Sunday, May 29, 2011

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Clearly you don’t need reality TV to take you behind the scenes to the dark side of show business. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a colorful and enchanting historical novel about a circus struggling to keep afloat during the Depression era, and the harsh truths behind the sequins and spectacle of the alleged “Greatest Show on Earth!”

The story is narrated by Jacob Jankowski, a ninety-some-year-old-man. Bitter at being abandoned by his family and reduced to a mere number at a nursing home, he has nothing but his memories to keep him content. While he is unable to recall details of his day-to-day life, Jacob vividly recalls his time spent as a veterinarian for the Benzini Brothers traveling circus during the 1930s.

Jacob is a twenty-three-year-old veterinary student when a family tragedy prompts him to leave the university and hop on a circus train on a whim, thereby restarting his life from the ground up. He befriends the ringmaster, Uncle Al, and the head animal trainer, August, only to discover firsthand the violent natures of these cutthroat showmen and the code of survival among the performers and working men, all while falling in love with August’s wife, the star performer Marlena.

Alternately assertive and vulnerable, compassionate and pragmatic, Marlena is more than a generic love interest. She appears to fulfill traditional notions of femininity, as she gives the appearance of being delicate and demure, and she steers clear of the business end of circus life and dotes on the horses she trains and performs with. She also speaks out against the unfair treatment of low-ranking workers, and is openly disgruntled with her insufferable husband. Gender politics come into play in the power struggle between her and August, and I found her character to be a fascinating juxtaposition of the feminine ideal and the qualities considered traditionally masculine.

The bond between human and animal is poignantly portrayed in Jacob’s rapport with Rosie the elephant and Marlena’s connection with her beloved horses. Rosie, as a character, shines with her humanlike personality and her gentle and humorous nature, and Jacob and Marlena bond over their shared affection for the majestic animal. There is also Walter, a midget performer with a gruff exterior and a soft spot for his terrier, Queenie. To an extent, the humans of Water for Elephants are characterized in the way they relate to their animals, which is telling of their true natures.

In addition to the violations of the rights of workers, the suffering of circus animals is described in heartbreaking detail, from Rex the toothless lion to the beating of the lovely Rosie. Gruen portrays the respective suffering of humans and animals as the equalizer between them, the thing that makes their differences irrelevant and the bonds between them all the more profound.

At times hard to read but nonetheless enjoyable, Water for Elephants appeals to a wide range of readers: romantics, animal lovers and fans of historical novels, to name a few. Overall it’s a worthwhile read, and the happy ending compensates for its tragic elements.

Monday, May 23, 2011

God from the Machine, and Other Poems

Your friendly neighborhood blogger has taken the self-publishing route. My first book of poetry is now available for purchase on in both print and e-book format. Feedback is welcome.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series comes full circle with The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, in which our cunning and resilient heroine has her day in court and ceases to suffer in silence. This sequel to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and The Girl Who Played With Fire provides cathartic resolution for both readers and for the character Lisbeth Salander, as all the injustices committed against her from an early age are brought to light in the courtroom.

The “hornet’s nest” refers to the corrupt government branch that worked with Lisbeth’s sociopathic father and targeted her as a witness to his crimes. The branch’s officials do indeed become a swarm of angry hornets, fighting back with sabotage of the trial and attempted assassination, and thus begins a test of loyalty for the ones fighting for Lisbeth: journalist Mikael Blomkvist; his sister Annika Giannini, who becomes Lisbeth’s lawyer; her former employer, Dragan Armansky; and her former guardian and father figure, Holmer Palmgren.

In this volume, Lisbeth—an antisocial, self-serving and fiercely independent woman—grows and matures as she learns to trust her lawyer and others fighting for her cause. She gains some level of introspection and social conscience as she sticks her neck out for others in a way she hasn’t done before. This is a considerable milestone for her character, and readers who have become attached to her will surely follow this maturation process with some relief that she is slowly evolving from a sullen, socially awkward loner into a more responsible citizen.

