Oh, Kristin Cashore, I would trust you with my life. This series breaks my heart and patches it all back together again. This book was so different fr...moreOh, Kristin Cashore, I would trust you with my life. This series breaks my heart and patches it all back together again. This book was so different from the first two in pace, but somehow, and I say this almost reluctantly, that made the end more meaningful to me. I am all about editing in stories, and for the first half of this book, the redundancies seemed unnecessary and boring. But, I don’t actually think they are now. I think they had some purpose, though I don’t know that I could articulate it for you. I was wrong in what I thought this ending would be, and I’m glad I was wrong. It was so much more brutal than I expected, but more meaningful in that way. Are there more of these? Are you going to write more books for me, Kristin Cashore? I love your people, the evil and the good, the sins of our fathers and frailty of our mothers. I love them.
This story picks up with little Bitterblue, now the queen of her empire. If Graceling borrows somewhat in spirit from Aliens, Katsa is our Ripley and Bitterblue is Newt. And now Newt comes into her own with the responsibility for a nation that was totally fucked by her father, by the lies he told and his control and manipulation. She doesn’t even know how fucked her nation is because after you’ve lived in lies for so long, how does anyone know what the truth is? And is the truth more dangerous that willful ignorance if what you’re ignoring is an abomination? Ugh. Beautiful, awful choices. And forgiveness! And stories! Oh man, beautiful. Just the idea of figuring out how to repair a nation from violence and lies is beautiful.
But, anyway, and Katsa/Ripley has taught Bitterblue/Newt how to fight and protect herself, and where Graceling pointedly tells the story of a woman fighter, a survivor, Bitterblue makes no point of Bitterblue’s completely human, normal ability to defend herself. She just can kick an ass if she needs to, and other times she can’t. Her strength is not a super power, it’s just human power.
This book, in contrast to the first two, felt more high-fantasy to me. It uses the conventions of alternate languages, involved descriptions of coded communication, and a lot of walking (which, to be fair, the walking is in the other two as well. Fantasy, man – bring your Nikes). It is not actually high fantasy, I’m sure, so don’t get all excited if that’s your thing. It is not my thing, but the incorporation of those conventions seemed fun to me, not annoying. It kept enough of a super-hero feel that I tracked.
Now I’m going to talk about where this series really resonates with me. I always think, you know, women are raised that a man on a white horse will come, swoop us up, marry us, and that marriage will magically solve all of our problems. When that doesn’t actually happen, we think, Oh, it’s because if we have children, that will actually solve all of our problems. When having children doesn’t solve all of our problems, we think, Oh, if we run off to an exotic island and have a romantic Eat Pray Love affair, that will solve all of our problems.
I think men are in basically the same position – if he finds the right girl and marries her, she will decorate his house, and always be there with a smile, a hug, and a plate of cookies, and that will solve the problems. Then, when that doesn’t work, it’s basically the same with the children and the affair. But, in the end, we are always left with ourselves. Marriage and children and lovers don’t take us away from ourselves and fix us the way the stories promised.
I love the way the Twilight saga exaggerates those promises to the point of absolute absurdity, but I love even more the way this series exists entirely outside of those promises. This series doesn’t try to deus ex machina our guilts, doubts, and shame away, but it presents characters working through them, living with grief, and learning about their power.
I think it is a second-wave feminism phrase to say a woman is empowered or disempowered, and I’ve been thinking about the use of that word lately because someone I’ve been around a lot routinely uses it. I kind of don’t like the word “empowerment,” I think. It seems somewhat inaccurate to me, even along the lines of the promise that our problems can be magically solved by some kind of social convention. “Marriage didn’t magically solve your problems? Well, then, empowerment will magically solve them.” I don’t think everyone means that when they use the word “empowerment,” just like I don’t think everyone who gets married or has kids thinks that will magically solve their problems, but I think both avenues can lead to that expectation. The idea of empowerment or disempowerment just sounds to me like somehow you can subscribe to something outside of yourself that will magically take away your problems. It indicates that the power wasn't there all along, but if you follow the treasure map right, you'll find the magic problem-solving solution.
But, along those lines, I love the message in this book, like in The Hunger Games series, that we need to discover our own power - that it was there all along, and that life was never about finding a magic that lets us take the easy way out. In Mockingjay, everyone around Katniss reminds her of her power until she recognizes it. Here, similarly, this story is a journey of Bitterblue realizing her power. It is beautiful. It is the work that we all face that is bigger than marriage or children or politics or career. It’s the self that we are left with when the world is on our shoulders and we have no shoulder to lean on ourselves. This story is full of so much hope and so many dreams. I love it. (less)
A wise woman, while brushing her hair demurely in front of a mirror, once mocked another wise woman saying, “Remember that time I wrote a book with a...moreA wise woman, while brushing her hair demurely in front of a mirror, once mocked another wise woman saying, “Remember that time I wrote a book with a conceptual spoiler?” Well, Laini Taylor, I now picture you in that room with the other wise authors chatting each other up about your conceptual spoilers. Because, holy shit. How do you even talk about this book?
I’ve been marinating in it for a couple of days, while getting caught in apocalyptic electrical storms, losing luggage, stumbling around airports and homes and streets trying to get ready for school to start. In the midst of this busyness, I’ve been letting the story sink into my brain, but really I keep coming back to the fact that all of this story, the whole crux of the character development and plot of the entire thing, is in the last, maybe, three pages of the book. That may sound bad to you, but I’m telling you, it’s completely genius. That’s just my opinion, but it’s true.
