Tuesday, July 31, 2012

July Wrap-Up

So far my summer months haven't been as productive reading-wise as I would have liked. This is mostly because I decided to take on George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. I've read a book a month of his so far and will probably read the third one in August. In all I read 5 books (and one of those I didn't finish) and wrote 8 reviews.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

I enjoyed this coming of age story due to the insights of its main character, Charlie. It had some humor and it had some very touching moments. I'm curious to see the movie once it comes out as well, though I know the movie will be unable to reproduce the way the story is told here, through a series of letters.

A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin

The second book in Martin's massive fantasy series, I enjoyed this one almost as much as the first. It starts off faster because you already know the characters and situations, but its conclusion isn't as exciting as the first one. Still, I'll have the third one read by the time my school semester starts up again in August.

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

This series just wasn't for me. I thought I would try and finish it anyway, but 150 pages into the second book I stopped. I'll still see the movies, though, I'm sure.

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer

I've decided to revisit some classic YA books, starting with this hilarious story by Nancy Farmer. This is the kind of story you see only once in a while, and fortunately it is very entertaining and even thoughtful.

A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

Another Newbery book, A Wrinkle in Time is more serious and tackles some very complicated and deep themes, though I think it takes the anti-Communism of its Cold War era a little too seriously. Still, I found it very enjoyable and well-written. My review will be up later this week.

Other books I reviewed but read earlier this year:

ttfn, by Lauren Myracle
A Theft, by Saul Bellow
Black Boy, by Richard Wright

Monday, July 30, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This weekly meme is hosted by Book Journey. What you do is list the books you read last week, and then list all of the books you plan to read this coming week.

What I read last week:

I started reading Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, but only got 150 pages into it before I decided the book wasn't for me. My review of my progress can be found here.

I read and finished The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm by Nancy Farmer this past weekend. I really enjoyed it. My review is here.

I also read another Young Adult sci-fi novel, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. It was my first experience with L'Engle, and I enjoyed it, though I could sense some anti-Communist ideology thrown in there. I'll write my review later this week.

 What I'm currently reading:

 I'm just about to start William Golding's Lord of the Flies, another classic YA novel I have never read. Hopefully it's as good as the hype.

 What I plan to read next:

 I won the novel, The Angels' Share by Rayme Waters, from a giveaway hosted by Gilion at Rose City Reader. The novel comes out at the end of the month, and I'm hoping by next week to host my own giveaway of the novel, after I've written a review.

The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer (1994)

What a unique story. The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm takes place in Zimbabwe in the year 2194 and mixes fantasy with sci-fi. The setting is unique in itself, especially considering the author, Nancy Farmer, is a white American. The novel has a lot of humor, makes references to spiritual symbols, and deals with a lot of social issues. Anything from poverty to pollution is fair game, and there's even some social critique similar to what you find in Fahrenheit 451. There's an amazing amount of content packed into this young adult book, but rather than make the story overwhelming and pedantic, Farmer tells an exciting and fun adventure that also gives the reader plenty to think about.

Tendai is the son of the feared General Matsika, who successfully rid Zimbabwe of every single gang except one, the Masks. Tendai and his younger sister, Rita, and younger brother, Kuda, live in a luxurious home with a man called the Mellower. Their daily lives are structured around school lessons and martial arts training. They are never allowed to leave the house, and instead attend their scouts meetings over the holophone. However, they want to earn their Exploring badge, but they know Father will never let them leave. Here is where the Mellower steps in. The Mellower performs what is called Praise Singing. He is able to lull his listeners into a hypnotic state of bliss by praising them. The children use him to trick Father and Mother into granting them permission to leave.

It's not very long before the children are kidnapped, by a blue baboon, no less, and their kidnappers lead them to a place far from the comfort of their home..

Father and Mother enlist the detective services of Ear, Eye, and Arm to help find their children. These three individuals were exposed to large doses of radiation while in their mothers' wombs, and as a result they have extraordinary sensitivities. Ear has super hearing, to the point he must wear ear muffs while outside or damage his hearing. Eye has super sight, so strong that he must wear special glasses while outside or damage his eyes. Arm has a sort of psychic connection with others. He can feel the emotions of those nearby, but he can't cover his powers up like his partners, and so going outdoors can be overwhelming. With these abilities, it's no wonder they went into detective services. Still, finding the three children is not so simple, as the plot takes many twists and turns and the detectives are always one step behind.

