Sunday, December 25, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Fans of Harry Potter and X-Men may take to this tale of a school designed specifically for children with magical powers—or “peculiars,” as they are called—even though this school is a far cry from the caliber of Hogwarts or the Xavier Institute. Written by Ransom Riggs and beautifully illustrated with old sideshow photos, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is a delightfully eerie and engaging fantasy that will appeal to both teen and adult readers.

The protagonist is Jacob, a teenage outcast struggling to make sense of his grandfather’s mysterious death, and the outlandish stories he left behind; stories of his adventures in World War II, and of living in an orphanage for children with supernatural powers. When Jacob travels to a remote Welsh island to investigate these stories, he falls headlong into a fantastical world populated by shape-shifting demons, where he meets Miss Peregrine, the matriarch of a hidden land that houses a mansion designed to protect the children in her care from the outside world. Jacob inadvertently upsets the balance between Miss Peregrine’s world and ours, setting off a catastrophic chain of events that make him realize his own supernatural abilities.

The discovery of the orphanage introduces a colorful cast of peculiar characters. First we are introduced to Emma, a girl who can conjure fire, and Millard the invisible boy. There’s also Olive the levitating girl; Hugh, who has bees living in his stomach; Bronwyn, the girl with super strength; and Horace, who has prophetic dreams; to name a few. Miss Peregrine herself is a fun character in her own right: part formidable matron, part shape-shifting sorceress.

Jacob is an amusing narrator; his sarcasm and dry humor make the novel funny and compulsively readable. His disgruntlement with his wealthy, frivolous family is often a point of comic relief, and also lends some depth to his internal struggle of whether to remain with his peculiar friends or return to his lackluster existence in a small town in Florida.

Ransom Riggs has earned himself a devoted following with this novel that is sure to expand with the upcoming sequel. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is equal parts funny, spooky and splendidly bizarre, and an absorbing read from start to finish. Both parents and children will have a fun time with this one.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Handling the Undead by John Ajvide Lindqvist

After his captivating debut with the vampire novel, Let the Right One In, I was eager to get my hands on John Ajvide Lindqvist’s next novel, despite generally not being drawn to the horror genre—least of all anything involving zombies. Yet Handling the Undead is not a generic zombie story; it’s an emotionally affecting and humanistic look at grief, loss, mortality and the relationships between parents and children.

The story talks place in Stockholm, Sweden, where strange occurrences are taking place. Electrical glitches, a massive heat wave and blinding headaches strike the entire population, and, in morgues and cemeteries, the dead start to reawaken. The first plotline involves stand-up comedian David, whose wife Eva is killed in a car accident and later reawakens in the hospital. The investigative reporter struggling to cover this phenomenon is Gustav Mahler, who has been grieving the loss of his grandson, Elias. The only people in Stockholm who foretold this whole occurrence is a pair of psychics: teenage Flora and her religious grandmother Elvy, who interprets the reawakening of the dead as a sign of the End of Days. Though these characters rarely interact outside their plot threads, their paths intersect in their attempts to survive and make sense of these supernatural circumstances.

The novel focuses not so much on the zombies themselves as on the living characters’ reactions to them, such as David struggling to explain his wife’s condition to his young son; Elvy’s self-appointed mission to spread the word of God as the End of Days draws near; and the government’s initial stalling to take action on the issue. In addition to David’s rapport with his son, the parent-child theme is especially prevalent in Mahler’s strained relationship with his grown daughter, Anna, and how they cope with the undead Elias. The psychic bond between Flora and Elvy also becomes crucial as they realize their purpose to herd the lost souls of the undead to their final resting place.

The marring aspect of this novel is its ending, which comes suddenly and doesn’t provide adequate closure; just a few hints as to how the whole zombie debacle will end, and how the characters will get on will their lives, having bid farewell to their loved ones for the final time. Readers will surely get the impression that their lives will continue after the book is finished, so this ending may be Lindqvist’s way of making the novel all the more memorable.

One could call Handling the Undead as the zombie novel for those who don’t usually read zombie novels. But there’s a chance that it could become a gateway zombie novel that sparks one’s interest in reading Max Brooks, author of The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War. In any case, it’s a moving and worthwhile read that further establishes Lindqvist’s status not only as a good horror writer but as a philosopher and humanist and well.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Jane by April Lindner

As a longtime fan of Charlotte Brontë’s coming-of-age classic Jane Eyre, I was intrigued at the prospect of a modernized version geared towards young adults. Aptly entitled Jane, April Lindner’s enjoyable update on the Gothic Victorian drama retells the class-defying love story to an entertaining degree, and succeeds where it counts, despite lacking the quality and psychological realism of the original.

While the original Jane Eyre worked as a governess for the ward of the mysterious Edward Rochester, Jane Moore takes a job as a nanny of the young daughter of famed rock star Nico Rathburn, a recovering addict and former womanizer seeking redemption through his music. Before long, Jane finds herself attracted to her brooding, charismatic employer, and their courtship is soon threatened by Nico's dangerous secret. Jane soon finds herself torn between her love for Nico and her own sense of morality, and must ask herself whether standing by her principles means giving up on love.

The characterization of Jane remains faithful for the most part to Brontë's original heroine. Coming from an abusive, dysfunctional home life, she is emotionally reserved and quietly dignified; hard-working, studious and artistic; yet her rapport with Nico reveals a deeply passionate side of her nature. Nico Rathburn, like his predecessor, retains the qualities of a Byronic hero: temperamental, emotionally conflicted, self-destructive and struggling with his own integrity. One thing he possesses that Mr. Rochester lacked is sex appeal, which should attract him to the novel's teenage audience.

The deeper themes and nuances of Brontë's original are lacking in Jane, such as gender politics and Jane’s struggles with religious faith. Yet some themes are still present, such as the dichotomy of passion and reason, and the limitations on human rapport enforced by social class. While Jane Eyre was an outspoken woman who clashed with the societal norms of the patriarchal, class-driven 19th century, Jane Moore is a hard-working college girl who clashes with Nico’s rich lifestyle, and the uninhibited world of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.

Some fans of the original may balk at this premise; others may embrace the renewal of a beloved classic. In any case, I consider Jane to be worth reading, if only to see how well April Lindner has pulled it off. I say she did it pretty well, and the result is a fun, romantic and satisfying read.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

Memoirs make up a tricky genre; one that is very much hit-or-miss, as the writer must tell their personal stories while making it accessible to an audience of strangers. Nick Flynn may have succeeded as a poet, with collections such as Some Ether and Blind Huber, but poetic language doesn’t cut it in the memoir department. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City is vividly written yet unmemorable; a story of triumph over tragedy that does not triumph as a creative work of nonfiction.

Part of the memoir chronicles Flynn’s life from his upbringing by a single mother to his drug-addled teenage years to his adulthood as a social worker, working at the homeless shelter where he met his wayward alcoholic father, long homeless due to mental illness. The other plotline chronicles the story of his father as a creative yet aimless young man entering a marriage of convenience, abandoning his family and succumbing to illness and addiction. These plotlines intersect while alternating between past and present in a depiction of Flynn’s conflicting feelings towards his father, his own struggles with addiction, and the dispelling of his personal demons.

The memoir contains an episodic and meandering narrative, partly made up of small chapters that are merely meditations on Flynn’s life. These serve little to no purpose in the story and read more as journal entries than as part of a story. Since much of the book is made up of description and not dialogue, Flynn adds a creative touch to the few scenes that contain dialogue by writing those chapters as play scripts; a method which, while interesting in theory, falls flat in its attempt to be innovative.

One can easily discern from his writing that Flynn is more a poet than a novelist, in that his strengths lie more in providing imagery than in telling a coherent story. While the story in itself is ultimately forgettable, the vivid, gritty descriptions of the streets of Boston and its homeless population are more likely to make a lasting impression on readers. Flynn certainly wields the poet’s ability to take a snapshot of a moment in life and put it in writing; however, this does little to further plot development.

Another Bullshit Night in Suck City contains an intriguing premise that turns up short, lost in episodic vignettes that don’t contribute to the plotlines at hand. I recommend picking up one of Flynn’s poetry books rather than this one; there’s little to be had beyond the fun title.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

Knowing little to nothing about the Dominican Republic—its culture, its politics—does not hinder one’s enjoyment of Junot Díaz’s masterfully tragicomic account of the far-reaching influences of Rafael Trujillo’s dictatorship. Narrated in a streetwise, slang-infused, Spanglish-laced voice, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a beauty of a book; an ambitious, high-achieving novel, grand in scope and humanistic in its depiction of an immigrant family.