The first page of the book says, “Once upon a time, an angel and a devil fell in love. It did not end well.” And that lovely beginning, a thesis really, which tells you the entire story in two short sentences, echoed through my head the entire time I was reading. Well done. Just masterful. That is the way you should give away your story.
And I’m not saying that the 400-whatever pages that precede the pivotal last three aren’t enjoyable – they are absolute fun and action packed for the most part. They were strangely ordinary, though. When you read the book, you’ll laugh that I said that because they are very un-ordinary looking in most ways. But, there is a lot of furniture and clothing and staring-into-smoldering-eyes and yearning for completeness, and other things u see in ur romance novels. After Lips Touch, which is three sharp kicks to the gut, the meandering descriptions and sudden brainless passion were weird. I still think there could have been less “their hearts were so one that they didn’t need to communicate with words” business. Like, you know, “she knew by his sideways glance that he had eaten a peanut butter and jelly sandwich earlier, gotten heartburn, decided to drink a glass of water, and then felt better, after which he watched TV for a little while and then took a walk.” I mean, at some point, the silent communication of soul mates is just not entertaining to read. Even after the last three pages, I think you could have cut some of that, but I could actually be dead wrong. Maybe you need all that to get to the end. Anyway, it was so worth it to me when I was done.
Also, the clothing and furniture were good. Like, usually, everyone’s walking around in damask and chemises, or, like, jean skirts and velour jogging suits, or whatever, and it’s itchy and boring. And all their furniture is so uneventful. Here, I kind of wanted to know what Karou’s furniture was like and what she was wearing that day. Plus, blue hair is almost always a good idea. I had blue hair for a while, and it was very pretty. I’m sure Karou’s is, too. It might be petty, but I think it’s worth a wish.
The other . . . criticism? . . . I have is that I’m not totally positive who this narrator is. Taylor wrote the book in a very distant, omniscient third person, but that raises some questions for me because the narrator is obviously from Earth and American. The dialogue is American slang, even though, when the characters are even on Earth, they are in Prague, speaking Czech. Also, the devils in the book are part human, part animal. But . . . the only logical conclusions from the way the characters discuss the devils is that Earth is the reference point for their species. For example, a half-human, half-wolf dude is called that. A hummingbird with moth wings is called that. But, if you only grew up with a hummingbird with moth wings, and you had no reference-point in Earth, would you know that it’s wings belonged to something else? Wouldn’t you get to earth and say our hummingbirds are weird? So, at certain points, when characters were staring into each other’s eyes, I got to thinking about how the narrator is this teenage American girl behind the curtain. I just wanted her to out herself and be like, “I’m off shopping at a thrift store on weekends,” so that I could orient myself to the source of the story. That is over-analyzing, I know, but there were narrative pauses to think about stuff like that.
I loved how this book undermines. I love the fantasy and romance mythos that it breaths and destroys. I love that it looks straight in the face of what angels and devils could be, what they are, and what love is, in a cultural sense. I agree, but also disagree, with Taylor about one of the fundamentals of her world, but that is kind of a spoiler – I disagree that (view spoiler)[the source of magic is pain (hide spoiler)]. But, in the way that magic is commerce in this story, and the way that is just factually true of industrial capitalism, I have to agree with Taylor. It is not a lecture in the way she presents that reality, but it is fundamental to the story in a respectable way. And I am left, days later, turning that fundamental over and pondering both sides of it.
So, you are obviously going to read this anyway, but I am here to tell you that I think you will not regret it. It’s got style and action, and then a kick to the gut in the end. Some of you will get hives from the middle of this book, and some will get hives from the end, and I think that is because the story is luring and elusive, but, really, only because it is actually being rather brutal the whole time.
I read an ARC copy of this, and it was lovely although the cover leaves something to be desired.
P.S. Ethnocentrism is no good, kids. Don't try it at home.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
When you want to take a story that someone else has told and make it your own, do it like this. If you want to write a story, recognize your own magic...moreWhen you want to take a story that someone else has told and make it your own, do it like this. If you want to write a story, recognize your own magic, your own style, and add it to the story you want to steal. If you want to write a story, do what Laini Taylor did, and absorb the story, wait until it has seeped into the interstitial places of your writing, and give it back to your reader. Make it beautiful and true. And the only way you can do that is by figuring out what to you is beauty and truth. So many writers try to figure out what made something beautiful to someone else. They try to say, what made the Trojan war beautiful to Homer? What made Harry Potter beautiful to J.K. Rowling? And they try to imitate that. They don’t say, "What makes this story beautiful to me?" Well, Laini Taylor told us what makes these stories beautiful to her.
So, I’m a little expansive tonight. I’m a little drunk. I’m not usually one of those drunks who goes around telling everyone she loves them. In fact, I’ve been told I can recite a pretty good story while drunk, even if I don’t remember it a few months later. I usually don’t remember who I told stories to anyway, drunk or not drunk, no offense. Anyway, I just want to give this book a hug and tell it I love it. I love you, book. Like, in the full, Wayne’s World sense of the word. I love you, book. Damn, every time I write “book,” I spell it “bood.” Sorry.
I love this book in a drunk, college-high-school kind of way. I love this book like, “Wait a second, what have we all be doing, standing around fighting over whether vampires are sparkly or not?” So, it turns out there are people out there writing real love stories and fairy tales. There are people reading great writing like Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, getting inspired by them, and then writing these wonderful tributes to them.
