22 February 2010

The Language of Sand (#20)

Ellen Block tells the story of Abigail, a lexicographer who takes a rental home on a small island where she will serve as caretaker of a lighthouse (which is no longer in use).  The story unfolds in the aftermath of the loss of her husband and child in a fire, and Abigail's experiences - and the people she meets - on Chapel Isle help bring her back to life.

I really appreciated the framing function of the alphabet and the relatively obscure words that began each chapter.The words are always obliquely related to the story about to unfold, though it was difficult at times to see the ways that the words fit together.

Abigail (or Abby, as she comes to be called on the island) is a somewhat perplexing character; she takes this home because her late-husband had always visited the island as a child, but she doesn't seem to be renting the home to learn anything about him. Nor do the readers ever really learn anything about him, aside from a few memories that Abigail shares when she is alone.  One of the only neuroses she carries from her old life is her understandable resistance to use the stove, since her family died in a fire.

I also really enjoyed some of the supporting characters, particularly Merle and the ghost of the lighthouse. They seem to be more willing to open themselves up and let the reader take a moment to understand life on the island. The main problem with the book was that it seemed unfinished. Abigail doesn't seem to grow, or address her grief, throughout the book, and while it's true that neither of those are prerequisites for a successful book, it makes Abigail seem to be more of a two-dimensional character.

I did enjoy The Language of Sand, even if it sounds like I thought it had all of these huge flaws. It was easy to read, and the colorful supporting cast made me want to care what happened to them.  I just wish that the central character could have had as much life as the people she interacted with on a daily basis. Learning to cope with loss is a challenge, yes, and I really wanted to see Abigail deal with some of the emotions that were clearly bottled-up inside her.

21 February 2010

Shiver (#19)

I picked this book up at Borders completely randomly, because I've always been a sucker for good covers and the storyline seemed like it would fall in with the other books I was reading at the time, namely the Sookie Stackhouse series of books. Shiver falls into the YA category of books that are somewhat obsessed with the whole supernatural phenomenon. And I really wanted to like this book as much as I've liked other supernatural series, like Twilight and the Sookie Stackhouse books.  I like Stiefvater's style, in general, and I think that she could have something interesting to develop here.

The plot is relatively straightforward: Grace was bitten by a pack of wolves when she was little, before the story starts (why not include some of the aftermath?) and she feels a particularly strong bond with the wolf who protected her from the others, and she always waits for him to come into the forest by her house in the wintertime. And then she meets Sam, who it turns out is this wolf, and the story of their relationship unfolds to the background of the ever-dropping temperature which threatens to turn Sam back into the wolf at any moment. All the makings of a good YA tale, which are typically easy to read and I tend to finish in about ten minutes. 

But the characters were really lacking in depth and in personality.  Even Sam was not a particularly charismatic character, and I didn't really feel Grace's plight, either. I didn't dislike any of the characters, but I didn't really have feelings about any of them one way or the other, because a lot of them seemed kind of like afterthoughts.  Like, Stiefvater wrote this book and realized that there had to be other characters for the book to work. I really liked the parents, because they didn't need much development.

One thing I did like about the book, however, was the alternating points of view. This isn't something completely new, but I appreciated the varied perspective in that it offers something a little different.  The two characters clearly experience the story in different ways, because they experience each other in different ways and each have something different at stake.  But was it enough to save the book? I don't know.  Will the sequel need two different perspectives, since the two characters aren't still in completely different worlds? Will Stiefvater give more chacters a voice in the story? I hope that she delves more into the characters' lives, because Sam's (or Beck's) story could be really interesting if it had time to develop. Time will tell. I'll probably read the sequel, but this won't be anything that I'm calling friends and telling them that they must read the book.  

18 February 2010

Weekly Geeks: Romancing the Tome

In honor of Valentine's Day, Weekly Geeks offered all sorts of prompts regarding romantic literature (not romance novels, necessarily, but novels that have some romance in them).  So, I decided to think about my favorite literary couple.