The novel is several stories in one, chronicling the cursed family history of the de Léons from the Dominican Republic to the slums of New Jersey and back again. The family’s legacy has been cursed with fúku (which translates to “bad luck”), which condemns them to political persecution, torture, personal tragedy and ill-fated love affairs. Oscar de Léon is a shy, overweight sci-fi geek and aspiring novelist who dreams of becoming the next J.R.R. Tolkien, and whose naïve quest for romance and personal fulfillment leads him down a self-destructive path. His closest friend is his sister, Lola, who endeavors to travel to escape the squalor of their hometown, as well as the dysfunction within the family. Their fierce, temperamental mother, Belicia, is a weathered survivor of Trujillo’s regime, and of wildly turbulent teen years involving a dangerous gangster boyfriend. Belicia’s deeply religious mother, La Inca, strives to be a pillar among chaos and is pushed to the limits by her family’s struggles.

Díaz makes extensive use of footnotes to detail the history of the Dominican Republic—primarily the sprawling era of Trujillo’s reign—and at times just for some humorous commentary. Though these footnotes are not essential in understanding the story at hand, they do add background and educational value to the culture and the characters the novel delves into; virtually a history lesson made fun with the help of the de Léons.

Díaz also intertwines a touch of the supernatural within the narrative, at times in allegorical form, such as the comparison of the fall of Trujillo to the fall of Mordor from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In addition to the de Leon fúku, there are instances of divine intervention spanning generations, and possible salvation at the novel’s end. Whether the family overcomes the fúku and moves on to a brighter future is ultimately up to readers’ interpretations.

Absorbing, tragic and darkly funny, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao is a masterwork of storytelling and an enlightening look into the far-reaching psychological effects of many forms of oppression. I would definitely recommend it to fantasy and sci-fi geeks who would have an easier time understanding all the pop culture references than I did.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Nujood Ali and Delphine Minoui

Those who are familiar with Nujood Ali’s story from the news would be drawn to this book, though they must be warned of the raw, gut-wrenching power of this precocious little girl’s voice. This is a not a book one can breeze through; it is the astonishing, tragic yet ultimately triumphant story of a child bride, her lost innocence, and her courage and determination to stand up for her rights. I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced is one of the most emotionally intense literary experiences of my life.

Nujood is a carefree girl living with her large family in a remote Yemeni village until, for reasons unbeknownst to her, the family suddenly relocates to a destitute town where they must beg on the streets for their next meal. For a time Nujood remains unaware of the hardships suffered by her older sisters—one in an arranged marriage, another jailed for adultery—until the day she’s married off to a man in his thirties when she’s just 10 years old, and the realities of life for women in Yemen become real to her. She endures beatings and marital rape until the day she runs away to the courthouse and demands a divorce—thereby becoming the world’s youngest divorcee and an advocate for women across the Middle East.

In the midst of the nightmare within her husband’s home, coming to Nujood’s rescue is her father’s second wife, Dowla, who instructs her to go to the courthouse; the only adult in her family who heeds her cries for help. Upon Nujood’s arrival at the courthouse, among those who come to her aid is Shada Nasser, a human rights lawyer who becomes devoted to her cause; the Wahed family, who takes her in for a time before court proceedings; and a slew of lawyers and journalists who take Nujood under their wing and inspire her to become a lawyer herself.

Also moving are the devastating trials of Nujood’s older sister Mona: her own arranged marriage to her rapist, her public shame, her husband’s imprisonment and the loss of her child. In a culture that sweeps scandal under the rug for the sake of honor, Nujood doesn’t know of Mona’s plight until after the trial, and the reveal of her sufferings serves to highlight the extent to which the patriarchal mindset of Yemen is ingrained, and the maintenance of public esteem at the cost of women’s dignity.

These ordeals depicted are devastating, the injustice appalling, as the primitive nature of archaic, discriminatory customs offends a mainstream reader’s sense of morality. Before picking up this book, brace yourself for horror, outrage, grief and indignation, and bear in mind that Nujood does win in the end, and is granted her divorce and her right to an education. Though not an easy read by any means, I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced is among the most socially relevant and rewarding books in print today.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Legend of the Bluebonnet by Tomie dePaola

Today I partook in a literature reading for Native American Heritage Month. Since Native American literature is not a genre I am familiar with, I had to do some research and browsing through my local library for something to read.

I was thinking of reading an excerpt from The Falcon by John Tanner, an autobiographical book I had read for class years ago, written by a man who was kidnapped at the age of nine by the Shawnee tribe in 1789. The Falcon is a thrilling and historically relevant tale of survival and a fascinating account of Native American culture through the eyes of an enculturated white man.

I also considered reading something by Louise Erdrich, the widely acclaimed author who has often given readings at my university. Though I haven’t read many works by her, I know she’s considered one of the most significant authors of the Native American Renaissance, an era during the late 60s and early 70s when Native writers emerged in mainstream literature.

Instead I ended up rediscovering a book I had loved back in 4th grade; a children’s book entitled The Legend of the Bluebonnet, written and illustrated by Tomie dePaola.

This is the Native legend of the origin of the state flower of Texas, the bluebonnet, and what it represents for the Comanche people. In a time of drought and famine, the tribal elder declares that a sacrifice to the Great Spirits will bring rain and revitalize their crops. Within the tribe is an orphaned girl named She-Who-is-Alone, who takes it upon herself to make a sacrifice that will save her people and sow the seeds of the bluebonnet.

Far more than a Native legend made accessible for children, The Legend of the Bluebonnet is an inspirational fable of community, the importance of humility, and making sacrifices for the greater good. I highly recommend it to readers of all ages, as I was moved by this story both as a child and an adult.

I advise my fellow book-lovers to partake in Native American Heritage Month. Seize the chance to become accustomed to a genre you are perhaps not familiar with. Tomie DePaola has also written The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush, which I have not read, but plan to in the future. Besides Louise Erdrich, notable authors of the Native American Renaissance include N. Scott Momaday, Joy Harjo and Nila NorthSun.

Monday, October 31, 2011

How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche

If you’re not a Shakespeare fan, you will almost certainly become one upon reading Stephen Marche’s How Shakespeare Changed Everything. Marche dexterously crafts an ode of rhyme and reason to the Bard’s towering influence on the working-day world, from the words and phrases he coined to his contribution to the Civil Rights Movement to his popularity among the Nazi party. In one fell swoop, this book compellingly chronicles the ubiquitous presence of the Bard in our politics, our language and our sex lives.

How Shakespeare Changed Everything is a collection of essays, starting with one on the influence of Othello on the integration of African-Americans in the theater business. While the title character was often played in blackface, Paul Robeson made a name for himself as the infamous Moor, and went on to become an important figure in Civil Rights campaigns nationwide. Marche also makes the case that John Wilkes Booth was inspired to assassinate President Lincoln by Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. Among the more ingrained influences is Shakespeare’s coining of over 1,700 words and countless phrases that have a strong presence in our language today. These essays culminate into a generous homage to arguably the most influential writer that ever lived.

Citing Shakespeare’s bold refusal to censor the violence and bawdy humor in his plays, among the more histrionic of Marche’s claims is that Shakespeare influenced Freud’s studies of human sexuality, and, by extension, the way we view sex today. The custom of teen girls swooning over celebrity heartthrobs allegedly began with Romeo and Juliet, which idolized star-crossed flaming youth. Claims such as these may require readers to suspend disbelief; however, this does not sully the book’s quality as a whole.

Besides revealing little-known trivia and fun facts about Shakespeare, Marche also delves into persisting mysteries about the Bard: how he looked like, for one, and how he really spelled his name, as well as the circumstances surrounding his marriage. Among the more humorous of Marche’s tidbits is Leo Tolstoy’s passionate hatred for the Bard and the book he wrote detailing all his failures as a writer, making him out to be the devil incarnate. Marche covers a lot of ground, from proven facts to myths and speculations to zealous critical acclaim and naysayers alike, resulting in a well-rounded and accessibly written portrait of a man so renowned and yet so mysterious.