I think, when anyone writes anything great, their ultimate hope has to be in some kind of legacy. They have to hope that their great writing will inspire something beautiful in the future, some kind of strength and inspiration. I think it is a tribute to the traditions that Rossetti, Hinduism, and Zoroastrianism created that Taylor could create something as beautiful as this book. And then, hopefully her writings will inspire someone else, and the stories of goblins, hell, and eternal life will continue. It is like how Shakespeare reminded us that 13-year-olds falling in love doesn’t always end for the best. And, look, that story has continued in tradition because of him. Hopefully we will all, likewise, remember not to eat goblin fruit because of Taylor, not to doubt our own curses or our own mortality.
I had intended to talk about how some authors are natural with language, and how some authors know how to integrate a magical, traditional feeling with really modern writing. I don’t really feel like talking about that now that I am writing this. Maybe I will have more to say about that in the morning. Anyway, it’s not like Taylor tried to add a bunch of ‘ye’s to her writing, or like she tried to end everything with “e” like, unfortunately, some authors do, to give a sense of ye olde timmes. Taylor shows everything beautifully, and in doing so she shows how “modern times” are not removed from tradition and magick(e).
I like how this book is not about kisses, is not about love. When I first picked it up I thought it would be an emo version of Gossip Girl, but it is not that. It is about evil kisses, lips shutting in silence, and kisses that are sense memory. I like how this book is about loyalty and strength. I like how it is about curses. This book is beautiful, and in true, drunken or non-drunken spirit, I love it. (less)
Beautiful. I woke up on the morning I started reading this book and went down to my first breakfast at the new resort I was staying at for the last le...moreBeautiful. I woke up on the morning I started reading this book and went down to my first breakfast at the new resort I was staying at for the last leg of my trip to Zanzibar. The girl I was with slept fourteen hours every night (hi, Miranda!), so I always had the mornings to myself at that resort. I went up to the waiters to find out how to order breakfast because it was never the same at any of the hotels.
The mustachioed waiter said, “This is where you write your order,” and showed me the sheet of paper.
“But what are my options?” I asked.
The non-mustachioed waiter said, “Optionsssssss! You have many options!” and then grinned at me conspiratorially because we were already kind of friends. I had a Spanish omelet, which they guarantied me was the best. I got to the table and pulled open my Kindle to take a look at the first couple of pages of Angry Young Man. My plan was to move on to something else if it didn’t catch my interest. I was immediately hooked, though, and spent the rest of the day inside of this so beautiful story.
As a sibling story, this reminds me of J.D. Salinger’s and David James Duncan’s writings. It has that cadence of family lingo built from years of affection and harassment. One brother is the sensitive one in this story – the Seymour Glass, Holden Caulfield, Irwin Chance, or Bill Bob Orviston – the magic brother. The other is the more mainstream brother, who has ancestors in the Salinger and Duncan stories as well. The mainstream brother tells the story, but with so much love for the heartbreak of the sensitive brother that I fell for them both a little. It seems more similar to Brothers K than the Salinger books because it pokes fun at the drama of the sensitive brother, even while sympathizing with him. Salinger takes the anger and alienation more seriously.
I think that this book has the potential to be controversial like Catcher in the Rye is controversial, though. The other day, a friend of mine posted a quote on facebook that made me think of Angry Young Man and Catcher. “Ultimately . . . any text speaks through its reader. . . . Consequently the meaning of the text is often only as moral as its reader. If the reader is intolerant, hateful, or oppressive, so will be the interpretation of the text." It’s from Khaled Abou El Fadl in an article titled “The Place of Tolerance in Islam.” It’s easy to blame books for violence, and this feels like a book that will get blamed for violence. I don’t think it should be, though.
I just found out that my financial aid for this term of school is set to be about one-fourth of what it was last term, and the aid office is being very frustrating about it. And it makes me so angry! It is so infuriating to have people be cavalier with your livelihood. I don’t think we’re intended to endorse or condemn the boys in this book, but they seem so realistic to me, so like how you react when your family and home is threatened. I get who they are and why they do what they do, and I am them right now, shaking my fist at the financial aid office. And they’re realistic in this lovely way. Lynch tells you just the right things about who they are and what they do.
Also, there are some great women in here, even though it is not about them.
Despite the ultimate seriousness and social relevance of this story to American society, which contrasted weirdly when I was reading it with drinking soda and cider in a tiki hut down by the beach, it was sort of wonderfully lighthearted and entertaining. I guess it kind of reminds you that most of us are somehow displaced and imposed upon by the injustices of the world. It made me look at the waiters, both mustachioed and non-, who worked from 6:30 a.m. to 10 or 11 p.m., and wonder if they don’t feel something like the brothers in this book. Like you can’t just not do something about so much injustice.(less)
!!!!! This book kicks my ass. Moira Young has gotta be the Beatrix Kiddo of y/a writers. She comes in here, probably blindfolded or some such, turns t...more!!!!! This book kicks my ass. Moira Young has gotta be the Beatrix Kiddo of y/a writers. She comes in here, probably blindfolded or some such, turns the conventional rescue story on its head, and then writes it all out in solid, beautiful dialect because that’s just how badass she is. The effortlessness alone is enough to make me think we’ve arrived in some new country of storytelling. Suddenly, we’re in the middle of it, and I didn’t even realize the tour bus could go there.