Farmer does an excellent job of creating a complex and imaginative futuristic world. Dead Man's Vliet, for example, serves to contrast the sheltered, wealthy world of the Matsikas in Mazoe. Run by a woman called the She Elephant, Dead Man's Vliet represents everything shady and unfortunate about impoverished areas: litter, enslavement, and kidnapping children for the purpose of selling them. The land is covered with plastic, which we're informed is no longer produced because of an energy crisis some time ago, but is apparently valuable because the She Elephant forces the people to mine for it. The children are brought here and forced to work, and there's the sinister threat of being sold. This is the kind of area that those who are well off choose to ignore because they have a Mellower to make them feel better and forget the world's woes. That the setting is in Africa is not a coincidence; it is a continent with many woes which those in first world countries fail to notice or care about.

Very few of the characters are fleshed out to the extent Farmer's Zimbabwe is. However, Farmer's aim is comedy more than anything. Tendai's siblings, Rita and Kuda, each have just one personality trait, but they are comically effective. Farmer, fortunately, does allow a touching scene halfway through the book between Rita and Tendai. Another major player is Trashman, a simple man who meets the children while they're in Dead Man's Vliet and instantly befriends Kuda, because the two understand one another. The Mellower, we find, has only one purpose - to please people - and Ear and Eye are hardly distinguishable except in their talents. Father and Mother are desperate to find their children, otherwise they play only a minor role.

Only Tendai and Arm are fleshed out as characters. Tendai, being the son of an accomplished General, is anxious about impressing his father, though he's only thirteen years old. He worries that none of the ancestral spirits will possess him and give him talents and that he will be an ordinary person his whole life. Throughout the course of the story he accomplishes the most character growth. We find right away that he is his father's son, as he has no lack of courage when he faces his kidnappers, and it's this courage that allows the Matsika children to survive. Arm is also given room for growth. Of the three detectives, he appears to be the leader. His powers seem less impressive than those of his partners at first, but they develop in interesting ways. Eventually he's able to look into the minds of others, and more incredible things happen, including some hilarious scenes with a baby.

The novel has a lot of intertwining themes, so many that it's difficult to keep track of them all. I'll just mention a few. There is attention given to Utopian societies, in particular one called Resthaven, which is isolated from the rest of the country so its residents can remain ignorant of the advances and practices of the outside world. Resthaven is troubling to those rare outsiders who make their way in, because of the superstitious culture and strict gender roles, but it lacks the crime of the surrounding city. The only things the residents fear are witches and bogeymen. The question Farmer poses is whether it is worthwhile to trade progress for security, and it is a question many real Utopian societies have attempted to answer.

Most of all, this book is a lot of fun. There are lots of moments that had me laughing out loud, and I admired the two main characters, Tendai and Arm. Farmer creates a very intriguing world mixed with the old and the new. In all, I think Farmer wants to say that in societies there is a system of balances. Wealth breeds poverty, good breeds bad, and sometimes those things that seem good really aren't, and those things that seem bad really aren't. As Arm points out, there are some bad people who still have a function within a society, such as the She Elephant, but there are some bad people, like the Masks, who are a destructive evil and don't belong. The trick is knowing the difference between the two and finding the right balance between them in order to keep society afloat.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Book Beginnings: A Wrinkle in Time

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 dark and stormy night."

-A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeleine L'Engle

 Somehow I missed reading this in my childhood, but I guess it's never too late. It's an evocative opening, and a simple one. I'm curious to see where this night leads us.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins (2009)

I couldn't bring myself finish it. I gave up 150 pages into Catching Fire because another 250 pages would have been too much, not too mention the 400 page finale. It was too tedious. It's not often I give up on novels. I gave up on the Twilight series halfway through the third book. I gave up on Stephen King's Dark Tower series halfway through the sixth book. Life's too short. If I'm not enjoying the book after 150 pages, I doubt I'll enjoy it after 250 more. I just wish there was more depth to the writing and to the thought processes behind the creation of this dystopian world. I found myself skimming through paragraphs because what Collins decides to focus on is tiring. Fashion, food, makeup, a love triangle. The movie will need to make some serious revisions if it has any hopes of not spiraling into silliness.

Catching Fire is the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy, as I'm sure you all know, and if you haven't read the first book and don't like spoilers, I would skip this summary paragraph. Katniss and Peeta have returned to District 12 after jointly winning the latest Hunger Games competition. Katniss just wants to go home, go through with the required victory tour, and then live out her life pretending nothing happened. Oh, and she hopes everything blows over with Peeta and that she can spend her life with Gale instead. However, President Snow sees her actions at the end of the games as an act of rebellion. Even if Katniss didn't intend them to be so, those in other districts thought they were, and they see her as a symbol of revolution. Snow threatens Katniss with Gale's life if she doesn't convince everybody that she is really in love with Peeta, because apparently that should quell any revolutionary fervor. It seems to me if President Snow had just left Katniss alone she would have no idea she was the cause of a series of rebellions, and she may have just lived out her life in blissful ignorance. President Snow expected her to be braver than that, silly man.