While slightly farfetched in some of its claims, How Shakespeare Changed Everything is a fun, enlightening read and a goldmine for Shakespeare fans, who will surely get their money’s worth. It’s a foregone conclusion that Shakespeare has left his undeniable mark in many aspects of our daily lives, both large- and small-scale, and Marche’s faithful tribute to the Bard is to be admired, despite an exaggerated claim here and there.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games trilogy comes full circle as author Suzanne Collins provides a gripping conclusion to her action-packed, politically charged young adult series. A page-turner from start to finish, Mockingjay is a flawed yet resonant denouement to this tantalizing tale of rebellion, warfare and the loss of one’s childhood.

In the aftermath of her surviving the Hunger Games a second time, Katniss Everdeen is brought to the frontlines of war as she’s taken in by the authoritarian regime of District 13 and prepared for battle with the Capitol. Her comrade and love interest Peeta Mellark has been taken hostage, and she reunites with her best friend, Gale, as they become soldiers in arms against the Capitol’s high-tech weaponry. Despite Katniss’s single-minded determination to bring down the regime and assassinate President Snow, she soon finds herself questioning who she can trust and what to believe. Her torn loyalties culminate in a series of betrayals and plot twists into a breathtaking climax in which her survival skills are put to the test.

The love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta reaches resolution as Katniss grows and gains some perspective on herself. As the battle to bring down the Capital wages on, she finds her principles clashing with the ruthless tactics that Gale and his fellow soldiers employ. Meanwhile, during Peeta’s imprisonment, the Capitol employs human experimentation to brainwash him against Katniss and the rebellion force. The rapport between these three provide depth and intrigue beyond the nonstop action, and helps the novel achieve emotive significance in addition to its thrills and plot twists.

The novel’s ending was slightly rushed, leaving some loose threads untied and having characters disappear without readers knowing their fate. Readers may feel cheated out of following their favorite character to the end, and will be left begging for more. Nonetheless, we do know the fate of our courageous heroine Katniss, who has been the driving force of all three novels with her audacious pursuit of revenge and justice; perhaps, for some readers, that would be a satisfying wrap-up.

Mockingjay will certainly prove enthralling to fans of the series who have eagerly awaited the outcome of districts’ rebellion. While they have a few disappointments their way, this one does succeed at the quality and level of intensity of the first two.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Nazareth, North Dakota by Tommy Zurhellen

A blend of realism, fantasy and Biblical elements, Tommy Zurhellen’s Nazareth, North Dakota is just as its title implies: the placing of the world’s center of Christian pilgrimage—and the childhood home of Jesus—into a run-of-the-mill U.S. state. While happenings of Biblical proportion ought to ensue, this underwhelming attempt at retelling the story of the Messiah falls flat.

Nazareth, North Dakota chronicles several decades in the lives of a group of people living in this fictional town, each of who represent a Biblical figure. There’s Roxy, an alcoholic in her thirties who represents Mary; she takes in a baby named Sam, left on her doorstep at a seedy motel—who, despite his scarce appearance throughout the novel, is supposedly the new Messiah. Roxy meets a kind carpenter, Joe (obviously Mary’s husband Joseph) who she marries. Sam’s cousin Jan (John the Baptist) grows up to be a controversial preacher who foretells the Second Coming. The Mary Magdalene of this menagerie is a high school outcast, Daylene Hooker, who has a crush on Sam.

While the prospect of modernizing Biblical stories certainly has potential, sadly few of these characters evolve beyond their God-given roles. Most of them simply appear, then leave, serving little to no purpose in the story. For example, there’s Severo Rodriguez, the bitter, malevolent sheriff who represents Herod the Great. At first he seems to be shaping up to be a formidable villain, as he abuses his power, bullies his subordinates and vows to track down and apprehend Roxy and her mysterious new child. Disappointingly, the story fast-forwards into the future, when Severo has died and his son, Anton, has taken over the force. While Anton himself is an interesting character, I couldn’t help feeling that Severo’s potential as a villain was wasted.

While Nazareth, North Dakota is split up into chapters, they read more like a set of anticlimactic short stories with little to no sense of unity among them. While it can be understood that the last chapter’s cliffhanger ending is meant to set up for the upcoming sequel, Apostle Islands, that does not explain the various loose threads left untied throughout the whole novel. One gets the feeling it’s more of an episodic showcase of modernized Biblical figures rather than a novel with a plot.

While this novel was not satisfactory, I’m not ruling out reading the sequel, as it could possibly provide the answers that this one lacks. At best, Nazareth, North Dakota is well written and has its moments; just don’t expect any neat wrap-ups.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Girl With the Sturgeon Tattoo by Lars Arffssen

As a devoted fan of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels, I picked up this parody not knowing what to expect. Author Lars Arffssen, who allegedly also wrote A Popular History of the Swedish Meatball, certainly had a good time writing this one. While the original series deals with domestic violence, serial killers, sex trafficking and wrongful conviction, The Girl With the Sturgeon Tattoo contains evil twins, Nazis, ninjas, and many, many boxes of Twinkies.

At the forefront of the crime scene is a reindeer strangler, whose crimes are somehow connected to the decapitation of two men: failed crime novelist Twig Arsson and the world’s leading authority on Baltic sturgeon, Dr. Jerker Ekkrot. Framed for this crime is the heavily tattooed, Twinkie-obsessed computer hacker, Lizzy Salamander (Arffssen’s spoof of the famous Lisbeth Salander). With the help of her friend, journalist Mikeal Blomberg (originally Mikeal Blomkvist), Lizzy sets out to prove her innocence and, in the process, uncovers a conspiracy involving a furniture company and its ties to Adolf Hitler.

Arffssen especially enjoys poking fun at the quirks of Larsson’s characters. While the original Lisbeth is a feminist vigilante, Lizzy Salamander is a rampaging castrator of men who goes by the alias Jane Manhater. While Larsson’s Blomkvist is originally a middle-aged womanizer, his overweight alter ego, whose favorite food is fried eel, comically questions the judgment of women who flock to him despite his clear lack of charm. Additionally, while Larsson originally critiqued the Swedish government through his novels, Arffssen takes pleasure in spoofing the liberal sensibilities and social norms of Scandinavian culture. For example, Swedish police carry squirt guns, because real guns are too violent, and a case of jaywalking makes the nightly news.

Some jokes are overused throughout the novel and quickly become repetitive and tiresome, such as the sex jokes involving Blomberg and his lover, Erotikka (originally Erika Berger). Really, there’s only so far you can go with jokes about naming body parts before it becomes boring. While Arffssen has no lack of comedic material to work with, at times he gets too indulgent and provokes eye-rolling rather than laughs.

Unabashedly silly, bawdy and bizarre, The Girl With the Sturgeon Tattoo makes for good entertainment both for fans of the original series and avid readers of the crime genre. It could be considered the Police Squad! of crime novels, as the sheer absurdity of the crimes committed—such as decapitating a man and playing soccer with his head—should ring true for readers for whom contrived pulp novels are a guilty pleasure. I dare say Stieg Larsson himself would have had a laugh at this enjoyable farce.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Fans of dystopian sci-fi should gladly pick up this worthy successor to The Hunger Games, a series which has the thrills and imaginative vision of George Orwell’s novels, combined with the accessible first-person narration and comic relief of young adult fiction. Author Suzanne Collins does not disappoint with Catching Fire, an electrifying sequel that exceeds its predecessor in action and intensity.

Catching Fire chronicles the aftermath of Katniss Everdeen’s victory in the Hunger Games, and the subsequent rebellion that shakes the districts of Panem. Upon returning to District 12, Katniss and her fellow victor, Peeta Mellark, soon discover that citizens other districts have begun to revolt against the oppressive Capitol, and are using Katniss as a symbol of their uprising. In order to demonstrate their power and enforce their authority, the Capitol sends Katniss and Peeta back into the arena, where they must fight to the death against previous victors from other districts, and they soon become pawns in the power struggle between the government and the people.

Catching Fire lends development to the love triangle involving Peeta, Katniss and her best friend, Gale, which is more than generic teen drama. Katniss’s torn loyalties between her loved ones and the greater good of the districts are manifested in the character dynamics between her and the two boys, as she struggles to decide whether to escape the district with her family and Gale or to stay and fight the Capitol alongside Peeta. Though her two love interests are underdeveloped and thinly imagined, they nonetheless serve their purpose in representing the internal struggles of Katniss, who remains a soundly developed and rousing protagonist.

The uprisings in the districts may remind readers of the Arab Spring; indeed, part of Collins’ inspiration for the novels was the Iraq war. The districts’ fight for freedom and democracy meets violent responses from authorities, reminiscent of protests in places like Morocco, Syria and Bahrain. Needless to say this series functions as both a fun, action-packed read and an allegory of current political conditions in some parts of the world.