I don’t even want to talk about all of the incredible women in this book because the telling of it is so nonchalant and so free from politics that it seems a shame to freak out about it. Even though it does make me freak out. We should have been talking about women like this the whole time. These girls are so legit. They talk to each other like girls talk. They kick ass the way girls kick ass. They are smart, but they’re not trying to throw it in your face. They’re just incidentally as cool as actual girls.
I won’t tell you much about this book because I don’t want to spoil all the transitions from one kind of beauty to another. I don’t want to spoil the easy absence of agenda, the genuine relationships, or the well-timed action.
As I said before, this book kicked my ass, so I’m still in the fetal position, spitting blood and reflecting on the wussiness of my life and writing. However, I will pull myself together enough to reflect that, aside from being a post-apocalyptic story about how to be a sister and how to be a woman, this book is incidentally also about power and slavery.
Don’t get me wrong, though. This story is not allegorical in the way the Hunger Games is. (I really don’t want to compare the two books, though, even though they are somewhat similar. The comparison really annoys me because I feel like it comes down to the scarcity of books with truly badass female characters. Comparing the writing would be like comparing Zora Neale Hurston and Willa Cather. Why would you? Both are wonderful and wonderfully different. It seems vulgar to compare authors only because they talk about women living in similar settings.) I am reading in a message about slavery here because, while this book contains slavery, it is ultimately about adventure, not about slavery or morality or politics.
I am studying slavery in Zanzibar right now, though, so I’m going to comment on it. Estimates say that there are about 30 million slaves in the world right now – more than all of the slaves in the 19th century trans-Atlantic slave trade. Most of them are women and children. They process our sugar and coffee and chocolate. They work in fields and in brothels and in homes. They live all around us. The Oregon State Bar estimated that in 2006, slave traffickers made more money than Nike, Starbucks, and Microsoft combined. Slavery doesn’t just exist in post-apocalyptic dystopias. And, as this book gracefully illustrates, it is perpetuated by both men and women. Young does a lovely job of showing the grotesqueness of feeding off violence and humiliation. She also shows the beauty of revolution.
My only complaint about this book is that I think the second half loses steam. Spoiler alert? There are many excellent parts still, but it doesn’t have the magic of the first half. It felt like the plot got heavy, and she sacrificed some of the story-telling to a checklist of what characters needed to die to fulfill y/a requirements. It didn’t feel as careful as the first half. I think I would have preferred to leave more unanswered questions than to tie the plot up so neatly and formulaically. **End possible spoiler alert**
I’m not sure I’m even complaining about that, though, as I still enjoyed it. If I had loved the second half as much as the first, I think this would have become my favorite book of all time. As it is, this book is still probably in my top 10.
_______ (I read this as an ARC on my Kindle that a friend gave me before I went to Zanzibar. Thank you, friend!!!)(less)
I have been reflecting a lot lately on the hugeness of my own limitations. This story represents one of my most obvious limitations when it comes to a...moreI have been reflecting a lot lately on the hugeness of my own limitations. This story represents one of my most obvious limitations when it comes to appreciating books. I don’t understand world building. I think this is my limitation when it comes to historical fiction as well. I don’t understand why an author would want to make a story more complicated than just what it takes to tell what happens to characters. That’s how I experience world building in both sci fi/fantasy and historical fiction – an over-complication of what could otherwise be an interesting story. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately for you), I think A Wizard of Earthsea is mostly world building (though Ceridwen and Elizabeth inform me that I'm wrong, and I would think that they probably know better than I do what the world-building thing is about. But I am still going to proceed using my arguably faulty definition of world building).
I accidentally started reading this book at the same time that Elizabeth started reading it, and in order to not add to the breaking of Ceridwen’s heart, I didn’t put it on my currently reading. I basically agree with what Elizabeth said, and I don’t have that much to add. I’m only giving three stars because my policy is to rate based on my enjoyment, and with the exception of a couple of parts, I can’t say I enjoyed reading this book. For the most part, it had that Lord of the Rings, traveling-with-no-action quality that really puts me to sleep. I liked the battle parts, though.
Anyway, I know that a lot of people look down on Siddhartha and The Prophet, but I think what people enjoy about Earthsea must be similar to what I like about those books. They all have a wise, parabolic quality. And I like the self-discovery message of Earthsea. I just think there’s a lot of elaborate hand-waiving and rigmarole to get there. I haven’t read Siddhartha since high school, so maybe it is like that, too, and maybe all of this is about the timing of reading a book.
I think I’ve told this story before, I forget where, but when I was in college I ran into this guy I had a crush on in high school and it’s possible that I ended up dating him for a little while. He used to come into the café I was working at and follow me as I walked back and forth behind the counter making sandwiches and whatnot. He wouldn’t talk, he would just walk up and down the counter when I did. I ended up thinking he’s probably brain damaged from all of the acid he always did. One day, I got tired of him just silently following me around, so I asked him to tell me a story. He quickly said, “Oh, no. I don’t have any stories,” and continued to follow me.
A minute later, he said, “Oh, I thought of a story!”
I was relieved and asked him to continue.
“Do you know where the hot springs are?” He asked.
“Oh,” he responded with clear consternation. “Well, do you know how to get to Dexter?”
“No,” I sighed, hoping he would get on to the story soon.
“So, if you’re on I-5, you take the Oakridge exit,” he explained. “Do you know where that is? I think it’s around exit [estimate of exit number] or [estimate of other exit number].”