This novel has previously been criticized for one too many subplots and an overtly convoluted and long-winded plot, but personally I thought it all came together exceptionally well. Larsson cares enough for his characters to tell their individual stories, regardless of whether the details of their lives are integral to the plot, and I believe that’s to be admired. He’s also not afraid to challenge his readers, and he keeps the pages turning with sharp dialogue, unexpected twists and the suspense surrounding Lisbeth’s eventual fate.

One way in which the book’s end is not satisfying is that Lisbeth continues to be an intriguing character, one that readers will want to continue to follow through further trials and tribulations. One gets the sense that her story is not over, that her life will continue once the pages have turned and the book is closed. Larsson has done an impressive thing in creating such a vivid character, one that has resonated with readers the world over. I believe she’s going to live on, one way or another.

I can’t help wondering how many Lisbeths we’ll see on Halloween this year.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Set mostly in Afghanistan from the fall of its monarchy to the Taliban regime, The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini is a flawed but ultimately satisfying novel of betrayal and redemption that provides insight into the Afghan culture as well as powerful emotional impact. Hosseini takes on social issues such as ethnic prejudice, gender politics and adolescent bullying, and the result is a story that delivers on a grand scale by being both socially significant and intensely relatable.

The Kite Runner is narrated by Amir, a Pashtun-American man who returns to his home country to redeem himself for the betrayal of his friend, Hassan, when they were children. Much of the novel is made up of flashbacks to Amir’s childhood, growing up with his strict father and struggling to fulfill his expectations. He and Hassan, the servant’s son, grow up together, partaking in the sport of kite fighting, which pits them against the neighborhood bullies.

Amir is not a likeable character, as he is cowardly and disloyal towards Hassan. However, Hosseini succeeds in making him an effective protagonist in that he does not shy away from Amir’s flaws, nor does he go out of his way to make him sympathetic. Amir is raised within the patriarchal ideology that enforces traditional forms of masculinity, and he buckles under the pressure of winning his father’s approval. While this doesn’t excuse his actions, it provides background and motivation for them and makes him believable.

Hosseini’s primary weakness as a writer is that characterization is not his strong suit. The characters of Amir and his father are satisfactorily well-developed and absorbing. The rest, however, are one- to two-dimensional. The development of Hassan is hindered by Hosseini’s intention to portray him as the innocent victim of Amir’s treachery. The romantic subplot between Amir and a Pashtun-American girl, Soraya, is underdeveloped and poorly done. These characters are restricted by the roles they fulfill within the story, in the times when Hosseini lets plot override all else.

With The Kite Runner, Hosseini shines light on the injustices ingrained in cultures and the social constructs that shape a person’s identity and their subsequent actions. The novel also shines light on his strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and the pros far outweigh the cons. The Kite Runner is moving and memorable, and highly recommended.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Jane Eyre, the movie

Recently I had the pleasure of seeing the latest Jane Eyre movie adaptation, starring Mia Wasikowska in the title role. I knew going in that my love for the novel would likely prompt me to be critical, and sure enough, all throughout the film, I was making a mental checklist of everything in the novel that the film left out.

Overall, however, this one is nonetheless well-acted and beautifully done. Instead of striving for accurate representations of the events of the novel, it strives to capture its tone, essence and atmosphere, by way of haunting cinematography and the evocative piano score, composed by the likes of Mozart and Beethoven.

Charlotte Brontë’s novel was the semi-autobiographical story of the orphaned Jane Eyre, who survives a bleak childhood to become a governess at the house of the cold and acerbic Mr. Rochester. Jane is a passionate yet dignified individual who struggles with the class and gender roles of the era and her own sense of integrity versus her growing love for Mr. Rochester.

I must admit I had my doubts when I heard that Mia Wasikowska was cast as Jane. Jane is described in the novel as being “poor, obscure, plain and little;” in other words, an utterly ordinary and relatable character whose strengths lie in her personality rather than her appearance. My impression of Wasikowska was that she was too beautiful to play my beloved Jane, but on the contrary, Jane was placed in good hands. Through means of makeup and wardrobe, Wasikowska displays a modest, unadorned appearance, while her eyes subtly hint at the energy and fervor lying beneath the surface of pale skin, pinned hair and humble governess clothing.