Adding to the fun of the arena action is a cast of colorful characters: Finnick Odair of District 4, a stereotypically handsome, flirtatious jock who wields a trident and is skilled in underwater combat; Enobaria of District 2, whose best weapons are her sharp teeth; and the beautiful Johanna Mason of District 7, who pretends to be a delicate ingénue and yet is a force to be reckoned with.

Powerfully pumped with adrenaline, Catching Fire provides a satisfying return to District 12 and a welcome reacquaintance with the brave Katniss Everdeen. Readers will likely catch the contagious spirit of rebellion as the districts rise to claim their independence, and eagerly move on to the final book in this thrilling series.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Saturday by Ian McEwan

Set in a post-9/11, pre-Iraq war world, Saturday portrays with startling clarity a day in the life of an ordinary man and the wider world he represents. Using a partly stream-of-consciousness narration, Ian McEwan captures with a keen eye the bittersweet qualities of human relationships and the universal fear of the unknown, thereby crafting a naturalistic depiction of an Everyman—and by extension, a nation—on the cusp of a new era.

The story opens within the bedroom of Henry Perowne, a British neurosurgeon, who, while he wife lays sleeping, witnesses a plane catch fire in the air while he gazes out the window one Saturday morning. This sighting provokes him to contemplate his relatively privileged life and the fragility of it; and so begins an eventful day, which involves, among other things, driving through blocked roads amid a mass anti-war demonstration, playing a game of squash with a colleague, visiting his mother in a nursing home and welcoming his grown daughter back from Paris. Throughout a series of events—some mundane, some out of the ordinary—we get to know Henry Perowne, both through his present actions and a series of flashbacks, and by the novel’s end he becomes as familiar to us as a friend or an acquaintance. At some point he ceases to be words on the page and emerges as a fully-formed human being; a character that readers would easily come to care about.

The familial relationships between members of the Perowne family are portrayed with brutal honesty, which lends a painfully familiar quality to the dialogue among them. There’s the divergence between Henry’s pragmatism and those of his romantic, artistically gifted children (his son Theo is a musician, his daughter Daisy a poet); the clashing of Henry and Daisy’s political views; and the compulsive drinking of Henry’s father-in-law. Yet there exists an undeniably resilient bond between them all, as they are brought together both by causes for celebration and instances of calamity. What I found most moving was the love between Henry and his wife, Rosalind, who remain bonded by their passion for each other after decades of marriage. The glue that holds the family together is indeed the love they share, and their differences as well as their similarities.

Given that Saturday is intended to capture the existential musings of the average man, rather than to tell a story with a clear beginning, middle and end, at times it seems to lack direction; the narrative may meander, leaving readers wishing for something to pin down to make it easier to follow. Ultimately the well-rounded storytelling and vivid characterizations give the impression that the story continues after the last page has been turned. Despite the frustrations they may have with the narrative, readers will most likely be left wondering what the future holds for the Perowne family, and wishing them well in their years to come.

Honest, intimate and familiar, Saturday satisfies on many different levels, capturing the bigger picture of life as well as the commonplace worries of the working-class family. For an in-depth, nuanced portrayal of the human condition, complete with existentialism, pick this one up and savor the prose while some classical music, preferably piano, plays in the background. This may put a reader in the right mood for McEwan’s narration style.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Stolen Life by Jaycee Dugard

As an avid follower of the Jaycee Dugard abduction case, I was eager to pick up her personal account of her 18-year ordeal in the hands of demented kidnapper Phillip Garrido and his wife, Nancy. Unlike the countless news reports and documentaries on the case, A Stolen Life is told in her own words, in her own voice, with a compelling narrative that will leave you breathless.

Jaycee lets readers know right off the bat that this memoir tends to be scattered in thought and disjointed at times, for her memories of the ordeal remain fragmented, and she’s still sorting it out in her mind. Indeed it does jump back and forth in time, and takes readers on an emotional roller coaster from Jaycee’s vivid recollections of the abduction and sexual abuse to the birth of her two daughters to her eventual rescue. Part of the story is told through a series of journal entries, which express a range of mixed emotion from fear to anger to confusion to a longing to return home. Yet no matter where the narration takes us, always consistent is an ebbing and flowing sense of hope to be rescued, as well as an indomitable will to survive.

In addition to details of the trauma she sustained, Jaycee incorporates some pleasant childhood memories into her book, which serve to portray the innocence of her 11-year-old self before her abduction. Her transition from a carefree girl playing with Barbie dolls to a captive sex slave is truly chilling, and her mental and emotional recovery provokes admiration for her resilience and strength.

Jaycee also comments on the failure of Garrido’s parole officers and his psychiatrist to take action when needed; for not monitoring him close enough or getting him proper medical attention, thereby enabling his behavior and allowing Jaycee to suffer. For example, during the many times parole officers did rounds at Garrido’s house, they failed to search the home thoroughly and didn’t bother with the backyard, where Jaycee and her daughters were being kept. The major question underlying all this is why Garrido, a convicted rapist, was let out of prison after already proving himself to be a repeat offender. There’s no doubt that Jaycee’s story has raised some important questions about these systems and will likely inspire activists to push for stricter laws when it comes to providing parole and monitoring former convicts.

Simultaneously hard to read and hard to put down, A Stolen Life resonates with a sense of triumph over unimaginable hardships. There are few more satisfying memoirs out there today, so I advise you to pass on Bristol Palin’s and pick this one up instead. Her story is one that needs to be told.

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I am not typically a reader of young adult fiction. It takes an exceptional series—bestsellers such as JK Rowling’s Harry Potter or Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials—to catch my attention, and The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is certainly one of them. A skillful blend of action, drama, sci-fi and a bit of comedy thrown in, this first book of the trilogy is an auspicious beginning to a well-told and absorbing story.

The book takes place in a dystopian society that was once America, now called Panem, divided into twelve districts of varying social class. Living in the impoverished District 12 is Katniss Everdeen, a bold teenage girl who hunts illegally in a nearby forest to provide for her mother and beloved younger sister, Prim. Once a year, the Capitol chooses two children from each district to participate in the Hunger Games, a tournament broadcasted over the nation in which the children are placed in an arena and made to fight to the death. This year, twelve-year-old Prim is chosen, and Katniss willingly steps in to take her sister’s place.

Part of Collins’ inspiration for The Hunger Games was the Iraq war, and she sought to portray the suffering of children in war zones, as well as corrupt governments who murder civilians as though it were a game. Not only did she succeed at this, but she managed to portray it in a way that’s accessible to children as well as adults. A blend of comedy and sci-fi elements keeps readers entertained despite the violent and tragic outcomes of the Games; therefore the book would appeal to those seeking an action-packed read as well as those who wish to be emotionally absorbed.

What carries the plot forward is Katniss’s character: an engaging blend of compassion and loyalty with audacity and ruthlessness. Due to her instinct for survival, with much of her energies focused towards hunting and gathering, she is inept at social situations and unaware of the emotions of others, as well as her own. Her strengths lie in combat and archery rather than people skills, though she is devoted to those she cares for and makes great sacrifices for them. Indeed, what makes her compelling is that she is flawed, and her stubborn and unforgiving nature makes her all the more human, therefore a more appealing heroine.

As in the traditional fashion of young adult fiction, few characters besides Katniss are given depth of character. The rest are simply meant to serve their purpose in the story, whether it’s to be friend or foe to Katniss, and rarely develop beyond that. Nonetheless, each character fulfills their role to a satisfying degree and contributes to the plot and subplots that make up the gritty portrayal of this unsettling dystopia.

The Hunger Games is one I would highly recommend that parents and children read together, as it provides education by raising the issues of war and poverty, as well as entertainment for people of all ages. Despite being geared towards a young adult audience, it succeeds on many different levels and is ultimately a rewarding read.

Monday, August 29, 2011

House and Philosophy by Henry Jacoby and William Irwin

I quickly reached for this one at the bookstore when I saw the great Hugh Laurie as the great Dr. House on the cover, as would any avid fan of the show House MD. House and Philosophy—a series of stimulating and provocative essays written by various philosophy professors and assembled by series editors Henry Jacoby and William Irwin—delves past the cantankerous surface of the famed doctor’s character to analyze his complex philosophies, which are revealed in various episodes in the series that deal with religion, medical ethics and the nature of human relationships.