“Oh, okay,” I said, pretending I knew what he was talking about. “I know where that is.”
“Oh good!” He said.” So, instead of following the road left, like you would to get to Dexter, you follow it right.” He proceeded to give me a long and detailed explanation of how to get to the hot springs, all of which I have forgotten now. There were a lot of “turn left”s and “then turn right”s. After quite a while of this, he stopped.
“Okay,” I said, “What’s the story?”
“Well, we went there the other day.” And that was the end of his story.
Maybe it’s not fair to compare world building to elaborate directions, but that’s how they make me feel. Or, at least, how they make my eyelids feel (heavy). Sometimes directions are a necessary evil, and I’ll admit that some world building is necessary, but I like to get there in the quickest, simplest way possible. In Earthsea once I get past the directions and to what I consider the actual story, I like it, but the directions still made me fall asleep.(less)
I guess, sometimes our emotional bones need to be re-broken in order to set them right. Maybe this was a common experience for those who read this boo...moreI guess, sometimes our emotional bones need to be re-broken in order to set them right. Maybe this was a common experience for those who read this book, but a lot of its most emotional points were like reading a bizarre dream about the last few years of my own life. I’m not going to go into it because that would be, like, an unacceptable amount of over-share, even for me. That’s just to say that I have no ability to be objective about it. This story: real or not real?
I love Mockingjay like I love The Prophet and Catcher in the Rye, and of course anything by Willa Cather and Dostoevsky. They’re all books that have at one time or another spoken to me on such a personal and emotional level that they mean something more than writing or storytelling. That is only a personal reaction, not a recommendation. Actually, it makes me not want anyone else to read the book ever. I want to keep it as my own because I don’t want to hear a bunch of fools say they think the names are funny or something like that.
There are many threads of meaning and themes you could take from this story, but the one that strikes me as profound right now, a few days removed from my reading, is, why are we so goddamn powerless? Is it apathy or, maybe, discouragement? Are we powerless against other people or government systems, or are people and systems only symbols of our general powerlessness against the universe? Throughout this book, there is a steady rhythm of characters reminding Katniss of her power and describing her power to her.
I did some research recently about fundamental attribution error, and I've probably already told you about it, but I'm going to again. Basically, the theory of fundamental attribution error says that we think that we make our own life choices because we are tossed in the wind and the crazy, random happenstance of outside forces makes us who we are. But we think other people make the choices they do because of natural inclination. Like, someone who murders might think she did so because of an unplanned series of unfortunate events, but an observer thinks the killer did so because she is naturally a murderer. This story creates an interesting contrast between the way Katniss sees herself and the way others see her. She only sees the random events that lead her to become the symbol of rebellion against tyrrany. Others see her as the natural embodiment of the symbol. And I think this says a lot about all of us and the things we choose to do or to ignore. I think Collins would say we are powerless because we have abandoned our power, or perhaps because we don't remind each other that we have power.
There are some beautiful moments in other stories, like The House of Flying Daggers and Hamlet, where the tragedy of the conflict culminates in good friends battling each other. Nominally, they fight out of some shallow sense of vengeance, but ultimately I think it’s more the total injustice of loss that motivates them. I think they fight because if you can fight you are still alive, and sometimes that’s all that’s left. Maybe what Dylan Thomas meant when he said, "Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light." There are a lot of moments in this book that make me think of that image of friends fighting each other, but really fighting something more abstract and unconquerable. We fight, maybe, as some kind of animal scream in the face of the cold universe. But, Collins also shows how we fight because of the warm arms and kind hearts of the people we love. We fight because we are wrong and evil and stupid and cunning and loving and compassionate and fierce. There’s no simple answer.
Reading the other books in this series, I identified on a personal level with the political and cultural commentary. The way Collins held up a mirror to my own apathy and opulence was a slap in the face. This book meant so much to me emotionally and personally that I hate to pretend that my reaction is political at all. This book, to me, was the story of what happens when suddenly the person you trusted the most in the world sees everything you do as evil. I don't think I've ever seen someone write about that, and I was totally unprepared for the experience of reading it. Do you become evil because you've lost that person? Does their definition of you become your own? Do you sacrifice everything to repair the relationship? If they don't know what's real, how do you? It was so beautiful and tragic to watch that in this book, and it resonated on such a personal level with me, that after reading it I had to rebuild a lot of how I see myself.
On the other hand, I feel like it is important to acknowledge the cultural/political side of this story, and that, while this series is stylized, it is not much of a step away from reality. It, like all of Collins’ writing that I have read so far, is about adults training children to kill children. And that’s what we do, right? In Africa, the Middle East, Russia, America, in uniform and out of uniform, we train children to kill children.
I’m sure you’ve all already seen the wikileak about the American soldiers shooting the Reuters photographers and later wounding children who were riding in the ambulance coming to help the photographers. If you haven’t seen it yet, the linked article also links to the video. One of the most disturbing things to me about that video is how the soldiers laugh. Real or not real? I couldn’t watch the whole thing. When people get in fights on the listserv at school, we call it a “flame war.” Do we call it that here on GR? Anyway, a student posted that video to the listserv last spring, asking, if that video is something that we now know about, how many other incidents like this have happened and not been released to the public? That post started an outrageous flame war on the listserv, in which a couple of the military guys threatened the poster. People who I generally respect and even look up to in some ways said things like, "This is your final warning!" and argued that it is unacceptable to question people in uniform because without their sacrifices, we wouldn’t have the freedom to question them. Even aside from the circular logic, that argument just makes me go ballistic. And I think that is exactly the labyrinth of war that Collins writes about.
