Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: Maniac Magee, by Jerry Spinelli

Jerry Spinelli's Maniac Magee won the Newberry Medal in 1990, and I can imagine that the age group the award is aimed at, late elementary to early middle school, would get more of a kick out of the absurdly goofy scenarios in the story than I did. Reading as an adult, the book seems random and ungrounded, though I will admit it has heart.

At the age of three, Jeffrey Lionel Magee lost his parents. He lived with his uncle and aunt for some time, but their strict Catholic ways left him feeling stifled. So he ran away. Only, unlike other runaway stories, Jeffrey was never caught. In fact, he makes a name for himself in the town of Two Mills, which has a East End where blacks live and a West End where whites live. The name he makes for himself is Maniac Magee. His feats become part of the town's legends, and Spinelli playfully suggests we shouldn't believe all the stories we read about Maniac. This isn't a story, though, where the reader is supposed to guess reality from myth. That would be fruitless. Maniac's feats are as much fantasy as the setting the story takes place in.

Stories are told about Maniac's untiring ability to run endlessly. He can untie even the most difficult of knots. He is allergic to pizza. He also frog bunted an inside the park home run against the best pitcher in Two Mills. Yes, ridiculous. As a kid I can imagine I would have hooted with laughter. These stories seem to exist simply for the amusement of younger readers, but as this story is made up of random bits of such tales, it fails to feel cohesive.

The story deals with themes of homelessness and race. Maniac is known for fearlessly crossing the border between the West End and East End, which are divided on racial lines. Most residents from one end won't mingle with residents on the other end because of the racial tensions. Maniac does more than cross the border, however. He lives in the house of Amanda Beale, a black girl, long enough to become an honorary part of the family. Spending much of his life without a home or a place to learn about social constructs, Maniac doesn't understand the concept of racial tension. This suggests that people are not innately born with racial prejudice, but learn it. Living on the East End, Maniac does learn about racial prejudice, and it chases him away for a time.

Maniac's outsider status allows him to see things others can't. He realizes that households on the West End aren't terribly different from those on the East End. The Beale household is a normal home and there is a feeling of warmth and love. Maniac also experiences the same thing with a large white family that welcomes anybody to join for dinner. And where the white families all believe black households are trashy, Maniac spends a few weeks in a white household trashier than any he's seen on the East End. But because nobody crosses the border as Maniac does, nobody else knows how similar to two sides really are.

Unfortunately the novel doesn't do much with its themes, except maybe the theme of friendship and family. There are some touching moments, particularly when Maniac befriends an older man named Grayson. The novel is most enjoyable when Maniac settles down somewhere, but he's on the move so often the novel feels just as homeless as its title hero. Perhaps that's the point, and maybe I'm missing something. It's not that this is a bad novel, but it's one more geared for the kids than the adults.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Review: The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

Even if you have difficulty enjoying this slow-paced novel, where not a whole lot happens, you have to admit that it has a great title. The title is key to understanding the novel's themes: loneliness, a hunt for friendship, a hunt for truth, and a look at what people carry in their hearts. This is yet another adult novel often required for teenagers to read in high school. While my adult self found the novel absorbing and thought-provoking, I can imagine my teenage self may have been bored. The vision of life McCullers paints is very sad, rarely happy, as the reader follows a year in the lives of five characters, and yet you get a sense that we all face the same problems and concerns the characters in the novel face, to some degree.

The back cover of the novel says Mick Kelly, a young girl, is the main character, but I'm not sure the novel truly does center on any one character. There is also Biff Brannon, who owns a barely successful bar; Doctor Copeland, a black doctor who wants to elevate his race above the problems of the day; Jake Blount, a drunkard obsessed with the ideology of Karl Marx; and Peter Singer, a deaf mute whose best friend was just transported off to a mental care facility. The novel takes place towards the end of the Great Depression, just as Hitler is beginning to lead the world into World War II, and it seems this depression has taken a toll on the people not only financially, but emotionally. Of the five characters listed above, only two seem somewhat happy: Mick because she's young, and Singer because he's always happy to have company.