This whole series, really, hinges on Katniss as a character. The problem is, she isn't an engaging character at all. She has no personality (this is even established by Haymitch in the first book), she isn't very bright, she's a wimp, and her main concerns at the start of the novel are trivial in the face of what begins to unravel around her. I've heard the argument that Katniss is a strong female character, but I disagree. She is not a hero. She is not strong. When President Snow visits her and demands certain things of her, she all but buries her nose between his butt cheeks to make him happy. And it's not like she's telling him what he wants to hear while having other ideas in mind. When she tells him she will do as he says, she means it. And she says it while quaking in her boots. What kind of hero does that make her?

*Warning: Minor Spoiler Alert*

She's also very slow to catch on to things.  There's a scene where we meet Plutarch, the new gamemaker, who shows her a watch that shines a symbol of her Mockingjay pin. The gesture is obvious to us intelligent readers. To Katniss, not so much. She wonders if Plutarch is worried that somebody will steal his new watch design. Huh? That doesn't even make sense, Katniss.

*Okay, spoiler over*

There's also the problem of the love triangle. In the first book, this love triangle was apparent, but it wasn't the focus of the novel. Gale was back in District 12 while Katniss decided her best survival strategy was to feign a romance with Peeta. Well, more like she was coaxed into this strategy, and more like she's not sure what her feelings for Peeta really are. I mean, really, can't our heroine have any conviction at all? Anyway, now that she's returned from the games, her mind is lost in confusion over whether she should love Peeta or love Gale, and each of these guys is angry/jealous over the other, though I think Peeta's more cool and understanding about it than Gale. But honestly, I could care less. Neither of these two are well-developed at all, especially Gale. His presence is barely felt in the first book. Katniss may know Gale better, but the reader knows Peeta better, and that's more important. Still, when you're living in a dystopian world with an oppressive government, there are more important matters than deciding who to fall in love with, right?

And I don't understand Katniss' hesitation about becoming a revolutionary herself. She just wants things to be as they were before, without considering the problem that things as they were before means 23 teenagers will die horrible deaths each year. She's terrified by the news of rebellions starting up and wants to stop them. Even worse, she schemes to run away with those she loves. If there is a more cowardly move I can't think of it. How's this girl a hero again? (To be fair, I don't know what happens in the final half of the book, so maybe she does become more heroic).

I really wish Collins spent less time on the scenes devoted to dressing Katniss up and feeding her extravagant meals. Removing those would have had a wondrous effect. I'm not saying the book would have been great, but I might not have given up on it. Katniss herself even begins turning into those people of the Capital she's supposed to despise. She actually likes getting dressed up and talking about how she looks, though she wouldn't go so far as to dye her skin purple. I found myself skimming over these scenes because they contribute nothing to the story, and they destroy the satiric context of having the privileged elite play dress up while poor children kill one another on TV.

And that is all just from the first 150 pages. Katniss begins finding herself face to face with actual revolutionaries, but nothing very interesting happens. Based on what I've read in other reviews, and what I've heard, the story develops in the right directions only very slowly. I had no desire to wait for it to happen. I need a writing style with some substance. I need something more than simple sentimentality and visceral violence. Nothing resonates very strongly through Collins' writing, and that, more than anything, was the reason I put this book down.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

WWW Wednesdays

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

 What are you currently reading?

I am currently reading The Ear, the Eye, and the Arm, by Nancy Farmer. It takes place in a Zimbabwe in 2194 and centers around the three children of a general, who are kidnapped when they decide to sneak out of the house. It's up to the three detectives, Ear, Eye, and Arm to rescue them. So far a very enjoyable read, with lots of humor and a lot of creativity.

What did you recently finish reading?

I finally finished A Clash of Kings, the second book in Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. I posted a review two days ago, though I wouldn't recommend reading it unless you've at least read the first book. I tried to make the first and last paragraphs as spoiler-free as possible. The link to the review is here.

As for Catching Fire...I just couldn't do it. I got 150 pages into it and had to stop. I couldn't see myself reading another 250 pages and then another 400 pages of the third book. I just didn't care for the perspective and the non-stop concern about fashion, food, and Peeta vs. Gale. There are too many books I want to read to spend my time on one I'm not enjoying. I'll post my review either today or tomorrow.

What do you think you'll read next?

I guess I'll keep up with the YA Sci-Fi theme and read another classic I missed out on, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle.

Monday, July 23, 2012

A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin (1998)

If you look at the history of real civilizations, you'll find that they all go through periods of dark ages, when chaos rules and rulers find their grasp on power tenuous and the people don't feel safe. By the end of George R. R. Martin's A Game of Thrones, that is exactly where the the Seven Kingdoms finds itself. As you might guess from the title, there is more than one king, and they're not exactly friendly with one another. Some are willing to share the kingdom; others aren't. The desire for power is stronger than the need for peace. What Martin does in A Clash of Kings, the second installment of his A Song of Ice and Fire series, is create the sense that nobody is safe, that anything can change on a whim, and that the crown is guaranteed for none.