Of course, Reader and Reader are an interesting couple in Calvino's If on Winter's Night A Traveler, even though their relationship is not my favorite. And I was listening to an episode of To The Best Of Our Knowledge a while back and they were discussing the potentially negative impact of the Bella-Edward relationship in Twilight, showing young girls that it's okay and actually desirable to have a boyfriend who sneaks into your room and watches you sleep, who is overly protective and warns you not to get into any trouble (and won't let you be friends with someone just because they are eternally enemies - ugh). So, while I think that their relationship makes for good reading, their relationship seems a little co-dependent to be my favorite.

I really like Scarlett and Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, because they're such a classic couple; and Henry and Clare in The Time Traveler's Wife, because their story is so heartbreaking but they really, truly love each other. 

But, my FAVORITE literary couple is, by far, Claire and Jamie Fraser of the Outlander series.  They are both individuals; they are independent, and they love each other completely and honestly. Their love is just beautifully written by Diana Gabaldon, and they are absolutely believable as a couple (and as individuals).  I don't think I could've continued reading all of the books if it weren't for Jamie and Claire. They both get time to develop as characters, and then they have time to develop as a couple as well. 

15 February 2010

Weekend wrap-up

Well, it was quite an eventful weekend: 
Lincoln's Birthday, the anniversary of my engagement, Valentine's Day, and President's Day. 
So many opportunities for celebration! 
What I did:


That's right. I went to the movies on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

None of the movies were earth-shattering:

Valentine's Day was exactly what it looked like it would be: something that wanted to be just like Love Actually but fell a bit short of the mark.  It was alright, and fluffy fun, but I wasn't expecting anything special out of it.  

Percy Jackson was, well, definitely a disappointment. I wonder if it would've been less disappointing if I hadn't read the book. This actually got a whole post for itself though, right here.

Wolfman was gory, and all of the actors did a fine job. Benicio Del Toro always looks like he's sleep-deprived (and I mean always, not just in this movie), Anthony Hopkins is spot-on as a creepy patriach, and Emily Blunt seems like she fits so well in this time period.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies (#15) and The Periodic Table (#17)

Both Il castello dei destini incrociati (Calvino) and Il sistema periodico (Levi) are re-reads, as I prepare to write my dissertation proposal (any references I make will be to the English translations, though I read them in the Italian original)...So, why blog about them together? Symbols, I say.

Symbols play a prominent role in both of these books; in the case of Calvino's tale, different travelers find themselves in an inn (that used to be a castle, or a castle that used to be an inn), and all have been struck silent.  They take to communicating their stories by using a deck of Tarot cards, and the different people sitting around the table must interpret the stories as appropriately as possible. As the first person begins his tale, the narrator comments, "we thought we understood that, with that card, he wanted to say 'I' and that he was preparing to tell his story," suggesting that the entirety of the novel is full of conjectures and personal interpretations, which do not necessarily correlate to the actual stories being told (emphasis mine).  As one traveler finishes his story, another story begins and may intersect with previous stories, until all the spaces are full.  The resulting layout hearkens to the intersection of the individual and universal, the personal interpretation of others and one's personal projection into the Other's narrative.  The stories can be read in a linear fashion, and if the protagonists of each tale are the cards on the outside edges, the various stories intersect in very clear ways.  
     The second part of the work, The Tavern of Crossed Destinies, leaves the reader with a much less organized layout; the cards and their stories are pulled at random and without a logical pattern.  The narrator finds himself with three cards, "the Knight of Swords, the Hermit and the Juggler...as I have imagined myself from time to time...the moment has come to admit that only tarot number one honestly depicts what I have succeeded in being: a juggler, or conjurer, who arranges on a stand at a fair a certain number of objects and, shifting them, connecting them, interchanging them, achieves a certain number of effects." If the narrator is read as a version of Calvino himself, then this is the moment Calvino discusses how he views himself as a writer.  Is writing simply a way of interpreting various symbols and presenting them in various fashions, depending on the desired outcome or reception? What bearing do the symbols have on individual lives?