As the story develops, all five of these characters become connected in some way - namely to Peter Singer. Singer's deaf mute status seems to lend him an air of authority. He doesn't talk, and he can only listen by reading lips, but the other four characters love talking to him. They vent their frustrations, problems, and ideas, and he responds with a knowing nod, a smile. He's a silent man who understands. Not so subtly, Singer plays as a God figure. Those who talk with him feel better afterward, and they make a habit of visiting him often. They believe he understands what they're feeling and saying, just as those who pray believe God understands them. However, it's clear that Singer is just as human as them. He is lonely and merely loves the company. His heart desires to see his friend, Antonapoulos, who he visits now and then. Antonapoulos plays the same role for Singer that Singer does for everyone else. Singer can't communicate to the others except by writing brief messages, but Antonapoulos can read sign language, and thus Singer can pour his heart and soul out to his friend. This is what everyone desires, anyway.

The desire to be understood is perhaps the novel's strongest theme. Jake Blount and Doctor Copeland both have noble, yet radical, beliefs that serve to alienate themselves from the world. Blount turns to alcohol and Doctor Copeland turns bitter. Blount is fervent about his socialist beliefs and tries to spread them through pamphlets and passionate words. It most wounds him to realize that hardly anyone shares in his beliefs, and even those who may sympathize won't go so far as to take action. Doctor Copeland shares the same wounds, only his are aroused by his race and his family. As a black man, he elevated his station in life by becoming a doctor. He got married and had several children. He wanted nothing more than to see his children raise themselves above their station, and his grandchildren, and so on. However, his wife silently undermined his efforts and his children ended up not so well off. Not only that, but, except his daughter Portia, they avoid him. It's difficult to blame them, once you learn his entire family history. However, the fact that, in his eyes, he failed with his children is difficult to bear. Whether he can go home at night feeling good about the day depends on whether or not his patients seem to understand what he says about his "purpose" for the black race.

Doctor Copeland and Jake Blount are very similar to one another, yet they are not close friends. Both enjoy the companionship of Singer because they can share their thoughts with someone they believe to be a sympathetic and understanding character. At one point of the novel, Blount and Copeland do have a long conversation, and what happens I will not say, except that it isn't too surprising. Yet it offers a useful insight into human character.

The events that happen in the novel are mostly the sort of everyday things that can happen in anybody's life on a regular basis. A few major events do happen, but McCullers writes in such a dispassionate tone that there's no shock. Mostly we follow characters living, breathing, thinking. We see the dark secrets they harbor. Biff, for one, feels a sort of attraction towards Mick, and at times it seems more than fatherly. Though he has a wife, the love between them has long wore out. Of the five characters, Biff seems the most aware. He's the only one who doesn't view Singer as a God figure, but observes that this is how Blount, Copeland, and Mick see him. And Mick, she is just a young girl growing up. She's a tomboy, as seems to be the case in many modern-day classics, and she has anger issues. She loves wandering alone, seeing the world at night, sneaking under the windows of wealthier homes and listening to music playing on the radio. She develops a fondness for classical music and has a desire to learn the piano. However, her family is poor. They have a large home and rent out rooms to boarders, so Mick's only chance to be alone is by leaving the house. After a terrible tragedy, however, Mick loses this opportunity to be by herself. She must get work, and with work she must sacrifice that special inside room, which requires time alone to enjoy. That inside room contains all of her thoughts and dreams. Each of us have such a room, and reality often sets in to intrude upon it.

There are times when the novel does drag on, and other times when you wonder why McCullers decided to include pages upon pages of Blount and Copeland ranting. There are also plenty of moments of quiet reflection, and moments of beauty. Mostly, we feel the novel's harsh, stark reality. It doesn't seem quite like the kind of life most of us lead. The world McCullers creates feels much more depressing than the life that I know - then again, everyone's lives are deeply personal and there are no doubt plenty who see life in the same stark terms as the characters in the novel. What does feel universal is the desire to be heard, to be understood, and the feeling that very few people do understand us. It is the reason I write these reviews - to talk about my thoughts, to share them with others, and to make sense about the books that I read. In today's world of social media, that is why we like posts and retweet messages, to show our appreciation and understanding of what others say. And in the future this will be true as well, but in a different form. Whether or not her characters seem more or less sad than the people you may know, it's impossible to deny that McCullers's themes are universal for all people in all times.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan

In Spanish, the word "esperanza" means "hope," so the title of Pam Munoz Ryan's young adult novel, Esperanza Rising, has the benefit of a dual meaning. The story has the makings of a Disney film, with a young girl named Esperanza acting, essentially, as a young Mexican princess. While technically not a princess, Esperanza comes from a wealthy family in Mexico where she is attended by servants. However, Ryan's princess story has more humility than your typical Disney princess story, in which a beautiful young woman is rescued from her unfortunate circumstances by a handsome young prince. Ryan does not assume all beautiful young girls must move into the ranks of royalty. Instead, Esperanza falls from her privileged position to a much more modest, and labor-intensive one. The novel makes use of plenty of cliche plot elements, to be sure, but its many perceptive passages and its unique look into Mexican immigration during the Great Depression makes it an engrossing read. What's even more amazing is that it's based on a true story about Ryan's grandmother.