*For those who have not read the series at all, you might want to skip to the last paragraph, or just skip this review entirely, unless you're not afraid of spoilers. I certainly wouldn't recommend reading this if you have not read the first book in the series.*

Stannis Barratheon from the HBO series
The death of King Robert Barratheon was the spark that set the Seven Kingdoms into chaos. The Lannisters took power, claiming Joffrey as king, despite his dubious birth. Joffrey makes an awful king. He acts like a little kid who drops an army of black ants at a red ant mound just to watch them kill each other. His first major decision, beheading Ned Stark, goes against the advice of all of his counselors and all but ensures Robb Stark, now King of the North, will not accept any peace offerings. This is where we find ourselves at the start of book two. One of the main characters is dead, but two new have joined: Davos Seaworth and Theon Greyjoy.

Through Davos we meet Stannis Barratheon, brother to Robert and the rightful heir to the king. Stannis is cold-hearted, admirable only in his distaste for lavish parties and tournaments, but otherwise inflexible and unforgiving. He finds no love amongst his people. Davos is a better choice to follow. Named the Onion Knight, he's the only advisor who Stannis fully trusts, because when Stannis held Storm's End years ago, Davos came to the rescue with a ship full of onions while the castle was under siege. Davos, a smuggler, was knighted, but at the cost of the fingers on one hand, under Stannis' brand of justice. Stannis relies on Davos because Davos is not deceitful. He doesn't sugarcoat his words. He speaks his mind and is loyal. His loyalty, his kindness, and his frankness make him a lot like Ned Stark, and he is one of the few truly likeable characters in the novel.

Davos Seaworth from the HBO series
Theon you will recognize from the first book, though you learn much more about him in the second. Interestingly, in the first season of the HBO series he plays a much more prominent role than he does in the first book. We learn that Theon was a ward to the Starks in name, but in actuality he was a hostage. Ten years before, Theon's father, Balon Greyjoy of the Iron Islands, rebelled against King Robert, but his rebellion was crushed and the Starks took Theon as a ward to prevent them from rebelling again. Theon was ten years a Greyjoy and ten years a Stark, and ends up a confused, despicable character. Part of me wants to pity Theon. Growing up in Winterfell meant he would no longer be viewed by his father as being "Ironborn," and at Winterfell he felt loved only by Robb, but lived with the reminder that he didn't belong there. We get glimpses of Theon's torment. He's a lot like Viserys, though perhaps a little more competent. I wanted to pity Theon, but couldn't.
Theon Greyjoy from the HBO series

There are certainly improvements in some of the storylines this time around. I think Arya's story is much more interesting, as is Bran's. Arya finds herself in some interesting places, and at one point has the potential to cripple one of the major contenders for power if only she could have looked beyond her own selfish concerns. And Bran seems to have some sort of connection with his direwolf, Summer. Two children, Jojen and Meera, visit Winterfell to help provide a lift to Bran's chapters. Jojen seems to have some magical abilities, and magic has started to become a major player in the realm, despite the skepticism of the maesters. One gets the feeling things of the old world are making a return.

Renly Barratheon from the HBO series
From Jon's point of view we learn about the goings-on beyond the wall, and the developments there are troubling, as are some of the decisions Jon is forced to make. Through Catelyn we get to know Renly, the fourth king of the realm. The youngest Barratheon is very likeable, and would perhaps make the best king of the bunch, except he shares in his oldest brother's extravagance. We also meet a new character, Brienne, a woman warrior promoted to Renly's Rainbow Guard. Interestingly, the HBO series has a very surprising behind-the-scenes look at Renly.

Dany's story is mostly put on the back burner. Last we saw her she cracked open her dragon eggs and now has three young dragons. She travels through the Red Waste in search of civilization with Ser Jorah Mormont and 100 Dothraki. Despite how little a role she plays in the overall story, the novel ends with some promising developments for her.

Sansa Stark from the HBO series
Sansa Stark remains a prisoner of the Lannisters, betrothed to King Joffrey. Poor Sansa. She made some horrible mistakes at the end of the first book, but how can you really blame a young girl blinded by thoughts of love? Sansa no longer loves her betrothed, for obvious reasons, but she must pretend to love him or face his wrath. She's a sweet girl, and sympathetic. When a knight, Ser Dontos, makes a fool of himself at a small tournament, Sansa saves him from execution by Joffrey, asking that he be made their fool. For this, Ser Dontos is in her debt. We also get to know the Hound better. He's a terrifying man and difficult to like, but his presence provides an undeniable sense of security. It's clear that he loves Sansa, as he refuses Joffrey's commands to hit her and calls "little bird." It hurts him that his burnt face frightens her, though the only way he shows hurt is through anger. He makes for an interesting contrast to his brother, Ser Gregor Clegane, the Mountain. Ser Gregor has absolutely no honor, despite his status as a knight. The Hound despises titles, but he has more honor than most of the knights in the novel. It takes more than an oath to have honor.

