taken his office, and his apartment is up for lease, a fact he learns while in the bathtub, naked. He realizes he has no choice but to seek out Door in London Below.

This gives an idea of the main plot, but there are also tons of side plots, and I don't have the time or space to talk about all of them. Just know that a huntress becomes involved, as well as rat-speakers, a floating market, an angel, an underground labyrinth protected by a monstrous boar, and a king's court hidden within a subway train car. Also, Door's own story is crucial.

Gaiman writes with a good deal of wit and humor. He carefully unfolds new plot points to keep things interesting, and his characters are all well-developed. The villains, Mister Croup and Mister Vandemar, centuries old, provide humorous banter as well as suspense. They have an appetite for things inanimate as well as living. Richard's inability to cope with his new surroundings sets up some funny situations, but it also makes the reader sympathetic towards him. Door is a strong heroine, and one of those interesting ones. It seems too often that Hollywood equates strong women with action heroes, rather than strength in character, and in return any semblance of personality is gone. I take as a recent example the movie Mirror, Mirror, where Snow White becomes an excellent swordswoman, but she's a very dull character. Gaiman makes Door a strong heroine without sacrificing her personality or turning her into an action hero.

In fact, Gaiman wisely avoids making this into an action extravaganza. Richard, Door, and the Marquis must use their wits rather than their muscle to defeat Mister Croup and Mister Vandemar, who have the ability to move with superhuman speed. How the story unfolds and resolves reveals Gaiman's superior sense of storytelling. Gaiman also uses his fantasy as social critique. London Below is reminiscent of impoverished areas in large cities of developed countries. The more fortunate of us prefer to pretend these areas simply don't exist. And in today's post-9/11 world the novel takes on new meanings as well, particularly in its conclusion. The film, The Hurt Locker, brings a new perspective to Gaiman's conclusion, and those familiar with it will know what I mean.

Once you've entered this world, there's no going back.

Friday, June 1, 2012

The Pearl, by John Steinbeck (1947)

John Steinbeck's classic novella, The Pearl, is a tale about the tragic consequences one family faces in achieving the American Dream. For many people, this dream consists of acquiring wealth, and perhaps even fame. The recent craze over the Mega Millions lottery that was going for over $500 million is proof. People dream of the kinds of things they could do with that much money. Or we dream of fame through means of acting, singing, or writing a novel. I've encountered many teens in an urban school setting who believe school doesn't matter because they'll be rich one day due to their imagined singing talent. This dream isn't critically analyzed, and these teens fail to realize that failure is more common than success, and success, anyway, doesn't always get you where you want.

Kino and Juana come from a village of pearl divers in Mexico. They have an infant child named Coyotito. The story opens up to a serene sunrise, where Juana cooks breakfast and Kino sits in the sand and waits. The novel opens very slowly, lulling the reader into a hypnotic daze, and then with a shocking suddenness, a scorpion appears, crawling towards the baby. Kino squashes it, but not before it stings Coyotito. Kino and Juana take their child into town to the doctor, but he has no compassion or patience for people who can pay him only with seashells.

Kino and Juana have no choice but to hope the venom won't spread, as Juana sucked it out as best as she could, and they go in their canoe to dive for pearls. They hope to find a pearl valuable enough to pay for the doctor. As Kino hunts for oysters, Juana sings the Song of the Pearl, and their wishes are soon answered. Kino discovers a magnificent pearl, the Pearl of the World, and they take it back to the village. With the money they can get from the pearl, Kino and Juana can get married, buy clothes, and afford an education for Coyotito. Their future path has been laid before them. Their neighbors and friends, and soon the whole town, learns about the Pearl of the World, and everyone is dreaming of what they will buy with its wealth, though it belongs to Kino and Juana. This pearl represents the dreams of everyone.

Everything quickly goes wrong. The doctor comes to their hut and plays a mean trick to make Kino and Juana believe he has cured their child of the poison, and then he gives them the bill. In the night, somebody tries to steal it and Kino has to fight off the intruder. And when they try to sell it, the pearl buyers act as though the pearl is worthless and they low-ball Kino, which angers him. Things escalate even beyond this, but I will leave the rest for you to discover.

Elements of this story may sound familiar to you. We hear how lottery winners spend or loan out all of their money in a matter of years and fall into deep depressions. We also see the consequences of fame through celebrity gossip that paints the famous in a negative light. People grow envious of the success of others and seem to find joy in seeing them topple over. Britney Spears was a beloved singer until she got married for a brief time, and Christina Aguilera had a brief stint as a dirty girl that will not go away in the public eye, despite some beautiful music she has written since. And she's put on weight, celebrity gossipers are quick to point out. There are too many premature deaths: Amy Winehouse, Heath Ledger, Chris Farley, Michael Jackson. One has to wonder what toll fame and success takes on those who achieve it.

Steinbeck sees wealth as a corrupting force. He believes in the goodness of impoverished people, like Kino and Juana. They would have been happier had they not found the pearl. I don't think Steinbeck is discouraging people from dreaming, but providing a warning that achieving your dream won't fix all that ails you. In fact, it might even make things worse.

Book Beginnings: The Gammage Cup

Every Friday Rose City Reader hosts Book Beginnings on Fridays. What you do is share the opening line(s) of the book you are currently reading and briefly discuss what you think about the opening line or the book or whatever else inspires you. Make sure to share your entry with Rose City Reader and in my comments below.

Here's my Book Beginning:

"In the long far off
Of the land Outside
Brave Minnipins lived
And some of them died."

- The Gammage Cup, by Carol Kendall

I haven't started this one yet, but it opens up with a poem written by the character, Gummy, about the Minnipins. The opening line is the first stanza of the poem. I'm intrigued by the opening, though I can only say it is about a race of people called Minnipins. It's also interesting to note that one of the characters in the novel is named Muggles...