Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

This is another one of those classics that I never managed to read. I've never seen the movie either, so I wasn't really sure what to expect. It took me awhile to get into the story; it moved very slowly at first, and I had a hard time enjoying it. Celie's life is just terrible, but because she doesn't know anything else, she deals with it the best she can. For the first half of the book, all we read are her letters to God, in which she describes the sadness and violence of her life. It was really depressing.
The story really gets going once she begins to stand up to her husband, with the help of his former (and sometimes current) lover Shug. Then she reads the first letter from her sister Nettie, whom she thought she had lost. Her husband had been hiding the letters from her for years, but she and Shug find them and read them all together. Nettie has been living with a missionary family in Africa, taking care of Celie's children, who were adopted by this missionary family when they were infants. Time flies by in their letters to each other, with decades going by before they ever see each other again.
I enjoyed this book once I got past the first third or so. At first I just couldn't believe how depressing it was, and I kept trying to imagine what the movie must be like. It still is amazing to me how violently the women were treated. But there are examples of strong women in the book, women who refuse to be pushed around, and fight back even when they are being beaten. It is from these women that Celie gains strength. The idea of God in the book is also fascinating. I've decided that I hate what Hollywood does to movies made from books (for the most part), but this movie is supposed to be very good, so maybe I'll take a look at that next.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cybele's Secret by Juliet Marillier

I really don't know if it's possible for me to express how much I love Juliet Marillier. She is one of those fantasy authors whose new books I always read, and I always love them. So this is not going to be the most objective review in the world.
Cybele's Secret is a companion novel to Wildwood Dancing (my review of that book is here), Marillier's first young adult book. The events in Cybele's Secret take place six years after Wildwood Dancing, so I suppose it could be called a sequel, but maybe it is a companion novel because it follows different main characters, and can probably be read as a stand-alone novel. The main character in this book is Paula, the fourth oldest of the five sisters of Piscul Draculai (her sister Jenica, the second daughter, is the main character of the first book). Paula is a scholar, and has joined her father on a trading venture to Istanbul. They are there to procure an ancient religious artifact, one that is both desired and feared. From their first day in Istanbul, they realize that this is a more serious venture than they thought, and already a man has been killed over the transaction. The item in question is Cybele's Gift, an artifact that supposedly holds the last words of the goddess Cybele.
Paula has experience with otherworldly beings from her time in the Otherworld near her home as a child. Her sister Jena had a quest to complete for the denizens of this Otherworld, and her oldest sister Tatiana now resides there with her lover. But Paula never expected to be drawn into a quest of her own. While in Istanbul, she meets three people who will be integral to her being able to finish the quest, two of whom are on quests of their own, and are intricately intwined with her.
One of the things that I think Marillier does best is romance in the fantasy worlds that she creates. But the romance never overshadows the rest of the story. It is essential to the story of the main character, however, and things always look very bleak at some point. But the reader can rely on Marillier to provide a happy ending that fits her characters perfectly. This book, and the one before it, focus more on the quest aspect than many of her other books. Paula must learn and grow to be able to complete her quest. She must remember her strengths and know her weaknesses, and she must be able to trust in love and hope, and friends. Cybele's Secret is a magnificent story, which I liked even better than the award-winning Wildwood Dancing. Readers who enjoy these books should definitely look into Marillier's adult fantasy titles.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class by Thom Hartmann

Despite its rather inflammatory title, this book is truly an excellent look at what has happened in economics and politics in the last 30 years. It is impossible to read this book and not understand what Hartmann is getting at; he emphasizes it in every single chapter, sometimes multiple times. His main thesis is that democracy cannot exist without a strong middle class, and that the ultra-conservatives who have taken over the Republican party have steadily weakened the American middle class. This weakens democracy, because it creates a feudal system, where a few rich families (or corporations) control the workers who are barely scraping by.
Hartmann documents this process very well, discussing how services have been taken away from the people and our democracy has been changed ever since Reagan became president. He makes a strong case for how detrimental trickle-down economics is, not only to the middle class, but to all of America. He then offers solutions, in very broad terms.
Hartmann ends the book on a very inspiring note. He outlines the steps that we need to take if we want to succeed, and even gives good reasons for why this can be done through the traditional two parties, rather than by creating a third party. I plan on hanging on to the book for a bit, just to refresh my memory on these steps. It has truly inspired me to get involved in local politics, something I've never really done before. I know that our democracy has seriously weakened over the last eight years, and Hartmann makes a good case for the fact that this began with Reagan, and continued through to the present time, even through Clinton's administration. It's up to us to bring it back to where it belongs, and make sure that all Americans have the same opportunities to succeed.