Esperanza's father is a wealthy landowner who is among the rare wealthy in the country loved by the people. This is impressive considering the novel takes place not long after the Mexican Revolution, when the people fought back against the greed and corruption of the wealthy. Her father is kind and generous, a rare trait among the wealthy. Esperanza, of course, is oblivious to the tensions between the wealthy and poor. Her world is filled with servants who do her bidding. They dress her and bathe her and play with her. She has never wanted for anything. Her closest friend is Miguel, but when Esperanza realizes they can never be more than friends, she tells him they live on opposite sides of the river. Esperanza has a good idea of her privilege, but lacks empathy.

However, Esperanza soon realizes just how superficially that river divides her world from Miguel's. The back of the novel says "a sudden tragedy shatters her world," and you can probably guess what it is. A series of events forces Esperanza, her mother, and Miguel and his family to migrate north to California. Esperanza's sweet side gives way to an obnoxious, bratty side. She complains about hiding in an uncomfortable wagon all the way to the border. She looks upon the dirty "peasants" with disgust. She throws a tantrum when she realizes she must share a two-room shack with two other families. And she's further angered at the prospect of having to work. This is what I like about the novel. Esperanza is not an angelic figure who makes a smooth transition from her position of wealth into her position of dire poverty. For a child accustomed to such privileged living, such a transition as Esperanza makes is not easy.

Esperanza quickly faces many human struggles her wealth had previously shielded her from. One struggle comes in the form of money. The three families barely have enough money to keep up with rent and feed themselves, which means everyone but the youngest must earn some money. Their struggles also come in the form of disease when Esperanza's mother comes down with Valley Fever. This illness takes an emotional toll on Esperanza, but also a financial toll on the household. There are also struggles with racism. The labor camps are divided largely by skin color, and it is noted with some jealousy that the whites get better living arrangements. The new Okies coming to town will have a swimming pool, and it's clear the labor camp owners want to encourage factions between their laborers in order to prevent effective labor strikes. These strikes also present a struggle. While Ryan doesn't necessarily take a stance for or against strikes, she shows that they threaten the livelihoods of those who simply want to survive. To strike for better living conditions is noble, but it comes at the potential cost of one's job. Through these struggles young Esperanza comes face to face with the realities of life.

The novel is aimed at younger teenagers, and I think it's important, culturally, alongside such classics as To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men, which take place in the same era. There are some passages of beauty, such as the opening section when Esperanza's father teaches Esperanza how to hear the Earth's heartbeat. There are also many perceptive passages, such as when Esperanza struggles to get used to her new-found poverty. The setting is unique, and the titling of chapters after fruit and vegetables that play a role in those chapters is fun. There is some humor and some sorrow. Since it is aimed at children, the novel doesn't achieve the depth you will find in the two classics listed above, and it makes use of familiar, formulaic plot devices, though it uses them competently. Overall, though, there is plenty for both teens and adults to enjoy in Esperanza Rising.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Review: Tangerine, by Edward Bloor

Edward Bloor's novel, Tangerine, has too many different plots and themes to have an identity. On one hand it is a soccer story; on another hand it is a story about race and the urban school setting; also it's a story about a boy who can't remember something bad that happened to him long ago. It works best as a soccer story, as the other two stories grow cliche and uninteresting. It's not that this is a bad story. For the first 200 pages it's an engrossing tale, but it's in the last 100 pages that the story begins to go downhill. Way downhill.

Because of his dad's work situation, Paul Fisher and his family have moved to Tangerine Country, Florida, a place where tangerine oranges aren't quite as common as they once were. Despite his thick glasses, Paul sees a lot of things nobody else does. For one, he's touchy about being called legally blind. My first hope was that he was in denial of his physical defect, but as the story goes on it's clear that his eyesight is fine. It's Paul's parents who insist he's legally blind - they're the ones in denial. This sets the tone for the sophistication level of the novel. Rather than feature an unreliable narrator, it features a middle school teenager who knows more than the adults.