Primo Levi uses different symbols - the periodic table of elements - in order to incorporate tangible elements into a less-tangible reality.  The intersection of the chemical elements with the narrative story is representative of Levi's personal life.  The chemical elements represent Levi's career as a chemist, and serve as a guide for Levi to navigate his lift.  The narrative elements are composed of different types of stories - anecdotes, fantastic tales, histories, etc - and it is through these different tales and elements that Levi projects an image of himself that is equally multifaceted.  Interesting, however, is the fact that Levi almost entirely leaves out the time period in which he was in Auschwitz, commenting that "I, a chemist, engaged here in writing my stories about chemistry, have lived a different season, has been narrated elsewhere." Though the story, "Cerium," in which this appears is related to Levi's survival during his time in Auschwitz, the story does not explore his experience with the same depth as his previous books.  The symbol of Levi as a chemist is not reliant upon his surviving the Holocaust, though his surviving the Holocaust is reliant upon his profession as a chemist.  
      Two stories about halfway through the book, Lead and Mercury, are seemingly unrelated to the rest of the narrative.  The story Lead, however, is more interesting, because it hearkens back to the ancient art of alchemy - of course, it's not the alchemy that you're probably picturing.  The narrator, Rodmund, is able to identify a particular rock and extract lead from it. Through this, he is able to make his fortune: "I began traveling again, in search of rock to smelt or to be smelted [and fashioned into its many different uses] by other people; teaching them the art in exchange for gold. We Rodmunds are wizards, that's what we are: we change lead into gold."  Though the alchemy does not happen by changing the molecular structures, it happens. Changing lead into gold, through whichever means possible, shows how a symbol - in this case alchemy - can be interpreted differently by different people because of their individual situations. Rodmund may not be an alchemist in the traditional sense of the word, but his act has the same result in both cases.   

These works of Calvino and Levi, two of the most prominent writers of the twentieth century, rely upon symbols to give their works structure, but it is through the manipulation of these structures that they offer their unique perspectives on the world.  

13 February 2010

Seriously, Chris Columbus?

I was really excited about seeing The Lightning Thief (I did, after all, start reading the books because I thought the movie could be fun).  So we went to see it on Saturday afternoon.  Young children filled the theater, and I found out that a lot of kids are reading the book in school! Riordan did his research, and at least the book would be something that the children would like. The little girls sitting next to me seemed really excited as the movie started.

Did the people in charge of adapting the book into a movie even read the book? I wanted to throw Percy's watery trident at whoever decided that they should take out some of the major plot points - especially since they were IMPORTANT to the development of the story.

"It's getting worse." What, Percy? The movie? "The dyslexia. The ADHD." That was actually a line from the movie. Because we wouldn't figure out that he was dyslexic when the letters started moving around in the museum? And, honestly, what was with the whole sitting-underwater-for-seven-minutes-thing? Didn't he think that was weird? "I just like being in the water." Unbelievable.

I was most disappointed by three things: 1 - the movie overall (sadly); 2 - the elimination of the entire claiming part of the gods; 3 - the development of the Percy-Luke plotline, as the way it unfolds in the book just flows naturally into the second book, and the movie just destroyed that whole dynamic. Ugh. Annabeth came off as a much less bright version of her book persona, and what was with Pierce Brosnan's Chiron?

I leaned over to my husband Sean when the credits started and said, "Now you have to read the book, if only so you know that it was good when it started."

The difference between the book cover and the movie poster says it all. 
In the book, Percy is a regular kid who is thrust into an atypical situation; 
in the movie, he's something completely different.


Spoiler alert: the movie was not good.

Redeemer alert: the book is still good.

10 February 2010

The Book Thief (#16)

Marcus Zusak's story of Liesel, told from the point of view of Death, was one of the most beautifully heartbreaking books I've read lately. And I've read a lot of books lately.  The story was brilliantly narrated, the characters were complex and multifaceted, but did not seem affected or forced.  The book is at once tragic and hopeful, and the world of Himmel Street with its vibrant inhabitants is completely imaginable. The Germans central to the story seem, at times, to be portrayed in a way that is more sympathetic than the historical record suggests, but their actions and attitudes are completely plausible nonetheless.