Sandor Clegane, aka The Hound, from the HBO series
Tyrion, as you might recall, was my favorite character from the first book, and that doesn't change in this one. He is the kindest member of the Lannister family, and as Hand of the King he tries his best to undo the damages Joffrey has done, while ensuring the Lannisters hold onto their power. Of course, because I don't much care for the Lannisters in general, I find it difficult to cheer for Tyrion's aims, though I like him as a character. It's very entertaining watching the way he handles Varys and Littlefinger and Grand Maester Pycelle, and as always he has a sharp wit that's good for plenty of laughs. I'm not sure I much care for the way the plot develops with his whore, Shae, but that's only a minor part of the plot.

One of the critiques I have for the first book, though I didn't mention it in my review, is that very little attention is spent on religion. That is not the case here. We get to know the religion of the Stark's religion better, which has something to do with praying the godswood. Catelyn's family, and many others, prays to the new gods, seven in all, with the likes of the Mother and the Warrior. The Greyjoys pray to the Drowned Gods, perhaps because they are situated on an island. Stannis has formed an alliance with a priestess named Melisandre, who prays to the God of Light, her religion being the only monotheistic one in the novel. I find it difficult to imagine an epic series like this to play out with little reference to religion, but Martin fortunately devotes a little more time to it here.

A Clash of Kings starts off faster than A Game of Thrones. The prologue is better and we already know most of the main players and events. We learn more about some of the characters, such as Theon, though others like Dany fall under the radar. There is more sex and more violence this time around, or at least it seems more graphic, not that this is an improvement. I think Martin goes too far at times, but the HBO series takes it even further, sometimes including scenes that add nothing to the development of the plot or characters. I think the end of the novel falters in comparison to the first book. Where A Game of Thrones left off with several jaw-dropping cliffhangers, A Clash of Kings ends less climatically. There is an epic battle at the end, but how it concludes feels a little too convenient. A few characters have unknown fates, some stake off on adventures, but mostly nothing so impressive happens that I feel I can't wait to start the next book. I don't mean to say this is not a great novel, as it really is, and it still leaves me clamoring for more. The series truly is one of a kind, and I can't think of any other fantasy world that feels so real and is so well-developed and full of surprises. In a way, I wish it never ended.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Beginnings: Catching Fire

 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:

"I clasp the flask between my hands even though the warmth from the tea has long since leached into the frozen air. My muscles are clenched tight against the cold. If a pack of wild dogs were to appear at this moment, the odds of scaling a tree before they attacked are not in my favor."

-Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Having finally finished A Clash of Kings last night, I'm now going to continue The Hunger Games series. This opening makes it sound like Katniss is in a dangerous position, except the drinking tea part. Now to see what happens next.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

WWW Wednesdays

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

What are you currently reading?

This has not been a very productive week for me in terms of blogging. I did read over 400 pages of A Clash of Kings, and have less than 200 pages to go now, but I didn't get any other reading done. I have some blog posts planned, but I've been too busy to do any actual writing, unfortunately.

What did you recently finish reading?

Yep, this is still the last book I finished.

What do you think you'll read next?

By next Wednesday I hope to have this series done.

Monday, July 16, 2012

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

This is my first time participating in this weekly meme, hosted by Book Journey. What you do is list the books you read last week, and then list all of the books you plan to read this coming week.

What I read last week:

I only got around to reading one book last week, and that was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. I highly recommend this one if you haven't read it yet. My review is here.

What I'm currently reading:

The main reason for my reading slump is that I'm getting through George R. R. Martin's mammoth A Clash of Kings, the second in his Song of Fire and Ice series. I'm over two-thirds of the way through now, and I'm really enjoying it. Not for the faint of heart, but it has a great story and some great characters.

What I plan to read next:

I'm hoping to finish A Clash of Kings by mid-week, and then my ideal week would have me finishing Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy by the weekend. At least they're quick reads.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Book Beginnings: A Clash of Kings

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:

"The maester stood on the windswept balcony outside his chambers. It was here the ravens came, after long flight. Their droppings speckled the gargoyles that rose twelve feet tall on either side of him, a hellhound and a wyvern, two of the thousand that brooded over the walls of the ancient fortress."

-A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin

Amber at A Morose Bookshelf is reading A Clash of Kings as well, and she beat me to the punch with her blog post, so I decided to share the next lines of the Prologue. If you want to see the first lines you'll have to visit Amber's blog.