Paul knows that his brother, Erik, is a bad person. Everyone else, especially his father, only see a future professional football kicker, and the star of his new high school team. Some of the aspects regarding Erik are quite effective. We get a glimpse at parents who witness, firsthand, some of the atrocities their son carries out, but choose to turn a blind eye as though they don't want to admit that side exists. Paul also knows the real reason why it is the town's expensive koi have been disappearing from the pond. The adults are just too dim to notice it themselves.

What Paul is most interested in, however, is soccer. He tries out for the middle school team, but because his mom labeled him as legally blind he is not eligible to play. However, a large sinkhole destroys more than half of the school, which is made up of portable classrooms, and Paul decides to take the option of transferring to Tangerine Middle School. Tangerine Middle is a tough place. It's an urban district where whites are in the minority, but it's an opportunity for Paul to begin his soccer hobby anew. He tries out for the largely Hispanic soccer team, sans the legally blind tag, and makes it as a reserve goaltender.

What I like about the soccer elements is that they are nice and easygoing. The focus isn't on glory and victory (though the team is very good), and Bloor seems to be making the point that the importance of sport is not to win, but to improve one's self and create positive relations with others. Though Paul is technically the back-up goalie, which inevitably means he'll get his big chance at the end, for the most part he plays offensive positions, and it turns out he's not a bad soccer player. He solidifies his position on the team when, after taking over for the team's best player, he scores a goal. That player, Victor, slaps him a high-five and all tensions regarding Paul's higher-class status disappear.

The novel's attempts to develop the relations between Paul and his teammates off the field, however, fall flat. This is largely because the Hispanic characters are one-dimensional and the off-the-field meetings are too forced. Paul becomes closest with Tino, and we learn that Tino's older brother, Luis, is busy inventing a new type of tangerine. Paul spends time at Tino's hut and learns about tangerine trees, and in one crucial moment even helps protect the young trees during a freeze. Learning about the tangerine trees served as the novel's dullest moments, particularly during the freeze. Don't get me wrong, I love gardening, but the sections with the tangerine trees do nothing to move the story forward or provide any memorable information about the trees. The reader just learns what a chore it is to do the job - and to read about it.

The story involves a lot of freak environmental occurrences, such as the sinkhole. Lightning suddenly strikes a kid on the football field, and the suburbs are plagued with the smell of an ever-burning muck fire. These environmental issues seem to serve as a warning - no matter how much money you have you can't escape mother nature. The upper-class families that live in the suburbs attempt to fix the problems with money, to no avail. Some of the problems, in fact, occur because of greed and vanity. What other reason are football practices held during the most lightning-prone time of the day? The football team wants victory at all costs. Even in the sinkhole we learn about gross negligence that could have prevented damage to the school property. As nice as these themes are, they do little to prevent the novel from delving into strange territory for the novel's final act.

The soccer season serves as the story's anchor. Soccer season is the one constant surrounded by many of the events described above. So once page 200 hits and soccer season is over, the novel loses its anchor and drifts into bad seas. Characters begin behaving in bizarre ways. Late in the novel, Paul makes horrible decisions for the sake of his Hispanic friends and, strangely, the novel seems to condone what he does. Characters undergo convenient changes as though suddenly realizing the error of their ways. Characters also become one-dimensional, or at least they are more noticeably one-dimensional. The tragedy is that the novel was rather good for a long while. It's a shame Bloor wasn't able to stay true to his characters and his story. The novel ends up doing too much, when it would have benefited from further developing a single story line.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Review: Stargirl, by Jerry Spinelli

Everybody could use a friend like Stargirl. She's fun. She's blissfully unaware of social rules. She wants everybody to be happy and doesn't seem too concerned about herself. On one hand she's powerfully charismatic, but on the other hand she's on the outskirts of society. Somebody like her, continuously cheerful and positive, blissfully unaware of social norms, tends to have less friends than not, but those friends she does have are very close. Popularity doesn't concern her. Acting bizarre in public doesn't embarrass her. She's always so full of energy it's as though her crazy behavior fuels her. Reading Jerry Spinelli's Stargirl, it's hard not to fall in love with the title character. And the reader does get to vicariously fall in love with Stargirl through the eyes of the main character, Leo. The results are a fun, fresh story about nonconformity.