So, what did I like about the story? I really liked Death. What an interesting narrator, with his own asides and digressions. Death's way of unfolding the story - mostly linear, but with references to the past and future in ways that did not seem too contrived and did not take away from the narrative flow - was unique and peppered with moments that make the story difficult to forget.

The title The Book Thief suggests that Liesel's thievery is what defines her; however, rather than being defined by the books she steals, it is from the act of reading these books that she learns how to define herself.  Her book, also titled "The Book Thief" and taken by Death, is never revealed to the reader, but Death describes it as having sections that tell her story and are each centered around a book.  Which begs the question, which books are those that define us?

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone, but especially to book lovers.

07 February 2010

Catching Fire (#14)

Can you say cliffhanger? Don't worry, I won't give anything away, but WOW! I started this book immediately after finishing the first book, Hunger Games, and the book did not miss a beat from the first one.  Catniss and Peeta return home after the Games to their home, which is simultaneously the same and completely different after the defiance of the Capitol, albeit an unintentional one.  

As the story unfolds, Collins allows the reader to grow more attached to Catniss and Peeta, both as individuals and as a pair.  She also introduces other supporting characters, expanding Catniss' family beyond her immediate nucleus to include her family of other Victors.  The relationship between Catniss and the rest of her group is complicated, because Catniss and Peeta do not understand the extent to which they are all linked, nor their individual importance in the grand scheme of things.  I, like Catniss, did not completely understand the scope of the struggle, but I have every faith in Collins to finish the story in a way that will make everything make sense. 

The relationship between Catniss and Gale is a complex one; are they best friends or are they something more than that? Catniss' attempt to navigate her own emotions - and the struggle she feels between Gale and Peeta for her love - reflects the different roles she plays throughout her story. 

I read this book in one day - and what a day it was! I can't wait to see how Collins resolves the struggle - I can't believe that the final book in the series is not released until August! 

05 February 2010

The Hunger Games (#13)

Lucky number thirteen, eh? I received this book (and the sequel) in the mail from RJ for my birthday - I'm sending her the first four of the Percy Jackson series in reply this weekend.  She told me she thought I would like these books, even though they (again) fall under the YA heading.

Suzanne Collins did not disappoint. Hunger Games is set in the future in the remnants of North America, and every year 2 children are chosen from each of the twelve districts to play in the "Hunger Games," a fight to the death orchestrated by the government and aired on television.  Katniss, the protagonist, volunteers to go when her sister is chosen from the bowl.  Along with Peeta, a boy she does not know very well (even though, we come to find out, he knows her well enough).  But that's all the set-up, and something you could get from the flap of the book.

Collins' story sort of reminds me of Octavia Butler's stories, but for a younger audience. The main character struggles against all odds to survive in a wastelandish future, though the twelve districts are also reminiscent of an Orwellian future, with the government always watching.  I found Katniss to be very relatable and realistically characterized, and there is not too much attention paid to the Capitol itself, since they do not spend very much time in the city.

The story of one girl against the world, in this case, the world is comprised of the twenty-three other competitors in the Hunger Games, the alliances and enemies she makes along the way, and her relationship with Peeta all step into the foreground at various moments in the book; Katniss remains the central character throughout, and her voice never waivers, even when she doesn't fully understand the motivations behind what she is being told to do.

04 February 2010

New perspective

I've spent the last month almost (eek!) trying to find the aspects of two authors that make them similar enough to be clear - and at times I feel I'm grasping at straws.  The most similar aspect of the two authors is their biography, but I'm writing about their literature.  I've looked at themes, which may be stronger in one author or the other, and I'm left with the feeling that I'm trying to fake my way through the weaker one; I've looked at the development of their writing over the decades, but that turns into something that completely misses the mark; I've tried to put them in direct conversation with each other, since they were contemporaries and have dedicated / addressed each other at various times.  But it seems like I've been trying to force a closer relationship than they feel comfortable with. Which doesn't mean I have to start over; it just means that I have to adjust my vision.