Everything she did here is beautiful, even, at times, poetic. I love that she didn’t glorify the rebels, and I love the image of communism she gives as much as her version of capitalism. It makes sense that she published this story in three parts, but I think it could also be read as one whole. I love her characters and her thoughtful messages. I love the way her relationships fall apart and grow back together. I almost had to stop reading this book partway through because it was too painful. But I think it was a stern talking-to that I needed. This story real or not real? For me, real. (less)
It is difficult for me to say why I found I Capture the Castle so personally meaningful, which may mean that I will be falling all over myself in this...moreIt is difficult for me to say why I found I Capture the Castle so personally meaningful, which may mean that I will be falling all over myself in this review. When I first started reading I was bored and feared that the poverty of the characters would become dirty and depressing for its own sake, as in Angela's Ashes. Instead, it's more like a lovely BBC movie where people are always chewing with their mouth open, but somehow it is only charming. At first I resisted liking anything about it, including Cassandra's repeated use of the word "capture", but now I find myself thinking about how to describe this or that and involuntarily using the word "capture" in my thoughts. The story is at times screwball and at times elegant but always delightful and completely won me over.
Perhaps part of the reason I resisted this book is that I came to it thinking it would be romance (because of the movie poster cover of the book, which says something like, "A well-loved classic that has become the most romantic movie of the year" - hate those movie poster covers), but it is actually, more than anything, a coming of age story. I say this because I think that whether you prefer coming-of-age or romance, it helps to know what you're getting into when you start a book. In my experience, romantic novels solve the problems of life by bringing characters together in true love. I Capture the Castle is written through Cassandra's eyes, so it does not rely on romantic satisfaction to tell the story, as, perhaps, it would have if it were told by another character in the same book. Rather, like any good coming of age story, develops through revelations of the unreliability of people around Cassandra and her discovery her own independence and capabilities.
I must confess that what first hooked me on this book was Simon's beard. I have said that I am a sucker for a good fish story, and it turns out that I think I am a sucker for a good beard story, too. I thought the girls' fascination and horror over his beard were both hilarious and correct. I wonder why I don't see beards in stories more often. Really, when anyone I have known has a beard, it comes up in conversation almost any time the person is mentioned - and rightly so. I once asked a friend of mine, who had a bushy beard before he met his fiance, why he would have chosen to grow it out like that. He said that the reason any man who can grow a big bushy beard should is that the bigger your beard, the more authority you have over people in general and specifically over other men. He said there is something almost magical about having a big bushy beard that makes other people have to do whatever you want. I told him that was absolutely silly. Then, about a week later I was at the grocery store deciding which line to go through, and one of the checkers, who was otherwise very ordinary looking, had an enormous, bushy beard. I instinctively went to his line, and then a second later was shocked to realized that I had only done that because of the beard. I don't know if that proves my friend's point, but it has to mean something. I wonder if the castle girls weren't experiencing something like this beard-hypnosis in the beginning of the novel.
To go ahead and beat this beard point to death: I also thought it was lovely how Dodie Smith developed the beard's story. I always see authors showing the physical changes love supposedly brings to women, but not men. The women are pale and thin until they fall in love, when suddenly they become healthy looking. In I Capture the Castle Simon looks suspiciously like Satan, until he falls in love and shaves the beard. Brilliant! Also, it has the self-serving overtones of Elizabeth Bennet's visit to Pemberly in Pride and Prejudice, when the mansion shows Mr. Darcy's manners in a different light. Beardless Simon makes even his actions when bearded much less sinister. Love it.
You may not believe me, if you have read this far, when I say that Simon's beard was not what was personally meaningful to me about this story. Not surprisingly, I think it was Cassandra herself who seemed so profound. In many ways I did not identify with her, but I loved her. I found myself crying at times, not necessarily because her growing pains revealed my own, but only in sympathy for this new friend I found, who I love so much. I loved how wise and kind and scrappy she was. I actually loved every character in this novel, though, as they all had some kind of magical and hilarious individuality. It is tempting to copy some of the most beautiful moments here, but instead I think you should just read the book. On the one hand, I am sad that I did not read this in high school, when I think it may have been a more cathartic experience, but I wonder if its honesty might have hurt my feelings then. As it is, I found it both refreshing and comforting.(less)
I went to see Inglourious Basterds a couple of times this past month, and there is that scene where Eli Roth and Omar Doom are in the theater, and the...moreI went to see Inglourious Basterds a couple of times this past month, and there is that scene where Eli Roth and Omar Doom are in the theater, and they dress themselves up to look like waiters and then whip around the corner and kill the two Nazi guards to some funny Ennio Morriconi(ish?), spaghetti-western sounding music. And everybody in the theater laughs, and then the film cuts to Hitler laughing, watching a movie of a Nazi soldier killing Americans. It’s one of those great story-telling moments where I’m nice and comfortable and morally superior, until I realize that actually I’m exactly the same as someone I think is Evil. There was a moment when I first saw Merchant of Venice that was like that, and I was depressed for a month after I read Notes from the Underground because of the same type of experience. I don’t know where you get that brand of story-telling ability, but Suzanne Collins has it coming out of her ears, in the sort of young adult variety.