As she's the new girl in town, the students at Mica High are unsure what to make of Stargirl. What is clear is that she's something of a sensation. At lunch, on her first day of school, Stargirl plays "Happy Birthday" to a student on her ukelele. She seems to have a supernatural sense about special things such as birthdays and random acts of kindness. A student who picks up a piece of trash from the floor and throws it away will turn around to see Stargiril cheering him on. The student body begins to feel good about itself and looks forward to Stargirl appreciating previously unnoticed gestures of kindness and goodwill. It's not long before she's the most popular girl in the whole school.

What I have described so far make it sound like the story's main character is Stargirl, but that would be wrong. In fact, the story is told in the first person perspective from a student named Leo. Leo directs a school show called Hot Seat, which his friend, Kevin, hosts. On the show, a jury comprised of students asks whoever is on the Hot Seat probing, personal questions, and as soon as Stargirl arrives, it is Kevin's goal to get her on the show. Leo is less certain, however. He feels it might be cruel. The early parts of the story are focused almost primarily on Stargirl, but as the story begins to settle Leo becomes much more important.

The story settles into a sweet romance between Stargirl and Leo. Though he's reluctant at first, Leo falls head over heels for her, and the two go on dates that aren't normal dinner/movie dates, but are a lot of fun nonetheless. The romance that Spinelli writes is among the sweetest romances I have had the pleasure to read. Of course, the romance occurs early enough that you know something is going to happen to threaten it. Not that I mean Stargirl is predictable. What does end up happening seems natural, but certainly not predictable.

For some reason, Stargirl falls in love with Leo. Maybe she can sense a certain kindness to him. Or maybe she liked it when he followed her after school one night to see where she lived. What develops, however, is a sweet, fun romance. None of that dark, murky, games-playing romance seen in Twilight and The Hunger Games. These are two teenagers who fall head-over-heels in love and enjoy each others' company. As with any romance story, this romance faces a conflict - in this case in the form of popularity. Stargirl's popularity in the school lasts only so long. She's a sensation as one of the cheerleaders, but the school soon despises the fact that Stargirl cheers every basket that is scored, including those on the other team. Thus the students begin to shun Stargirl.

Stargirl doesn't seem to notice, but Leo does. What scares Leo is that, as Stargirl's boyfriend, he also feels shunned. He pleads with her to act more normal because the pressure is too much for him. It's something that eats away at him. A question arises in the story as to whether it's more important to be true to your own unique self or to conform to societal norms in order to become accepted by others. A retired archaeologist in the story, and a mentor to many of Mica High's students, Archie provides Leo with one of the novel's key question: "Whose affection do you value more - hers or the others'?" I won't say how the story answers this question, but it is a compelling one, a question with the power to shape a young adult's values. At the core the question is addressing whether you need the affection of a small number of people in order to be happy, or the acceptance of the larger societal group. The older you are, the more obvious the answer to this question is.

I love stories about nonconformity. Nonconformists are important to society. They make life fun, and, besides, everyone of us has a little bit of the nonconformist in us. Stargirl is pure joy to read from beginning to end. Stargirl steals the show, becoming one of the most compelling character in literature. The novel's romance, as well, is lots of fun and serves as an example of how romance stories should be.. The ending, too, I think is perfect and keeps with the flow and design of the story. I was so engrossed I didn't want the story to end, but unfortunately all good stories must come to an end.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Review: Fallen Angels, by Walter Dean Myers

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers is about a group of black teenagers who enlist in the Vietnam War because they have little to no hope for a good future back home. Vietnam doesn't prove to be a much better option, they soon find out, and they face an experience that, if it doesn't kill them, scars them psychologically for the rest of their lives. Myers wants to make a point that wars are fought by youths, and he does this by convincingly writing from the perspective of a youth. These youths lose their lives, and their sanity, in a chaotic environment, where unseen mines explode or snipers pick them off from a distance. These are kids who are still learning about themselves and the world, and now they face the sad realization that they may not get a chance to experience life in its full.