These lines are a good example of the details Martin likes to include in his novels (droppings on the gargoyle statues). A Clash of Kings starts off quickly, after the cliffhanger endings of A Game of Thrones, but slows down a bit before picking up again. I'm at the halfway point and some exciting things have happened. The very first lines of the novel as you'll find in Amber's post, about the comet, are important because as you read along you find that everyone has a different idea about what the comet represents, and everyone thinks it is a sign that favors them. Of course, not everyone can be held in equal favor when their goals oppose one another.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

WWW Wednesdays

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

What are you currently reading?

I'm over 350 pages into this massive book now, and it's still entertaining. There are lots of surprising developments that keep popping up and make me want to know what happens next. So it's hard to put down.

What did you recently finish reading?

I took a break from A Clash of Kings to read The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky. I really enjoyed it, and I've just now posted the review as well, which you can find here.

What do you think you'll read next?

I'm finally going to get around to finishing The Hunger Games trilogy. My brother has lent me the last two books, which my wife is flying through in a hurry. Hopefully by next week's post I'll have started reading this one.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky (1999)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a novel about intelligent high school kids. Hollywood likes to think audiences only want to hear about the dumb ones who do nothing but party, talk about the opposite sex, and have no ideas of their own. I hope the movie starring Emma Watson doesn't follow this tradition. Because Stephen Chbosky has written a novel that allows teenagers to have their own ideas and even be wise. Of course, there is still partying, drugs, sex, love, and all of that stuff, but that's part of growing up. And Chbosky handles it in a mature way.

It's 1991, and Charlie has just begun high school. He's nervous because he's a very shy kid. He doesn't have a lot of friends and doesn't make them easily. At least until he meets Sam and Patrick, who are stepsiblings and are in their senior year. Charlie immediately falls for Sam, though she tells him not to think of her that way, and Patrick has a secret gay relationship with the star quarterback, Brad. It should be no surprise that by the end of the novel Charlie will have been kissed by both Patrick and Sam. Kissed by them because he's far too passive to actually initiate the kissing. These are his closest friends, and he learns a lot from them. In one profound scene he is so happy to be with them that he proclaims he feels "infinite."

Charlie, from the upcoming MTV movie
Charlie comes from a pretty good family. He has nice parents who are mostly out of the picture. They don't seem to mind that he stays out late on school nights, and they don't seem to realize he's started chain smoking. Charlie also has an older sister, who's a senior and one of the smartest of her class, and an older brother, who plays football for Penn State. Charlie's relationship with his siblings is mixed. He doesn't not get along with them, per se, but they generally have nothing to do with one another. This is especially true after Charlie walks in on his sister having sex with her boyfriend and she calls him a pervert.

Sam, from the upcoming MTV movie
The novel is written in the form of letters from Charlie to an anonymous person. This adds a sense of intimacy to the novel. It's as though Charlie's writing the letters and sharing his experiences with you, the reader. I grew to like Charlie. He's overemotional and cries a lot, and he seems unhappy more than he is happy. I would say that's part of being a teenager, because it is, but Charlie's definitely different than most teenagers. In addition to being very sensitive, he is very smart. He reads and enjoys books like To Kill A Mockingbird and A Separate Peace, books most high schoolers despise with a passion. I liked Charlie from the start, but these feelings were cemented in a touching scene where he discovers sympathy for George Bailey in A Wonderful Life, the character who gets drunk and squanders the money that forces Jimmy Stewart to sacrifice his dreams. He wishes the movie were from George Bailey's perspective because he wants to believe that George's life has meaning. Like I said, Charlie's a bright kid.

His English teacher, Bill, recognizes this too. He befriends Charlie and lets him borrow books, modern day classics like Catcher in the Rye, and asks him to write essays about them. Bill is a cool teacher. I want to be like Bill. He has a dream of leaving teaching and writing plays, but likes teaching so much he decides not to quit. The friendship between these two blossoms and we learn Bill's intentions towards the end in perhaps the novel's most touching scene.

Patrick, from the upcoming MTV movie
It's clear that Charlie is depressed. He's sad about his Aunt Helen's death because they were close. Though with Aunt Helen you get a sense that there's something more. He also visits psychiatrists who do nothing but ask him about his past, which bothers him. Bill encourages him to participate in life, which is great advice, though it does get Charlie into drugs and alcohol. It also gets him his first girlfriend, Mary Elizabeth, who soon discovers she needs somebody a little less passive. Charlie seems to take in his experiences like a sponge. Or, rather, like a wallflower. He lets things happen around him and observes and thinks, but this frustrates people because they want him to act.