Many aspects of House’s character—his cynical and antisocial nature, his disparagement of religion and his lack of empathy for the patients he goes to great lengths to treat—are placed within the contexts of a wide range of philosophies, from Aristotle and Socrates to Nietzsche and Lao Tzu. It turns out that, despite being a staunch atheist, House’s beliefs do fit in with certain Eastern religious practices, such as Taoism. He is also compared in depth to Sherlock Holmes, the iconic detective he is based on, as he solves medical mysteries by value of truth for its own sake and not for the sake of the people involved.

The essays, as well as the television show, also explore the ethical side of the medical field, such as medical paternalism—that is, the right of the patient to choose the treatment they want versus having doctors decide for them; utilitarianism, the philosophy that the ends justify the means; and the balance of sufficiently caring for patients without getting too emotionally involved. Examples are taken from various episodes, such as the time House resuscitating a patient who signed a “Do Not Resuscitate” form; House lying to the transplant committee in order to obtain a new heart for a patient who does not qualify; and his use of experimental treatments in order to solve an epidemic among babies in the maternity ward. Some of the essays make the case that emotional involvement would cloud House’s judgment, but there are rare cases where getting involved turns out productive, such as his befriending a rape victim and helping her through her trauma.

The philosophical analyses of House’s rapport with his colleagues are no less intriguing, as he fulfills the role of employee as well as employer; boss as well as theoretical teacher; semi-loyal friend and occasional love interest. While his verbal and emotional abuse of his subordinates does not portray him in a sympathetic light, his refusal to commit to relationships reveals his fear of making himself vulnerable to others. While he may behave disloyally towards Dr. Wilson, his only friend (the Watson to his Holmes), one essay claims that the two are morally equal and therefore are very compatible friends.

House and Philosophy ought to be required reading for fans of the TV show, as its thought-provoking quality elicits a deeper appreciation for the show as a whole as well as its multifaceted protagonist. This series also includes The Simpsons and Philosophy, The Matrix and Philosophy and even Seinfeld and Philosophy, to name a few, books that would provide a good deal of entertainment as well as educational value.

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Story of my Life by Farah Ahmedi

We all have our war epics—Gone With the Wind, War and Peace, Dr. Zhivago—that serve to entertain and educate us about a particular time in history. However, sometimes the value of a war epic is not in its ability to entertain or its historical accuracy. Although a mere 256 pages compared to Gone With the Wind’s 1,000-plus, The Story of my Life: An Afghan Girl on the Other Side of the Sky is a deeply moving firsthand account of growing up in war-torn Afghanistan, powerfully told by Farah Ahmedi, who was just seventeen at the time of its publication.

Born in Kabul during the war between the Mujahedeen and the Soviet Union, Farah grows up accustomed to the sounds of gunfire and fighter planes. She attends a school with limited resources: no books, more students than seats and frequent school cancellations due to rockets and bombings; nonetheless, she is a spirited girl with a passion for learning. One day, seven-year-old Farah steps on a landmine in a rush to get to school on time, and only then does the warfare and international relations of her home country become all too real to her.

In addition to the loss of her leg, Farah eventually suffers the loss of most of her immediate family, until she is left with only her mother to travel with as a refugee throughout Pakistan. The two endure harsh conditions in refugee camps, as well as the trials of slave labor, until they are rescued by World Relief and moved to Chicago, where they begin their lives anew.

Farah is a pleasant and perceptive narrator, able to objectively analyze the differences between the Afghan and American cultures. Her adjustment to life in the United States is poignantly portrayed, as she struggles to come to terms with her past and outright refuses special treatment for her having a prosthetic leg. Her strength of will in the face of unimaginable obstacles drives the narrative and inspires readers to wish her well throughout her journey.

Currently Farah serves as a United Nations ambassador for the Adopt-a-Minefield program, as well as founder of her own charitable program, Farah’s Wings of Hope. Her story of survival and perseverance serves as an inspirational coming-of-age portrait of a girl of indomitable spirit and endurance. Needless to say, her book is highly recommended.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders by Gyles Brandreth

It’s easily discernible by its title that Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders provides mere cheap entertainment and little substance. Gyles Brandreth has written a whole series centered on Oscar Wilde solving mysteries, and judging from this one, the series has little to offer besides the fun of characterized famous figures.

The novel opens in 1890, where the Duke and Duchess of Albemarle are hosting a glamorous party. Among the guests are Oscar Wilde and journalist Robert Sherard, and they encounter Rex LaSalle, a man claiming to be a vampire. He openly declares he will kill the Duchess, yet later, when the Duchess is found dead with puncture marks on her throat, somehow it doesn’t occur to them that Rex is the culprit. Wilde and Sherard enlist the help of Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle and Dracula author Bram Stoker in their convoluted journey to solve the case—yet they never even consider the glaringly obvious truths standing right in front of them. I spent a majority of the book wondering how these allegedly brilliant men can be so oblivious.

The prologue starts off intriguing enough, when Wilde, having just been released from prison (he was jailed for homosexual acts), sits down for an interview with his old friend Sherard and begins to tell the story of the vampire murders; and so begins the flashback to the party where the murder of the Duchess took place. However, this frame story does not pick up at the novel’s end, and we are left with no conclusion to the post-prison meeting between the two men. Furthermore, had Wilde’s imprisonment had something to do with the vampire murders—indeed, he was seduced by the charming Rex LaSalle—the prologue would have served some purpose to the story. As is, I found this beginning to be quite pointless, as it is not incorporated within the main plot.

The story is told through telegrams, letters, newspaper clippings and—oddly—diary entries. Apparently keeping diaries was the “it” thing in that time and place, since almost every major character keeps one and writes with painstaking detail and verbatim dialogue. Speaking of which, Wilde’s dialogue is as contrived as the action sequences of Walker, Texas Ranger. Brandreth basically put in a bunch of his famous quotes and called it dialogue. Wilde himself is characterized as so painfully cartoonish that I could barely take him seriously.

Basically, you take some historical figures—royalty, famous writers, classic stage actors here and there—add a few grisly murders, some plot holes and a handsome vampire and you’ve got Oscar Wilde and the Vampire Murders in a nutshell. If you were to read it, don’t set your standards too high. I’d recommend it for a light read at most.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Grief memoirs are very much hit-or-miss, and can range from being effective and moving to bland and indulgent. Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is a disjointed and at times stream-of-consciousness meditation on the nature of grief and the process of mourning. While it may serve as a self-help book to readers seeking to identify with her loss, the novel reads more like scattered thoughts of a journal and lacks the direction and unity required in a novel.

The story opens with Joan’s recollection of the night of John’s death, when the couple was preparing to have dinner, having come home from visiting their daughter in the ICU. John suddenly dies mid-sentence of a cardiac arrest, and Joan is left to deal with her grief as well as the persisting illness of her only child. The narrative regularly flashes back to that night, exploring different layers of her mental and emotional reactions.

As a means of coping, Didion does anthropological research on mourning practices, particularly the coping mechanism of magical thinking. This mechanism involves stalling the readjustment to life after loss; for example, when she brings herself to give away John’s clothes and personal belongings, she is unwilling to give away his shoes, because he would need him when he returned. When she begins sleeping alone at night, she leaves the lights on as a precaution.

While Didion’s purpose is to guide readers through her process of grief, somehow this process never quite takes off, as the constant quoting of medical studies on grief and the various self-help literatures she sought quickly becomes repetitious, and the narrative begins to meander as Didion lends more regard to personal contemplation and loses her sense of direction. Readers who seek out this book as a means of self-help could have difficultly connecting with Didion’s detached writing style, which lends more detail to place names and locations than to emotions. Instead, her grief is portrayed in her actions, such as her clinging to John’s belongings after his death.

I wouldn’t be quick to pick up this book after suffering a loss, as I had trouble connecting with it. Avid readers of Joan Didion, however, may be accustomed enough to her writing style to become emotionally involved in her story.

Monday, August 1, 2011

On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan

I have yet to read a novel by Ian McEwan that does not leave me breathless. He certainly does not fail to amaze with On Chesil Beach, an exquisitely hypnotic novel of a traditionalist society’s suppression of visceral human urges. Taking place in 1962, the novel portrays the promise of a generation lost to the expectations of a culture ruled by class, wealth and assigned gender roles.

On Chesil Beach is a character study of Florence and Edward, a newlywed couple spending their honeymoon in a beachside hotel. Due to the characteristic reticence of British society in the 40s and 50s, the couple has only rudimentary knowledge of sex and is unfamiliar with such a level of emotional intimacy, and their struggle to get their bearings on this new territory is at times painfully comical. Both of them stake their personal identities on fulfilling the societal expectations of marriage; Edward defines his masculinity on his ability to please his wife, while Florence feels obligated to serve her husband as a wife should.