Monday, October 20, 2008

ttyl by Lauren Myracle

I wasn't sure what to think of this book, but it is on my list of the top-ten most challenged books of the past couple of years, so I knew I'd give it a try. The story is told entirely through instant messages between the three main characters. You would think that this might limit the author's storytelling abilities, but Myracle definitely pulls it off. She manages to tell the story, and even get some pretty decent characterizations in there as well, though some characters are just cookie-cutters.
Angela, Zoe, and Madigan are three high school sophomores who have just begun the school year. They have been best friends for years, and they are determined not to let high school split them up or cause them to drift apart. Instant messaging helps them to stay in touch even when they aren't seeing each other every day. We learn about each of Angela's new crushes and relationships, Maddie's new "friend" Jana, and Zoe's bordering on scary relationship with a teacher. As difficult as things get for the girls, they always try to be there for each other, and nothing too absolutely devasting or life-ruining happens.
I enjoyed this book, more than I expected to. It is simplistic, and it ends with all its ducks in a row and every loose end tied up very neatly with everyone having learned their lesson. But instant messaging is an engaging way to tell the story, and the story is told very well through these three girls' conversations. It never feels forced or strange that we learn everything in this way. And it is interesting to think about what might be left out, what they discuss in person. All-in-all this is an entertaining book, and would be greatly enjoyed by many teen readers.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield

Yes, it is another war book. This one, however, is about the Battle of Thermopylae. At least the book's cover says that it is "an epic novel of the Battle of Thermopylae". But it is really about the Spartans and Greece in general, and what it was like to live in that time and be a part of that community. The story is told by Xeones, a greek squire who served a Spartan at the Battle, though he was not Spartan himself. He is only one of two survivors of that Battle, and he is only alive because the god Apollo wishes Emperor Xerxes to hear the tale of the Spartans.
This is the same story that is told in the graphic novel and movie 300, though this story is different. Only 300 Spartans leave their city to fight at the Gates, but they are joined by their other allies of Greece, which bring the numbers up to around 4000. That is still nothing compared to the Persian army of hundreds of thousands, but it is more than just the 300 Spartans. However, the Spartan king, Leonides, does release the surviving allies after two days of battle, leaving the remaining 100+ Spartans to fight alone.
Xeones begins his story by telling of his life before his city is destroyed by the Argives. He and his cousin survive and flee with one of their servants, and live in the wild for a year or two before separating. Diomache heads to Athens while Xeones heads for Sparta. He is accepted among them and serves as a squire, first to a youth his age named Alexandros, and later to the warrior Dienekes. Xeones' tale switches back and forth between his telling of the actual battle, and of other events in the years prior to that. It is Xerxes desire to know more about the Spartans who met his hundreds of thousands of Persians in battle, and so the reader gets to hear all sorts of details about their lives as well.
The best thing about this book is the in depth descriptions that Pressfield gives. He spends multiple chapters just telling of the details of the two and a half days that the Spartans and their allies stand against the Persian army. He can spend a paragraph describing a patch of mud. It's phenomenal. He brings that same descriptive power to his characters. They are fully realized, for the most part, and he obviously cares for them greatly. This is a fantastic book for anyone who enjoys history or epic battles. I even enjoyed it, and I generally dislike stories of war. But this one brought something for everyone.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

I have to say that I am not the biggest fan of war books, especially not when it comes to the Vietnam war, but somehow I still manage to read a few of them. This is one of the best I've read, probably because it's written with teens in mind. When it comes to war books, I guess I am just better off reading the ones that are geared towards younger audiences.
That is not to say that this book makes reading about the war easy on anyone. It is graphic in the descriptions of the violence, and Myers is not afraid to get into the details. The story is told from the point of view of Richard Perry, a 17-year-old from Harlem who joins the army to go to Vietnam. He doesn't really know why he's going, he just can't think of anything better to do. Once he's there he meets Pee-Wee, who becomes his best friend in the war. He has no idea what to expect, and doesn't really seem to have a clear idea of what the war is about or who the enemy is.
I really liked the fact that Perry's character stayed the same, even while the war changed him. He was still just a scared kid, one who had no idea what he was doing in the middle of the jungle in Vietnam. He watches as his fellow soldiers struggle to deal with the same fear and anger he is dealing with, and wondering who they will be when they get back to "the World". At first Vietnam is unreal to them, but after a while, its the World that becomes unreal. This book gives you a glimpse of how war (and other traumatizing experiences) can really change a person, and make them incabable of dealing with reality. This is definitely an excellent book, great for high school students who can handle reading through the violence.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier

This book has been challenged so many times, it takes up almost two whole pages in Banned Books, by Robert P Doyle. Mainly this is due to violence, references to masturbation, and degrading views of women. (I think that the thoughts shown by the boys in the book are rather typical of high school boys, which can have very little respect for women or sexuality in general.) One of the challenges that I found the most interesting, however, was due to the book's "pessimistic ending". I had not yet read the book when I saw this comment, and I wondered what the big deal was. I will be mentioning that later, so beware of spoilers, if you are interested in reading the book without knowing the ending.
The Chocolate War is about a Catholic high school in the 1970's. (The book was written in 1974.) Its plot centers around a group of students known as The Vigils. They are basically a gang that is allowed to exist because they keep the students in line. Meaning: students are too afraid to do anything like those pesky protests so many high schoolers were participating in around that time. The Vigils are cruel, and are run by Archie, who makes up assignments and gives them out randomly to students. These assignments are pranks, designed to get the students in trouble if they are caught, and are basically a sort of blackmail. If you don't complete your assignment, The Vigils make your life hell. Jerry Renault is a freshman who gets an assignment - his is to refuse to sell chocolates in the annual school sale. This creates no end of torment for Jerry, as the priests that run the school are just as cruel and unforgiving as The Vigils. But once Jerry's assignment is up, he decides that he is just going to keep refusing to sell the chocolates. So The Vigils give him another assignment - sell the chocolates. And yet he refuses.
No one refuses The Vigils, and the story culminates with them putting Jerry in a no-win situation, where he gets beaten practically to death, for reasons that even he no longer really understands. Throughout the book, we keep hearing from different students' points-of-view, and mainly the message seems to be that once you're an adult your life is terrible, just an endless repetition of work and sleep and no way out. It's a rather depressing view of their future. And the ending itself is just as pessimistic as one challenger pointed out. Jerry doesn't win. And what's more, he loses his will to fight, decides that it is too hard to stick to your principles. Just do what they want you to do, keep your head down, don't step out of line. It really is depressing.
I think that the ultimate purpose of this pessimistic, depressing story is as a challenge to the reader. Don't be like the students at Trinity High School. Stand up for yourself. Don't let the bullies win. I could be wrong, but I would like to think that that is what student's will finish this book with.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

This is one of those adult books that has become a classic that teens read in high school, although I never read it. Until now, that is.
I love the characters in the story. They are so unique, so different from what you find in most novels, teen and adult. They all have their good points and bad points, and Allende does not keep these from the reader. They are in fact integral to the story. No one is really a hero, except perhaps Alba. The story itself is slightly meandering, but follows a relatively straight course. It builds slowly, and Allende focuses the reader's attention on points that will be important later. I found that it took a long time for me to read - it simply did not keep me reading the way some books do. I enjoyed it, but it wasn't until the end that I became truly engrossed in the story. In the end the story did capture me, but it was the characters that fascinated me throughout the whole book.
This book has been challenged several times in schools since it was published, mainly for its sexual content, and because it "defames" the Catholic faith. It is interesting how a few instances in a story can ruin the whole thing in some people's minds. The book as a whole is well worth the read, and much of the sex is actually integral to the story, and not gratuitous in any way. It would probably be more easily understood by older teens, merely because it is somewhat of a difficult read. A book worth reading, regardless, for anyone who chooses to give it a chance.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez

The subtitle of this book is "An American Woman Goes Behind the Veil" but I think that that never really happened in the story. Rodriguez is the American Woman of that subtitle, and she travels to Afghanistan for the first time in 2002 with an NGO providing humanitarian aid. While there, she feels useless: she is not a doctor, nurse, lawyer, or other trained professional that can provide direct aid. She is a hairdresser. She continues to feel out of place until someone introduces her to other Westerners in Kabul as a hairdresser, and suddenly she is everyone's favorite person. Apparently it is impossible to get a good haircut in Kabul. This leads her to the realization that maybe she does have something she can offer to the Afghan people: she can train their women to be hairdressers. Over the next few years she travels between Michigan and Kabul every few months, helping to establish such a school, and staff it. She ends up staying permanently in Afghanistan to ensure the school's success.
This could have been a good book. At least, it may have made a better story, but with Rodriguez telling her own story, I really think she gave a different impression than she intended. She comes off as a selfish American woman who has no respect for the local culture, and could not care less who she offends in her effort to do something positive. She only occassionally seems to see the need to "go under the veil" in any way. She seems insensitive to the uncomfortable situations that she creates with her friends, and with the Afghans who are trying to help her. She allows her friends to arrange a marriage for her to an Afghan man who she does not know(this barely a year after she has finally left her abusive second husband). At this point she speaks little to no Dari, the local language, and she doesn't seem to learn much of it ever. Maybe having a husband makes it safer for women in Kabul, but not every woman is just going to go marry one whom she doesn't know and can't even communicate with.
Aside from my annoyance with Rodriguez's actions while she's in Kabul, what she is doing there is wonderful. Unfortunately, her telling of the story is disjointed, jumping from one year to the next and back again with no real reason. She loves telling the juicy gossip-type stories, and tells of the successes of her former students only in passing. Obviously I was disappointed overall with this book. Maybe the subject material is what got it listed as one of the best non-fiction books of 2007 (according to the King County Library System), because the book itself certainly does not qualify.