Despite all of this focus on sorrow, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is a soothing read due to its poetic language. Chbosky so accurately reflects high school life that it made me think back to my high school days. My first crush. My first heartache. Like Charlie, I was amazed when somebody else regarded me as a somebody, rather than the nobody I acted like I was. That was why Bill wanted him to participate, and so do Sam and Patrick. What Chbosky's trying to say is that you can learn a lot by being a wallflower, but to experience life and feel "infinite" requires that you actually do something rather than wait for it to happen. You might be surprised by the results.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Bookmark Monday: Orange Man

I've decided to join in on Bookmark Monday, hosted by Aloi at guiltless reading, because it sounds like fun. And I love to collect bookmarks.

So here's mine for this week:

In those cases you can't find your bookmark, at least you know where your cat is. They come in different breeds, too! And Orange Man's so lazy he could probably save my spot for at least a few hours.

Black Boy, by Richard Wright (1945)

Richard Wright's autobiography poses the question, how can a black man experience life and freedom in a post-slavery, Jim Crow world? His own life experiences demonstrate the difficulty of this question. He must work harder than everyone else to achieve less, and the harder he works the more resistance he faces, both from the white world and the black world. His own relatives beat him for asking too many questions, and his white coworkers intimidate him for having the gall to speak to them. Wright comes out as a unique character in his time and place. He refuses to submit to the will of his superiors, but fights back or flees when appropriate. He also has a unique innocence, a sense that his life shouldn't face any greater obstacles than the next man's. His own naivete sets up many moments of disillusionment along his life's course, but they also make him stronger, and this, of course, is at the heart of the novel's themes.

The opening of the novel sets up a pattern of defiance and punishment that defines the rest of it. In defiance of his parents' orders to stay locked up in his room, he begins to throw things into the fireplace, setting the house on fire in the process. He hides under the burning house to escape a beating, but when his parents finally drag him out they beat him to within an inch of his life. The severity of the punishment doesn't quell his defiant nature, however.

Wright had a difficult childhood. His family was poor and he rarely had enough food to eat everyday, so he grew up a scrawny boy. His parents divorced while he was young and because he moved back and forth between homes so often he never had an uninterrupted year of school until he was a teenager. Even then, he never went beyond the ninth grade. His family was very strict. Nobody was allowed to ask any questions, no matter how innocuous, and anybody who did received a reminder smack. Wright still asked questions. Lots of them. And the smack that followed became so habitual that his instinct was to avoid it, which one day drove his grandmother down the porch steps, where she broke her hip. He even learned to fight back when appropriate, such as against his uncle who had no reason to raise his belt to him.

Defiance wasn't the only thing that got Wright into trouble, however. He was a naive boy who expected things to turn out better than they did. As a result, he grew disillusioned and disappointed. He came to realize that it was because he was black that society treated him differently. The first time he worked at a white lady's house, he's offered a breakfast of moldy molasses, which she found perfectly acceptable for a little black boy. He was so upset he never showed up again. His suspicion of whites grew stronger with each negative experience.

As an adult, the racism he faced took a more dangerous turn. He often felt frightened for his life. At one job, a pair of coworkers ganged up on him and threatened to kill him, forcing him to move to another city, and at another job his coworkers coerced him and another black employee to box for money. They played tricks on the two, making them suspicious that the other was trying to kill him. These cruel japes are played, it seems, because the white employees see these two black men as nothing more than playthings. All Wright wants is to make some money to support his family and be left alone to read his books. And he reads a lot.

The novel does settle into a somewhat predictable pattern. Wright enters situation after situation expecting a great experience, only to become disillusioned by the realities of racism. However, this feeds into the novel's main themes. Wright does an excellent job of blending humor, action, suspense, and philosophy. It's also inspiring that he could grow into the great writer he became despite the overwhelming obstacles he faced, and it's sad all the same that those obstacles were there to begin with. In its clarity, its depth, and its thematic content, Black Boy is a very important American novel about a man struggling to survive and thrive in the world's wealthiest nation.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Book Beginnings: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

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:

"August 25, 1991

Dear friend,
       I am writing to you because she said you listen and understand and didn't try to sleep with that person at that party even though you could have."

- The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky

I'm finally going to start this, though it does require prying A Clash of Kings from my hands. It looks like it is written as a series of letters, and the opening to the letter is interesting. After reading the unconventional ttyl books, written as instant messages, I guess I'm off to another unconventionally-written story. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

A Theft, by Saul Bellow (1989)

This is the second novel I've read by Saul Bellow, a Nobel Prize-winning author. The first, Seize the Day, is very good, about a destructive American obsession with success. A Theft is a little trickier. It's about a woman, Clara Velde, with a successful career life, though a failed love life. What makes this novel so troublesome is that it's not very clear what the reader is supposed to make of Clara. Is she supposed to be a highly flawed heroine, or a fount of love and wisdom? Bellow exercises his powers of subtlety a little too well in this novella, to the point that reading it becomes a chore.