Florence, a gifted violinist with the beginnings of a promising career on the stage, is the privileged daughter of a wealthy industrialist. Edward is a simple country boy with a history degree at the University of London. By means of interior monologue and cross-cutting between time periods, McEwan poignantly portrays the youthful innocence of their courtship as well as the environments that shaped them. McEwan possesses shrewd perception and deep empathy of suppressed human nature and its inability to comprehend and articulate its own desires.

The way McEwan writes makes me keep turning the pages until the book is finished, at which I am left wanting more. He wields all the right words to speak to the depths of the human psyche, the very thoughts and sensations thought to be indescribable. You can open this book to any page to find startlingly evocative writing to make you gasp.

In short, On Chesil Beach is an exceptionally beautiful novel. Among the James Pattersons and Stephen Kings, Ian McEwan writes with commitment to an honest portrayal of the human condition, and while we all like our thrillers and mystery novels, I consider McEwan a breath of fresh air among generic bestsellers.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Dewey by Vicki Myron

While keeping library cats is a fairly common practice, few of these cats gain worldwide fame and touch as many lives as Dewey Readmore Books, the library cat of Spencer, Iowa. Librarian Vicki Myron tells his remarkably moving story with Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, a book guaranteed to appeal to cat lovers and even persuade a few library boards to get a cat of their own.

One cold winter morning in at the Spencer Public Library, a group of librarians discovered a tiny, shivering kitten trapped inside the library’s drop-box. They took him in and named him Dewey, and when they made the decision to keep him, they had no way of knowing how famous and influential this cat of humble beginnings would become. For the next nineteen years, Dewey would star in documentaries, become the subject of several books and charm every library regular from small children—including some with special needs—to elderly people who simply came in to read the newspapers.

Dewey endears to readers with his vivacious personality and endless capacity for affection, even while driving the librarians crazy with his stubborn streak and extremely picky eating habits. The battles over Dewey’s food make up some of the funniest parts of the book, and his thrill-seeking antics and creative choices of places to sleep—from shelves to boxes to typewriters—should be familiar to any cat owner. Dewey also possesses great empathy and emotional intelligence, and proves to be capable of extraordinary things when he helps bring a young handicapped girl out of her shell, and later helps mend the relationship between Myron and her teenage daughter.

In addition to providing readers with funny and heartwarming stories of Dewey, Myron also attempts to walk us through the history of the town of Spencer, with its tight-knit community and hard economic times, as a means of providing background to Dewey’s story and illustrating how one playful library cat made down-on-their-luck farmers smile. While this community element had the potential to enrich Dewey’s story, it instead felt tacked on and out of place. Myron is excessive with the details, and these portions of the book are clumsily written and plod on with the pacing of a turtle race. I quickly grew bored and exasperated with the history lesson and was eager to get back to Dewey.

Dewey’s personality sets a perfect example for a library cat, as they must be outgoing and comfortable with large groups of people, children included. Yet Dewey went above and beyond the call of a library cat; he changed the lives of those who loved him, and his story is one that will continue to move, entertain and even inspire.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by JK Rowling

Unless you are living under a rock… in a cave… in Siberia… you are familiar to some degree with the world of Harry Potter, and this companion piece to the series certainly does not disappoint. With The Tales of Beedle the Bard, the famed JK Rowling expands on the rich culture of the Wizarding World with the fairy tales told to our beloved characters as young witches and wizards, while Muggle (non-magical) children were told “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a collection of five short stories. The first is “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot,” a morality tale of a wicked wizard who learns respect for the Muggle world. The second is “The Fountain of Fair Fortune,” an enchanting tale about a group of witches and a knight who journey to a magic fountain to cure their misfortunes. “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart” delves into the dark side of magic and the destructive lust for power over human weakness. “Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump” comically spoofs the Muggle world’s fears and attitudes towards witchcraft and wizardry, while “The Tale of Three Brothers” delves into humanity’s relationship with death and their failed attempts at cheating it.

Adding background and history to these stories is Professor Albus Dumbledore’s enlightening and extensive commentary, which provides a wizard’s perspective on the social relevance of these tales. For example, “The Fountain of Fair Fortune” has been criticized by witches and wizards who believe in blood purity, for it contains a romantic element between a witch and a Muggle. “Babbitty Rabbitty” was among the first works of fiction in the Wizarding World to portray an Animagus, a witch or wizard (in this case, a witch) that can transform to an animal at will. Not only are these tales entertaining; they also add depth to the social dynamics of Rowling’s magical world, and provide social commentary—in metaphorical form—on our own Muggle world.

One of the best things about these enchanting tales is that Rowling doesn’t hold back on gruesome content, and not all of these stories end happily. The result is that these stories resemble the grittier old-school versions of fairy tales that have been softened by Disney. For example, Little Red Riding Hood was eaten by the wolf, the Little Mermaid died with her love unrequited and Rapunzel’s lover was blinded by the evil witch. Rowling clearly does not underestimate children and their ability to handle some level of morbidity.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is definitely a must-read for any Harry Potter fan. It’s a delightfully fun book that provides a satisfying reunion between the reader and the Wizarding World, and a good light summer read.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Biblical stories have been read and reworked for so many generations, and yet there’s always a new spin or interpretation to be had. However, a fresh perspective is not necessarily a substantial one. With The Red Tent, author Anita Diamant attempts to put a feminist spin on Biblical characters, with results that are poetic yet insipid.

The Red Tent is a retelling of the Biblical story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah and sister of Joseph. It chronicles her story from the courtship and marriage of her parents and the births of her several brothers to her own marriage to the prince of Shechem. Other characters include Jacob’s other wives, Leah’s sister Rachel and the handmaidens Zilpah and Bilhah. The book’s title refers to the tent to which the women of Jacob’s tribe must take refuge while menstruating or giving birth, and also where they gather for socialization and form a sense of community among women from other tribes.

Though it’s an intriguing premise that starts off promising, The Red Tent is less like a novel and more like a journal written by Dinah, in which she merely outlines events and doesn’t bother to do much else. There is very little dialogue, little to no character development and not much insight into this fascinating ancient culture. As a reader, I don’t want to be simply told that Leah is the most capable of Jacob’s wives, and that Bilhah is the quiet, contemplative one; I prefer character to be revealed through actions and dialogue. As a writer, I have always been told to “show, don’t tell,” and I become exasperated with the constant telling and little to no showing.

Adherents of the Bible would probably look unfavorably upon Diamant’s spin on the story. In the Bible, Dinah is abducted and raped by the prince of Shechem and later rescued by her brothers; whereas in The Red Tent, she loves the man and willingly becomes his bride. Had Diamant’s intention been to effectively portray the ancient Biblical culture, this would be a glaring error, as bridal kidnapping was a common practice, and it would have been likely for a prince to stake a claim to his bride through force. But instead of accurately depicting the plight of women in such an era, Diamant chose to romanticize Dinah’s plight, thereby downplaying the feminist element she was going for.

Though poetically written by a skilled wordsmith, The Red Tent is ultimately vapid and unsatisfying and lacks direction. It turns up short in the feminist department due to the author’s unwillingness to go deeper and grittier, and a potentially insightful look at a woman’s life in ancient times turns up short. I say skip this one if you’re looking for the full package of entertainment, religious content and educational value.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Between Two Worlds by Zainab Salbi

While news headlines cover torture and executions carried out under Saddam Hussein’s orders, this memoir covers the deeper mental and psychological effects of his tyranny. Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam tells the revealing and inspirational story of Zainab Salbi, an extraordinary Iraqi woman whose father, and by extension her whole family, was bound by employment to the notorious dictator.

Between Two Worlds chronicles Salbi’s life from her childhood in Iraq to her adult life as a humanitarian, and the evolution of her relationship with her beloved mother, Alia. When she was eleven, her father was chosen to serve as Saddam’s pilot, thereby putting the family under his surveillance. As opposed to the superficial news stories we have heard of Saddam’s tyranny and oppression, Salbi gives first-hand accounts of interaction with this dangerous man; his charisma and his power of manipulation as well as the way he ruled Iraq like a child playing with toy soldiers. Despite being raised in a progressive, feminist household, Salbi arrives in the United States under the condition of an arranged marriage, which she would later discover was intended to protect her from becoming Saddam’s next wife.