The novel is told in the first person from the perspective of Richie Perry. Perry leaves his mother and younger brother to join the war effort because he can't stand living on the dangerous streets of New York, and college isn't an option. He briefly befriends a nurse named Judy, but before any love interest sparks up the two are shipped to separate separate parts of the country. However, Perry finds a close companionship with his squad mates, who are also black. His closest friend is Peewee, one of those teens who seems to know everything and really wants to kill some congs, man. He's a prickly fellow and looks for fights with anybody who throws a racial slur his way. Also in the squad are Johnson, a large and quiet young man; Jenkins, the most nervous of the group; Brunner, who is very religious; and Lobel, a lover of movies who comforts himself with the belief he is just living out a movie. Their squad is headed by Simpson, who only has a few months of service left and warns the newcomers not to get him killed.

Fallen Angels begins just before the Tet Offensive, when the U.S. seems convinced the war is almost over. Because of this, Perry and his squad face long moments of tedium, waiting for somewhere to go and something to do. They watch a Julie Andrews movie again and again. Their nightly patrols are their main source of action, but even these turn up nothing. Is there even an enemy out there? The answer is yes. On one patrol they return only to trigger a newly-planted mine. The enemy seems like a ghost. Perry is fired at from the dark, and he fires back into the darkness. Most of the battle sequences are quick and chaotic. They involve a lot of retreating. Myers wants to avoid making battle seem exciting in the fun sense of the term. Any excitement comes from fear. Out in the wild, these young soldiers are vulnerable and there's nothing to protect them.

Perry is a very reflective person. The death of a squad member haunts him for a long time. He also thinks about his other squad mates, his friends and family back home, and the enemy. He wonders what it's like from the perspective of the vietcong, which is only natural. Perry wonders about God. It's clear that he believes, as he often prays to himself, but there is an uneasiness about the mention of God. Brunner is the most open about his belief, and this openness causes friction within the squad. Is this friction due to guilt, or is there a sense that God has failed these young men?

Perry also reflects about race, which is an important theme in the novel. The blacks in the platoon stick together. These blacks feel isolated both at home and in the war. At times they are deliberately placed in the most vulnerable positions of a formation, and they feel a strong sense of injustice. They are afraid some white sergeant will not hesitate risk their lives for a promotion. However, the racism isn't directed at just blacks, but the Vietnamese as well. Every Vietnamese citizen is suspected as a vietcong, and they are referred to derogatorily as congs. There's a sense of distrust even with the South Vietnamese troop, and at one point this manifests itself as a near showdown between them and the Americans. Race seems most striking during times of war or intense conflict. We see this in our post-9/11 world where Muslims and Arabs face discrimination because of the actions of a small group of radicals.

If I have one misgiving, it is that the novel sometimes feels detached from its experience. There is a certain lack of attention to details that would otherwise help the novel feel more life-like. Sometimes the novel feels more like chaotic first-person shooter video game than a realistic war narrative. Some writers have a talent of bringing details to life. Cormac McCarthy is one of the best examples among modern authors. Myers does have talent, though. There are plenty of moments of great power that do bring the experience to life. The novel makes effective use of raw emotion. Men panicking. Men crying. Men in mortal terror of their lives. I cared about Perry and his friend Peewee and wanted them to survive, and when they come into trouble later in the novel I was afraid for them. The fact is, these are just a bunch of kids. They're innocent, and they're suddenly being thrust into one of the worst experiences life has to offer: war.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Review: The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger

I think everybody knows a Holden Caulfield. He seems confident. He has plenty of charms. He likes to pull your leg all the time. The more you get to know him the more you realize he doesn't have his stuff together and probably never will. Holden Caulfield in J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye is only 16, but you can imagine in a few years he'll be jumping from job to job because he just couldn't grow up. This novel is required reading in most high school curricula, and I think the reason for that is to serve as a warning to teenagers preparing to move into the next phase of their life: know the difference between healthy and unhealthy values.

At the start of the story, we learn that Holden Caulfield has been kicked out of Pencey Prep because he failed most of his classes. Holden makes all kinds of excuses. The one that seems to stick is that the whole place is full of phonies. In Holden Caulfield's world there are phonies everywhere. And the mere existence of these so-called phonies is enough to drive Holden to indifference. He grows annoyed when his history teacher, who seems to care about Holden, begins lecturing him about making an effort in life. Holden makes an excuse and gets out of there. In fact, to avoid further humiliation he leaves Pencey that very night, though he still has four days left before the end of the term.

The novel seems made up of random occurrences, what with a run-in with a prostitute and her pimp, visits to bars and clubs, meetings with various friends, but these things happen at the whim of Holden Caulfield. He makes a decision, often unwisely, and then these things happen. Holden does things without purpose. Even the decision to invite the prostitute to his hotel room was not well thought out since he had no intention of sleeping with her. Much of the novel finds him wandering around aimlessly, as though he can't decide what to do, where to go.