Clara grew up in the country, raised by wealthy fundamentalist parents who donate their money to televangelists. She moved to New York, where she met Ithiel Regler, called Teddy, a brilliant scientist who works for the federal government. She fell in love, and supposedly he did too, though the pretty emerald engagement ring he bought for her was not his choosing. He was only caving in to her demands. Their relationship didn't work out, though twenty years later she still feels he is the only man she really loved. As such, she keeps in touch and still wears the ring.

She married four men after breaking off her engagement with Teddy. She complains that her current husband, Wilder, spends too much of his time reading read thrillers by John Le Carre and doesn't help out with their three kids. She married him for sex alone. He happens to enjoy the fact she is still friendly with some of her high profile exes, and tapes interviews of Teddy whenever he's on TV. Clara confides this information, and more, in her friend, Laura Wong. Laura mostly sits and listens. We don't learn much about her, suggesting that Clara holds no interest in her personal life, but she seems to be the only friend Clara has outside of Teddy. Another important character is Gina, an Italian woman who Clara hires to take care of her kids. Clara sees in Gina a character of high quality, though some of Gina's actions seem to contradict this. Clara allows her to bring her Haitian boyfriend over, but only if the kids are in bed, and one night Gina has a party that balloons into more people than Clara thought there would be.

And now we come to the theft. As you might have guessed, the object of the theft is the engagement ring. In his subtle way, Bellow introduces a second theft, which actually happens first, though nobody ever refers to it as a theft. First of all, Clara loses the ring. Because it is insured, she files a claim and collects $15,000. Then, by chance, the ring turns up again, under her bed. However, she doesn't tell the insurance company she found it because, well, she had already spent all the money. Then, the ring is stolen. Clara thinks she knows who the culprit is, and she develops a very low opinion of this person. It never seems to enter her mind that she is also a thief, and her theft is even worse.

Based on what I've just written, you might be thinking this sounds like a good book. And I admit it has the elements in place to be a fascinating read, but the execution is off. Bellow is, perhaps, a little too subtle. To the point it's not very clear what he's trying to get at. The narrator has a limited third-person perspective and seems more or less partial to Clara. We learn much from Clara's dialogues with Laura Wong, Teddy, and her psychiatrist, though she does most of the talking. It's hard to say what these people think of Clara. The psychiatrist is paid to listen to her, and even Laura has a professional connection with her. Teddy seems to genuinely like her, though not enough to marry her. What we do know is what she thinks of herself, which is that she's of a superior caste of people. The problem is, the novel seems to endorse this view of her. I can't tell what Bellow's aims were; it seems he's playing things with a little too much subtlety. He provides too much contradictory evidence for the reader to develop a thoughtful opinion of her.

To make matters worse is this excerpt from the blurb on the back of the book:

"As she attempts to recover the precious ring, Clara emerges as a genuine heroine, a woman of great depth and unsuspected capacities of wisdom and love."

I think the blurb has it wrong, but it's not clear whose view the blurb represents: the author's, the publisher's, or some other party. Clara is self-absorbed and jumps to hasty conclusions. Based on a very minor detail, a supposed change in Laura's tone of voice, Clara has the belief that her friend wants to steal Teddy from her, though it is assumed Laura has never met Teddy. She has romantic ideas about Gina, but negative feelings about her boyfriend, who she has never talked with. She's a poor mother and a poor wife. We never see her interacting with her daughters or her husband, and when she mentions them it's only to complain. To add to that, she's clearly a racist, which we know based on the number of times she claims that she isn't.

Perhaps this sounds like a thought-provoking read, and certainly I've spent a lot of thought on it, but it was a chore to sort out. This is not very enjoyable. At 110 pages it felt at least twice its length. I reread passages again and again to try and figure them out, only to move on in frustration. I have my mind made up about Clara, but I don't know if the conclusion I've drawn is the one Bellow intends. If you were thinking about getting into Saul Bellow's works, I wouldn't start here.

Wednesday, July 4, 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 finally started A Clash of Kings, by George R. R. Martin. Where A Game of Thrones had a somewhat slow start, A Clash of Kings picks up at the cliffhangers its prequel left off at, and you know everybody by now, so it's off to a better start. So far so good.

What did you recently finish reading?

I most recently finished A Theft, by Saul Bellow. When I posted this in last week's WWW Wednesdays, a lot of people sounded interested in this one. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a very frustrating novel. At 110 pages, it felt much longer. It took me 2 days to read it, and then I read 150 pages of A Clash of Kings in one day. I will post my review tomorrow. Also, I finished ttfn. The review is here.

What do you think you'll read next?

I have finally found a copy of The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. I'll probably start reading it before the weekend starts.