Salbi would later found Women for Women International, a humanitarian organization dedicated to aiding women in warzones. For a time, she hides behind her philanthropic work; helping others in need as a means of denying her own lasting trauma sustained under Saddam’s reign. Ultimately she emerges triumphant over her past, proving her strength and resilience to become an inspiration to women worldwide.

In a time in which Islam is stigmatized and associated solely with terrorism, Between Two Worlds is significant in that it depicts Salbi’s Muslim upbringing and the questioning of her faith when she discovers the differences between Shiites and Sunnis. Although the American media criticizes the Muslim world for its treatment of women, Salbi portrays the customs of Muslim weddings and marriage as equally favorable towards all parties, thereby depicting the positive aspects of a culture that has been widely misunderstood.

Between Two Worlds is engagingly narrated and at times startlingly candid, and evokes inspiration and awe regardless of the readers’ cultural origins. For a reliable account of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, I recommend looking to citizens who lived under him rather than media outlets that are simply looking for the next scandal.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife, an enchanting chronicle of family, tradition, legends and superstition, is made all the more impressive so by the fact that it’s a debut; the first novel of Serbian-American author Téa Obreht, the youngest of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list of great writers. The fame she has gained from this novel isn’t only due to her status as a young writer; it’s because she’s a damn good one.

The story takes place in an unnamed Balkan country on the mend from war, where Natalia, a young doctor, travels on a mission to vaccinate children of a local orphanage. Upon receiving news of her grandfather’s mysterious death, Natalia recalls the stories he would tell her; stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife, of a man who became a bear, of dead bodies casting curses on their families. As she experiences a culture clash with superstitious locals, Natalia questions the circumstances of her loss and her own belief in the mythical elements of her grandfather’s stories, and her search for the truth leads her to the supernatural world of the departed.

The story opens with a flashback to Natalia’s childhood, when she would visit the tigers in the zoo with her grandfather, also a doctor, who would carry an old copy of The Jungle Book wherever he went. He is the novel’s second narrator, as he tells her of his meetings with the deathless man, who guides souls to the afterlife. Meanwhile, Natalia narrates stories from her grandfather’s childhood, particularly of the woman in his home village who bonded with a wild tiger and became a target of fear and superstition. Entwined within the three narratives is the theme of a doctor’s relationships with death, how they confront death in their line of work, and how Natalia learns to accept it in her process of grieving.

Obreht’s scope is all all-encompassing in the portrayal of landscapes spanning war zones throughout decades of political unrest, and the backdrop of the grand Balkans wilderness. The Tiger’s Wife is gritty yet surreal, as lyrical and dreamlike as it is stark and unsentimental; a magical book with stunning imagery and memorable characters.

Needless to say, The Tiger’s Wife is an auspicious start to what will be a celebrated literary career. Make note of Téa Obreht as one of the great contemporary writers whose novels will appeal to a wide-ranging audience, fantasy lovers among them.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Angels and Ages by Adam Gopnik

It turns out that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin have much more in common than a shared birthday. New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik proves this with Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life, a book of great insight and educative value, and an inside look into the human element beyond the history books.

Angels and Ages is a collection of six essays chronicling the two men’s lives from their humble beginnings to their own ushering in of new eras with their radical ideas of democracy and evolution. This is a unique dual biography in that it addresses both facts and misconceptions; acknowledges differences yet draws parallels between the two; and reconciles their social images with their true characters: the sons, the husbands and the fathers behind the textbook knowledge the general public has.

Lincoln, born to a time of slavery and authoritarianism, is portrayed as a shrewd politician, both idealistic and pragmatic, with strong convictions and a clear vision. Meanwhile, Darwin, who inhabited a world in which the Biblical account of creation was accepted as unquestionable truth, is portrayed as a modest, doting family man and inquisitive scientist torn between his theories and his religious beliefs. Despite their differences, both men endured difficult marriages and the loss of a child (Darwin his daughter, Lincoln his son), experiences that influenced their drive to climb the social ladder and make themselves seen and heard.

Gopnik is a skillful and at times poetic wordsmith. As he addresses the historical controversy over whether Lincoln’s secretary claimed, after his death, “Now he belongs to the ages” or “to the angels,” he begs the question of whether we live in a secular or superstitious world. He provides a striking visual of time spent at the beach, surrounded by seagulls, reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and questions whether the book retains the impact it had back it in its day; whether the reader on the beach is gazing at seagulls in a new light.

Angels and Ages entertains with Gopnik’s wit and eloquence as well as his keen observations and analysis. As the reader gets to know Lincoln and Darwin as characters, they become more meaningful as icons, and if you’re not an admirer of either man, chances are this book will make you one.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

In poor regions where citizens have been denied the basic right of an education, the hard work of a few dedicated individuals can make all the difference, as this book demonstrates. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time tells the poignant story of Greg Mortenson, co-founder of the Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit organization that builds schools in regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In 1993, Mortenson was an avid mountain climber who attempted to climb K2, the world’s second highest mountain, located in Pakistan. He failed, however, and wandered lost in the wilderness until the chief elder of the village of Korphe took him in and provided food and shelter. Mortenson was then led on the tour through the village, and found that its makeshift “school” was made up of children sitting outdoors, scratching equations into the dirt with sticks. Moved by the elder’s generosity and wanting to improve the quality of life for the villagers, Mortenson vowed to return one day to build a school.

Mortenson struggled every step of the way: he struggled to find funding and to gain support for his cause, and when his cause started to gain momentum, he was targeted as a heretic by Islamic mullahs and the Taliban, at some point getting kidnapped by a group of radicals. But throughout it all, Mortenson never lost sight of his purpose, and today the CAI has built over 170 schools in poor regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan and has funded humanitarian efforts following the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake.

The book argues the case that education is the means of preventing terrorism, as building schools and promoting literacy programs prevents children from being taught by fundamentalist Islamic systems. The book is also keen on portraying Islam as a benevolent religion in itself that has been stigmatized due to the actions of terrorists. Mortenson succeeds in bridging distances between the West and the East not only with his humanitarian efforts but with his understanding of religious customs. It is this meaningful cross-continental dialogue that nurtures the next generation towards a promising future.

The novel’s title comes from an old Balti proverb: “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family.” This saying refers to the hospitality of the culture that welcomes Mortenson with open arms, and the bonds of friendship he forms with the villagers he aids.

Three Cups of Tea is not to be missed. In addition, Mortenson has written Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which, chances are, would appeal to fans of this book, and provide further inspiration and incentive to make a difference in one’s community.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Chances are you know Chuck Palahniulk as the man behind Fight Club. Although he provides a fair bout of entertainment with that movie, I can’t say the same for this novel. Any potential that Haunted had was lost to Palahniulk’s love of shock value and his desire to push boundaries to nonsensical limits. The result is an amateur’s attempt at nonlinear narrative and a self-indulgent medley of stories thrown together into a muddled mess of a novel.

Haunted begins on a bus, where a group of quirky characters—with nicknames like Earl of Slander, Mother Nature and Saint Gut-Free—are on their way to a writer’s retreat, having responded to an ad put out by the mysterious Mr. Whittier. They will spend three months in isolation, where they will write their masterpieces, be it poems, novels or screenplays. Before long they realize they are being kept hostage in an abandoned theater as part of a social experiment, deprived of electricity, heat and food. Readers are granted an inside look into the characters’ previous lives via poems and short stories juxtaposed with the central plotline, in which the hostages create their own realities and steadily go insane. Basically they’re the Manson family combined with the cast of Jersey Shore.

Clearly Palahniulk’s intention is to satirize the dark side of creative impulse; the artist’s willingness to go to extreme lengths to have their story be told. We have the story of Mrs. Clark and her husband, and their attempt at becoming porn stars; we have the Earl of Slander, a reporter who murdered a former child star so he could write an award-winning article about him; and other such stories that contribute to the theme of human desperation.

However, there are also stories included for no particular reason other than shock value. For example, there’s the story of Cora Reynolds, a deranged woman obsessed with humanlike dolls; of Mother Nature, who got involved in organized crime by giving foot massages; and Saint Gut-Free’s adventures in masturbation. While the novel does have its moments, overall it’s gimmicky and downright silly, and reminiscent of reality TV in that it’s morbid curiosity that keeps one from changing the channel.