Catching Fire was maybe not as striking as the first book in this series, The Hunger Games, in making me disturbed about myself, but it definitely had its moments. Also, I was in my second week of law school and had just gotten back from an exhausting wedding when I read it, so I might not have had the capacity to self-reflect that I normally do. If you don’t know already, even though you should know, the premise of this series is a that in the future, post-apocalyptic world of the super-badass Katniss Everdeen, one rich city controls twelve poor-to-starving cities that produce all of the goods for the rich city. In order to keep the poor cities in fear, the rich city requires each of the poor cities to send one teenage boy and one teenage girl as tributes to play the Hunger Games. In the Hunger Games the kids have to kill each other until there is one survivor, who gets to party for the rest of his/her life but never really feels like partying because everything’s so fucked up. Usually they go crazy, if they didn’t start out that way. It’s very Lord of the Flies, and yes it is the same premise as Battle Royale, but not as determinedly nasty as those two books. Also, girl action hero!
Anyway, a couple of days after I finished this book, I was spacing off instead of briefing cases, and I started thinking about the description of the capital city that controls the other cities. There is a part where Katniss and another character have to go to a party at the capital, and there are as many amazing foods as they can imagine. It’s a big party, and they’re celebrities, and everyone loves them. They have one bite of every kind of food, so that they can taste everything, but unfortunately they get full. One of their entourage explains to them that there are puke closets, so that everyone can keep eating for the whole night, and our two characters suddenly step back from the party and remember their families and neighbors, who are starving while the capital lives in decadence. I was thinking about that and how the shallow people in the capital city were just as culpable for the evil in their society as the military that imposed starvation on the cities, and then, suddenly, I realized, duh, she’s talking about me. This story is really about the global economy, and (passive, consumption-driven U.S. citizen that I am) I’m not the hero.
So, that’s about three times this month that I’ve been on the side of terrorists. I don’t know whether that means story-tellers are gettin’ pretty tricky, or if it just means I think there’s a problem with the way stuff is. Or that, like, I’m becoming a rager, or something. (FBI, if you’re reading this, JK about this whole paragraph. LOL!)
When I was working my 8-5 job last year, I started listening to some iTunesU classes while I was doing my work so that my brain wouldn’t die. One of them was given by Carolyn Marvin at Stanford, and it was called “True Colors: Myth, Magic, and the American Flag.” The premise, to summarize very briefly, was that for any culture to stay together, the culture requires a blood sacrifice. This article goes into more detail about nationalism and blood sacrifice. She really convincingly pointed out how, civilized though we think we are, blood sacrifice in modern Western culture is not really significantly different than tribal human sacrifices. It’s a seriously creepy theory, but I’m not kidding when I say that she’s right. Really, listen to the lecture. So, I’ve spent a lot of time in the past couple of weeks doing a mental compare/contrast of the U.S. with this futuristic dystopia. We don’t come off looking too good, guys.
Obviously these are really complicated topics, but nothing seems as simple as “violence is not the answer” or, on the other side of the argument, “destroy civilization.” I’m not positive what the right answer is, but I’d like to find out. I think Suzanne Collins’s books should be taught in high school social studies classes, so maybe we could get some young brains working on this problem. How do we effectively refuse to benefit from universally destructive and dehumanizing trade practices, but still live healthy and productive lives?
So, go read everything Suzanne Collins ever wrote (including the episodes of Clarissa Explains It All because that show is awesome) and reflect on international trade and the global economy. I don’t know if you’ll be a better person for it, but I think so. Maybe after you do all that reading you can help me figure out some way for us not to be Evil. (less)
For a long time now, I’ve wanted to rewrite my review of The Hunger Games so that I could tell you why I don’t just love this series, but why I also t...moreFor a long time now, I’ve wanted to rewrite my review of The Hunger Games so that I could tell you why I don’t just love this series, but why I also think it’s important. It is beautiful for the unflinching way it shows you, as a reader, your own willingness to disregard people who are different from you - how you are the Capitol audience. But, it is important as a story about girls. I had not initially thought about articulating that point because it seemed so obvious to me, and I am bad at recognizing my own assumptions. Lately, though, I have seen so many people, both men and women, acting as though this remarkable book is a piece of fluff that I realized maybe what I love most about The Hunger Games is not as obvious as it seems. To me, this series is important because it is a landmark departure from the traditional story about girls.
Sidebar: if you are inclined to now google the word "fleshlight," I encourage you to consult the urban dictionary definition here before doing that, as the google results will probably be NSFW and also NSF those of you whose parents might check your browsing history. Do parents know how to do that? Sorry for the sidebar, I am just intending to make an explicit point, and now I am feeling uncomfortable about what that explicit point might mean to the target audience of this book. Girls, you are probably badass like Katniss, and you are definitely not a fleshlight.
So, in all of those links, I have tried to include books written by men and by women because I think that women think of ourselves this way almost as often as men think of us this way. The link from The Ugly Truth, for example, shows both a man and a woman treating women like fleshlights. I have also included both books I love and books I hate because, ultimately, I do think girls adopt this story about themselves, and I also think we can pretty easily identify with a male protagonist and disregard female characters who look nothing like humans. For example, The Sun Also Rises is one of my favorite books in the whole world, even though it does not contain any women who resonate with my experience of humans. And I don't think it's necessarily bad that I can enjoy stories where women are only fleshlights, as long as I can still be whoever I want to be without a positive role model. I think it's good to enjoy stories and take what we can get from them, and so I don't regret that I love The Sun Also Rises.