His paralysis in making a healthy decision for himself seems to lie in a hypersensitive sense of injustice. Even the tiniest injustice is enough to paralyze him with indecision and inaction. The fact that the world is full of phonies is enough to convince him not to pursue any meaningful activity. He has an ideal of himself as a savior of sorts, but the way he envisions this is as a fantasy rather than a realistic goal. He describes his ideal future as a person who catches lost children as they wander towards the edge of a cliff. Humanity needs him, he seems to believe, to protect them from the error of their ways. But this vision only serves to highlight his inability to make a concrete decision about the direction he wants to take his life. Holden doesn't even realize he's one of those children veering towards the edge of the cliff. If the ending is any indication, he never will.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Review: The Giver, by Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry slowly and steadily builds up to the startling revelations in The Giver that adult readers know are there, but will take younger readers by surprise. One can't help but feel a sense of unease when reading about a utopian society: what they offer comes at a great cost to the individual. While the individuals in The Giver live a life free from bad things such as physical and emotional pain, it comes at a cost of their freedom to choose, their freedom to feel. Of course, the citizens have no idea what they are missing; they have been trained to have such a precise vocabulary that extremes don't exist. When the main character, Jonas, says he is starving, his elders correct him. He can never starve, because food is always provided for him, but he can be hungry. On the surface this sounds like a wonderful place to live, however Lowry demonstrates that in order to live in a world with the greatest amount of good, there must also be evil.

Jonas has grown up with the same childhood as every other child in his town. At the age of one he was named and given to both of his parents, and every year after that he achieved a new milestone: at age nine he receives a bike and at age twelve he is assigned a job for adulthood. Beyond that, he foresees being assigned a spouse, being assigned a couple of kids, moving on to the center for Childless Adults and then the House of the Old, before being "released." It's a safe life, and nobody seems to question it. They are trained not to be "rude," which means asking the types of questions that would dig at the essence of their life. They are also trained to share their "feelings" with their family, so all feelings can be analyzed and reduced to nothing.

All of these details are laid out in a nice, steady fashion, providing a nice picture into the small community Jonas and his family reside. Then when everyone is comfortable, something interesting happens. Jonas's nice future vision for himself unravels when he is selected (not assigned) for a job of high honor. This job is the most important there is, because it ensures the peace of the community: The Receiver of Memories. This Receiver holds memories of intense pain, as well as memories of love, but they are memories meant for the Receiver only. Thus these memories, transferred to him through the Giver, provide Jonas with a new perspective on his life and the world he lives in. While Jonas is at first excited by the wonderful memories transferred to him, he quickly realizes the horror of living the life of the Receiver. Not only does he hold all of the nice memories of the world, but he also holds the most terrible memories of the world.

The Giver, like 1984 before it, focuses on the importance of language to control a community. Words can only take on meaning if we have learned or experienced that meaning. When the Giver first tells Jonas about snow, Jonas is confused because he has never heard of nor experienced snow. Jonas, after experiencing the memory of snow, cannot then tell of his experience to the community because the word, and the thing, does not exist in their memories. Similarly, color does not exist, and so there is no concept of red or green or yellow or white and so on. Even in their feelings, the people of the community are trained to know only the less severe of feelings. When Jonas feels that he is frightened, it sounds wrong to him until he realizes it isn't fear he feels, but anxiety. Fear, like starvation, can't exist in a world where terrible things can't happen.

Also similar to Orwell's concerns of totalitarian communism, Lowry has concerns about societal "sameness." This sameness is what creates the most secure world, as it's only in differences that danger lies. Citizens aren't allowed much in the way of personalities. Of course, the system does account for those inevitable differences that people have. People are tracked into certain jobs based on their unique traits. But to call these differences personalities might be a stretch. It's difficult to have a personality when you're not allowed to lie, for example, or when you must robotically accept every apology thrown at you (and those are quite frequent). The ideal society that Lowry sees is colorless and consists of a nuclear family of a mother, a father, and two children. Think of the scenes from Edward Scissorhands where all houses look the same and everyone leaves for work at the same time. The sameness Lowry fears is not something in a communist nightmare, but a modern, capitalist society. She asks, how far is a society that's not allowed to think for itself willing to go to protect its perceived sense of security?