I won’t be picking up another Palahniulk book anytime soon. I’ve had more than my fair share with this harebrained attempt at being clever and macabre, which succeeded only with the latter. Memo to writers: don’t try to be unconventional and avant-garde for the sake of it, otherwise you end up looking pretentious.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Sirens of Baghdad by Yasmin Khadra


I personally believe that some novelists who use their craft as an outlet for their views on social and political issues are better off being strictly journalists. Oftentimes a novel centered on a political issue—as opposed to a storyline—lacks characterization and substance. While the same can be said for author Yasmin Khadra and The Sirens of Baghdad, this is nonetheless an effective and timely novel that gives readers an inside look into a society in which human beings become collateral damage in the crossfire of war.

The Sirens of Baghdad takes place during the Second Gulf War and centers on an unnamed male protagonist who inhabits a Bedouin village in Iraq. He has returned to his home village after a US bombing closed off access to the university he was attending. When his village is attacked by thrill-killing GIs, the man vows to avenge his family, and he travels to Baghdad to join forces with a terrorist group.

From then on, the novel alternates somewhat clumsily between being a psychological study and a political thriller. There are no characters; rather, there are thinly-drawn archetypes whose dialogue reveals Khadra’s political stance rather than the characters’ individual views. Khadra could have simply channeled this content into political essays rather than through these fictional cardboard cutouts.

Khadra is consistent, however, with providing striking visuals reminiscent of the cinematography of an art film, and oftentimes as I was reading, I believed this novel would translate well onto the screen. Descriptions of landscapes and atmosphere provide more depth and substance than anything else the novel has to offer, and ultimately that is what remains in the readers’ mind longer after the novel is closed. In fact, it’s the imagery that gives a haunting quality to the novel’s end.

Ultimately, The Sirens of Baghdad succeeds where it counts. It gives an enlightening look into the psychology of terrorism and the prejudice and xenophobia that leads to it. Its portrayal of terrorists is that they are not mere villains, but human beings with missions they consider noble and beneficial to their own countries. In my opinion, understanding how terrorism is borne is the only way to stop it; therefore this is an important book that could be a real eye-opener to the mainstream reader.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Among the miracles of literature is its ability to transport readers to a world unlike their own; in this case, one in which men collect wives as property. David Ebershoff delves into this world with The 19th Wife, a vivid and startling account of the frightening religious tyranny and exploitation that transpires behind the walls of a polygamist sect.

The novel, which takes place in the fictional town of Mesadale, Utah, shifts between the past and the present as it alternates between two primary narrators. The contemporary portion is narrated by Jordan Scott, a twenty-year-old man who was banished by his sect at fourteen and forced to live on his own. Upon hearing that his father has been murdered by his nineteenth wife—Jordan’s mother—he returns to Mesadale to confront his past, as well as the mother who betrayed him. The other narrator is historical figure Ann Eliza Young—nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, the second Prophet of the Mormon Church—who would launch a campaign to end polygamy in the United States during the 19th century.

The portion of the novel dedicated to Ann Eliza Young never failed to absorb me. She begins with the story of her parents: their courtship and marriage, their religious conversion and the rift between them caused by polygamy. This would color Ann Eliza’s own perception of the institution and, combined with her time spent as one of Brigham’s many wives, prompt her to tour the United States to speak out against polygamy and Brigham Young himself. This courageous heroine makes for an inspirational and utterly transfixing story that transports readers to another place and time, and lucidly portrays all sides of the issue from the perspectives of Ann Eliza’s family, including her parents, her brothers and her son. The result is a sweeping portrait of polygamy’s effects on women and men and alike—the sexual tyranny, the loss of personal identity and the use of religion to govern and manipulate, to name a few—that is as gritty as it is poignant.

Jordan Scott’s story, however, starts off promising before veering off into cheap gimmicks and a rushed, anticlimactic ending that leaves loose ends untied. The murder mystery begins to falter once Ann Eliza’s story begins, and Jordan’s story seems merely an afterthought, as if Ebershoff neglected it in favor of the other storyline, which undoubtedly required more research and effort. The characterizations are so thinly drawn that I stopped caring about what would happen and became impatient to get back to Ann Eliza’s narrative.

Ultimately I attribute this novel’s worth to its riveting depiction of an important historical figure, characterized as a flawed yet bold and resilient woman who spoke out against men in power during a patriarchal era. My advice: read it for Ann Eliza Young and don’t expect much out of the other plotline.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Collapse by Jared Diamond

It’s pretty rare for me to recommend one of my textbooks—from a science class, no less—as recreational reading, but UCLA professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond has written a crucial piece of nonfiction on the past and present condition of our environment and economy; one that should provoke introspection into humanity’s duel capabilities for progress and self-destruction. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed combines science, history, geography and personal experience to shine light from every angle on the formula that leads to a civilization’s breakdown.

Collapse is divided into four parts, the first of which describes the environment and economic history of the state of Montana, from the Native American hunger-gatherers to the individual stories of current farmers and their agricultural methods. Part Two examines past societies that have collapsed, describing the factors of their failure in terms of a five-point framework, while Part Three takes on modern societies, such as the Rwandan genocide and the developing nation of China. Part Four wraps it up on a wider scale, taking on corporations, globalization and the merits of the polder model, the Dutch version of economic consensus policy.

What is both revealing and frightening is Diamond’s portrayal of civilizations that collapse into themselves, such as the ancient society of Easter Island. While it is generally believed to have been torn apart by European colonizers, who conducted slave raids and infested the natives with disease, Diamond’s claim is that the society was well on its way to collapsing before the arrival of colonizers, due to environmental damage and the ensuing civil war that erupted over resources versus the growing population. Such factors also contributed to the collapse of the ancient Mayans, and the more recent genocide in Rwanda was due in part to overpopulation. The parallels drawn between ancient and modern societies are a resounding call to action to keep history from repeating itself, and provide a haunting and thought-provoking exposé on humanity’s slow-motion murder-suicide involving the planet we call home.

This is certainly no typical textbook of bone-dry facts; Diamond presents his subject matter in a voice that is both scholarly and conversational. He gives the impression of a pleasant conversationalist who is both intellectual and approachable, and he injects an entertainment factor among the disheartening accounts and statistics. Therefore it comes as no surprise that he ends the book on a high note, declaring his cautious optimism for the future.

Collapse is a glaringly relevant book for today’s world; a means of opening our eyes to the downfall in progress we are currently living within. If Al Gore’s campaign for the environment didn’t convince you, Jared Diamond certainly will. You don’t need to turn to sci-fi for a good apocalypse-based story—just pick up a copy of Collapse and discover the apocalypse happening in our own backyard.

Monday, July 4, 2011

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Made all the more impressive by the fact that this is her first novel, Janet Fitch captivates readers with the labyrinthine scope and visceral beauty of White Oleander, a story of survival and endurance in an uncertain world. While too heavy for a summer beach read, this fierce, provocative and tragic novel inspires awe, and is better suited to be read at home on the couch, in solitude, with limited outside stimulation (maybe a little Leonard Cohen in the background).

A white oleander is a beautiful but poisonous plant, and a metaphor for Ingrid Magnusson, a seductive, sociopathic poet convicted of murdering her lover, leaving her preteen daughter Astrid to a series of foster homes. The novel chronicles Astrid’s coming of age from a lonely, misguided girl down a self-destructive path to a hardened, independent eighteen-year-old who can hold her own against her mother’s domineering hold.

In a manner befitting The Odyssey, Astrid survives a variety of trying environments, from the trailer park to the slums, from poverty to luxury and back again, fighting abuse, hunger, harassment and personal loss, while grappling with the authority she gains and loses in her own sexuality. Though initially lacking in her own identity, Astrid develops into a hybrid of the various maternal figures who govern her life, resulting in a mesmerizing character study that pits nature against nurture. Her desire for stability, her yearning to be loved, her disillusionment and fatalism, all resonate in this stunning portrait of the human condition.

At times the narration is bogged down by the fact that Fitch epitomizes the indulgent writer; she’s a lover of the English language and a very verbose narrator who piles on similes and metaphors the way Picasso piled on bright colors, or the way Gertrude Stein favored repetition. At times this makes for beautiful, vivid imagery and great psychological depth; other times it is simply exasperating, and the readers’ five senses are overwhelmed. In this way, Fitch is both a master of language and an amateur, who has yet to learn that sometimes, less is more.

However, the story does emerge triumphant, as the characters drive the story and engage readers both mentally and emotionally, and the ending provides satisfying closure. So, needless to say, don’t be turned off by the Oprah sticker. It’s actually a splendid book.