In seeing some male reactions to The Hunger Games, I am reminded that most men do not identify with female protagonists the way women have been trained to identify with male protagonists. This seems like a huge disadvantage for men to be in, to me, and if you are a man reading this review, I would ask you to check out your bookshelves. How many female authors are on your shelves? How many of the books those authors wrote have no central male character? If you have a minute after that, check the shelves of a woman you are friends with and see how many of her books were written by men or have no central female character. Odds are the results will be pretty different.
The Hunger Games is such a groundbreaking and deliberate example of a woman’s perspective on war and family and even men that it floors me. I think it partly floors me because, other than Buffy, I can’t think of another example of a female character who really fights for herself in such an obvious and hopeful way. Katniss is strong and broken, and powerful in her brokenness. Collins’s image of a woman’s perspective is not, admittedly, as effortless as Moira Young’s in Blood Red Road, but its deliberateness has its own value.
It is not an accident that the story shows Katniss’s emotional growth and that Peeta, as a more emotionally whole person, facilitates her emotional growth. It is not an accident that the story does not discuss the effect Katniss has on the erectness of Peeta’s and Gale’s penises. The first is not an accident because in reality, men do not have to be the emotional cowards that the stories I’ve linked to above make them out to be. Masculinity does not have to mean emotional cowardice. The second is not an accident because the story is not from Peeta and Gale’s perspectives. Despite widespread rumors to the contrary, it is my experience that women pretty seldom think about their effect on men’s penises. Hopefully, we never think of our primary purpose in life, in the way so many stories think of it, as making penises erect. Hopefully, we never think of ourselves as gadgets that are super fun for other people.
There are so many reasons I love The Hunger Games series, and all of this is one I wouldn’t have initially even thought to say. I saw this Eleanor Roosevelt quote earlier this month, and it said, “It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.” I think The Hunger Games is a candle in the overall dark narrative of girls’ perspective on life. Yes, it is also a poignant critique of reality TV and Western callousness about the catastrophes caused by industrialization in the developing world, but that, too, resonates with me in many ways because of its remarkably feminine voice. It absolutely makes sense to me that this book is not for everyone because of its violence, but I still think that it is objectively important because it shows a perspective that seems authentically feminine to me – that talks like a girl, not like a sexy, fancy gadget. I’m not saying that in my opinion girls don’t or shouldn’t ever think about being sexy or erect penises, I’m just saying that it is my experience that we think and care about many, many more things than penises, clean houses, and food, and very, very few stories are willing to tell you about that. The Hunger Games is one that does, and it does so in way that is beautiful and important. (less)
It is a tribute to Jeanette Walls that I could not get through this book without comparing it dozens of times to The Glass Castle, with The Glass Cast...moreIt is a tribute to Jeanette Walls that I could not get through this book without comparing it dozens of times to The Glass Castle, with The Glass Castle coming off as its genius granddaughter or fashionable little sister. I probably should have read this first, as a child or teenager, but it’s too late for that now. No regrets! I could not help wondering why Betty Smith wrote this story as fiction rather than memoir, and the fact of it being fiction made me notice a lack of complexity in Francie’s character. Smith did not love, admire, and criticize Francie in the same way she did the Rommely sisters or Johnny Nolan. I am sure that it is because, although Smith uses the omniscient third person, Francie is Smith, and the story is thoroughly from Francie’s point of view. It is difficult to treat yourself as a fictional character. At the same time, the comparison of the two books is also a tribute to Jeanette Walls because A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a very wonderful book with many, many beautiful moments. I enjoy photographs that take something ordinary or dreary in real life and turn it into something interesting and beautiful, and this book is the written equivalent of that.
There is a section of this story when Francie meets with her English teacher, in which Smith states one of her theories on writing, and it has stuck with me. Always an exceptional writer, Francie has recently stopped writing romantic, idealized descriptions of things she’s never seen, and begun writing stories about her father’s alcoholism. Her teacher dislikes these stories and tells Francie that successful writing is always about something beautiful and better than life. This is a major conflict for Francie because her father was a beautiful, better-than-life person to her despite his alcoholism, and she feels her teacher’s judgment of their poverty. She also finds that once she has begun writing about real things, it would be superficial to write about anything else.
This exchange was thought-provoking for me because I generally land on the side of Francie’s teacher in this argument. I read for pleasure, and so when an author seems absolutely bent on being vulgar and unpleasant, it makes me angry. I like for fiction to be beautiful and better than life. At the same time, Smith made me realize that my argument is a myopic generalization. Smith’s descriptions of the Nolan family’s poverty and Johnny Nolan’s alcoholism are beautiful and delicate, even though the facts of both are not beautiful or delicate. The descriptions are even important, because it is so easy to oversimplify classes of people into noble or lazy, rather than seeing the complexity of individual situations. I’m glad that Smith did not take her English teacher’s and my advice.
While I enjoyed most of this book, I did not love it. I think this was because I did not love Francie, or even have a very definite image of who she was. I loved all of her family members and the stories of their lives. I found the Rommely family wonderful and fascinating, even Katie’s evil father. I would never argue that this was not an important book, and I am glad I read it. As fiction and even as a coming of age story, there was not a specific plot point drawing me through the book, as most of the events were pretty well foretold from the first 100 pages. I do not think this was a failing on Smith’s part, because I believe her intention was more photographic – a series of snap shots of life in Brooklyn before World War I. I am looking forward to watching the movie, though, as I think I will benefit from having a face for Francie. (less)