I think I've been taking the wrong approach. One wrote primarily memoir / autobiography / historical truth - as a Holocaust survivor, he found himself overwrought with the imperative to tell the truth for those who did not survive, knowing that his story would contradict the majority of Holocaust stories by the virtue of his survival.  The other wrote fiction of all kinds: starting with neorealist fiction, he moved into the fantastical, the postmodern and the world of metafiction.  The farther he went from reality, the more his critical eye became apparent.  It is, I hope, through these two completely different approaches that I will be able to find a symbiotic relationship; even better, I would like to find the harmony between these two very different melodies. 

The key may very well be the following statement: 
The best way to read fiction is through history, and the best way to read history is through fiction. 

Are the apple and the orange mutually exclusive?
Can they be both at once?

The Girl Who Played With Fire (#12)

Larsson's second novel in the trilogy (I'm really anxious to see how the trilogy finishes) picks up almost right where the first novel leaves off.  I would definitely say that to get a full understanding of the relationships between the characters, as well as the full picture of the individual characters themselves, the first book is a must (and excellent). The characters flow seamlessly from the first to the second book, and I really liked that this book gave the reader the opportunity to get a better handle on Lisbeth, one of the book's main characters.

The story is full of twists and turns, but Larsson makes all of the revelations throughout the book completely believable. The key to the believability of the book is the strong characters.  They are more neither stock characters nor are they so far from the realm of possibility that it is a stretch to believe they could pull off various moments in the book.

As was true in the first book, this one took me about fifty or so pages to get into.  The stories are not overly complex, but there is a lot happening in the books simultaneously, or else the setting up of the sequence of events needs enough story behind it that it seems almost unrelated to the plot. However, it leads to a better understanding of the characters, their situations, and their relationship with each other.

I'm interested to see if Lisbeth's sister will play a more prominent role in the last book: she seems to be an integral part to the story, but in ways that are still unclear.  Mikael's sister also seems to be relatively important, and I really liked the relationship they shared in the second book, so I would like to see more of her.  Finally, I'm curious to see how Berger's storyline plays out - her story was not concluded at the end of the book, and I'm betting that she ends up being an important player as the next book unfolds, even though she is not my favorite character.

01 February 2010

Weekly Geeks: Winter Reading

For this week's Weekly Geeks, share with us the books which call out to you during the cold, wintry months. Are there genres which appeal to you most? Why do you think you are drawn to these types of books during winter? Do you have some book recommendations for other readers who are looking for some escape from the blustery weather? Give us some of your favorites and tell us why you recommend them.
As "extra credit" why not share some photos of what the weather looks like outside your home...or where you curl up to read when 'the weather outside is frightening.'

As a rule, I always end up reading more during the winter months, something that made perfect sense when my winters looked like this:
(that's my husband last winter - on a very balmy day in the teens)

Now we live in California and our winters are not so wintery - when it rains, it pours, but for the most part it's sunny and in the 60's, so it's quite pleasant and I'm not stuck inside by virtue of the weather. However, I also have a dissertation proposal to write, and I'm researching from home most days, so I've been doing a lot of reading, both academic and for pleasure. Because reading for fun when I'm supposed to be reading for school still keeps me on the same track, which is good.  

Thinking back on what I've read over the years during winters, I noticed that I tend to read series (mostly intended for YA or children) of books: a few years ago I spent a week reading all the Harry Potter books, and I just read the entire Percy Jackson series in a week as well. 

I tend to go for books that are either very light, or else I am attracted to mysteries.  I'm currently reading the Stieg Larsson books (I read Girl With a Dragon Tattoo in two days), and I read the Tana French books earlier this winter - though I preferred The Likeness to In The Woods.

Part of the reason that I read YA series in winter, and I read them so quickly, is that I usually have a very limited amount of time to read for pleasure before the semester gets back into full swing. However, since I'm not taking classes for the first time in my life, so I've been reading a lot more - and these tend to be the books that have been out for a while and I've been meaning to read, or the books that I received for Christmas.