Although Mr. Rochester is described as being a homely man in his late 30s to early 40s, most film versions I have seen have cast an attractive younger actor in the role—in this case, Michael Fassbender—and the reason is understandable. Few films would buck time constraints to include Brontë’s pages upon pages of dialogue between Jane and Rochester that illustrates the depth of their connection; movie audiences would wonder just what it is that Jane sees in this unpleasant, unattractive man. Despite these cutbacks in their meaningful interaction, the love story is acted out well enough to please both romantic movie-goers and fans of the novel, with Fassbender effectively portraying Rochester’s growing passion for Jane, while Wasikowska plays on the reticence of Jane with quiet dignity and understated devotion to the man who is her employer and superior as well as her love interest.

Indeed, Jane Eyre is a film that relies less on dialogue and more on atmosphere as a means of storytelling. The cinematography successfully captures the gothic ambiance of the novel, at times with overcast weather and washed-out colors, other times with sweeping mountainous landscapes with castles and farmhouses in the distance. One especially effective scene is Jane’s hike through forested terrain, where she meets a mysterious stranger on a black horse who turns out to be Mr. Rochester. The setting is reminiscent of just about every film adaptation of Washington Irving’s Sleepy Hollow.

While Brontë sought to connect with her audience on an intellectual level, director Cary Fukunaga’s intentions clearly lie on a visceral level, and despite the liberties taken with the story, the film succeeds where it counts. It may have left out key elements of the novel—scenes, characters, dialogue, subplots—but in a sense, it was necessary in order to get to the heart of the matter, without being bogged down by scenes that would slow the story down. Films and novels are certainly different crafts, and while I’ll always love Brontë’s novel more, I consider this an acceptable adaptation and an exceptionally well-done piece of work.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Grace Hammer by Sara Stockbridge

I had the privilege of attending a reading with the lovely Sara Stockbridge of her new book, Grace Hammer, while in a London bar the summer of last year. It was only when I Googled her after returning to the States did I discover how famous she is. Turns out she was a famed actress and fashion model, as well as the muse of fashion designer Vivienne Westwood, and now she has “acclaimed author” to add to her resume.

Personally, though, I found Grace Hammer to be an entertaining but less than substantial read. While the mystery and suspense keep the pages turning, it lacks meat on its bones, as well as depth and dimension.

Grace Hammer takes place in the cutthroat underground of Victorian England, populated by bandits, harlots and conspirators. The title character and her four children make a living as thieves, picking the pockets of rich strangers. Grace is a plucky woman who is likened to a magpie, a bird with a fancy for shiny items that it robs from humans to store in its nest. While we’re expected to believe she is a seasoned and cunning thief, she has an implausible weakness for worthless men (hence her four children of different fathers), and despite the fact that she has a vengeful thug on her tail, makes no effort to conceal her identity around town, thereby making herself vulnerable. After one too many less than sensible endeavors, I gave up believing she was the female Sherlock Holmes.

If there’s one thing Grace’s children inherited for her, it’s their lack of dimension. Charlie is the eldest brother who dotes on his younger siblings. Billy and Jake are street-smart looters who know their way around London’s underground. Daisy is the innocent little blonde, blue-eyed girl who loves stuffed animals and pretty dresses. Incredibly, despite being lower-class and lacking education, they are healthy, handsome and well-read; in short, they are ideal, thereby as bland and soulless as Twilight vampires.

One can easily tell from Stockbridge’s writing style that she is a Charles Dickens fan, and she has his strengths as well as his weaknesses. While Dickens is an eloquent writer who never fails to entertain, his books are populated by stock characters, such as Oliver Twist, the quintessential innocent child, not unlike Daisy Hammer; and Fagin, the villainous thief who embodies a child’s nightmare, not unlike Stockbridge’s villains, the greedy Mr. Blunt and the witchlike Emmeline Spragg, who, judging from the descriptions, seems to bear a striking resemblance to Snow White’s evil stepmother in disguise.

Well, there you have her.

The most compelling thing about Grace Hammer is the writing style, which fluidly carries the web of deceit and betrayal woven around our vapid but nonetheless enjoyable heroine. The entertainment factor is not lacking, so I would recommend this book to anyone who likes a fun period piece, though ye be warned of an anticlimactic ending.