I originally read A Wrinke In Time back in elementary school as part of a reading assignment. I remember being impressed by its science fiction trappi...moreI originally read A Wrinke In Time back in elementary school as part of a reading assignment. I remember being impressed by its science fiction trappings (rare enough in our assigned reading books) and the enigmatic chapter-cliffhanger contained within the single line of dialoge, "By the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract." Later chapters in the book didn't stay with me as well, possibly due to their increasingly surreal and dream-like qualities, but I came away with a perception that I've held onto that this was a really enjoyable book.
Looking for something sleep-inducing for my small daughter's pre-bedtime story, I picked out this favorite from my childhood, knowing that at a year and a half she wasn't going to be able to follow along, but I used funny voices and relied on the monotonous tones of reading aloud to lull her to sleep. It beats reading six or seven repetitions of "Goodnight Moon" per night, I reasoned. But in re-visiting the book I was somewhat surprised to find how much of the original story I remembered and how much I had forgottoen.
A Wrinkle In Time follows the adventures of Meg, a plain girl who struggles to fit in at school and in her family, feeling overshadowed by her brilliant scientist parents, envious of her easy-going twin brothers and protective but a little unnerved by her preternaturally insightful younger brother Charles Wallace. Her father has been missing for over a year, a source of tension within the family and the community since everyone who isn't in the immediate family presumes the father has run off and left them behind. But then Charles Wallace befriends an eccentric woman named Mrs. Whatsit and her companions, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which, and they may have information about Meg's father, if only Meg could figure out what a tesseract is and why Mrs. Whatsits mention of it rattles her mother so.
Soon Meg, Charles Wallace and a popular boy from school named Calvin are drawn by the three strange ladies into a cosmic adventure to rescue the father, confront a threat that is pure evil and discover the truth about the nature of the universe and their own inherent abilities. I felt after re-reading that a lot of why I couldn't ever describe the latter half of the book was due to the heady nature of the material there, with the concepts of goodness and evil, physics and mathematics, redemption and confidence swirled into a sort of wild interplanetary dream-sequence. I'm sure as a kid I was really impressed by all of it but I must have had a hard time picturing a lot of what L'Engle describes which is why it didn't stay with me. Even reading it again now as an adult I occasionally struggled to visualize the more fantastic elements present in the book since certain adjectives don't necessarily blend with the mental images the author's descriptions conjured. (view spoiler)[For example, the true form of Mrs. Whatsit is described as something like a centaur with rainbow wings and a giant head, but the characters find her beautiful and no matter how I try I can't seem to formulate a beautiful creature with a giant head on a centaur body. (hide spoiler)]
A Wrinkle In Time works primarily on the level of being a book for children that doesn't treat children with the sort of condescending attitude present in a lot of work for that particular audience. L'Engle presumes that her simplified (if occasionally flawed) explanations of physics are sufficient to get her point across and trusts that the audience will be able to follow along. The innocent depiction of love throughout and the messages of being true to yourself and respecting uniqueness are welcome and the conclusion is remarkably satisfying.
What doesn't work as well in the novel is the sort of random and unexplained limitations the three witches seem to possess which work as kind of a reverse deus ex machina since they seem to have cosmic powers at their command but somehow the underprepared and inexperienced group of children are the only ones who can combat IT (the sort of vague, pure evil that half serves as the book's antagonist)? It doesn't undo the story exactly but it is a pretty pivotal consideration.
I don't think in sum the book exactly held up to my recollections upon a second reading, but that doesn't mean I didn't like it. I found it to be whimsical, imaginative and thoughtful though I think I would have liked for it to be a bit more fun. It's a very somber book for one that has such a sense of awe within its pages and while I realize the nature of the task set upon Meg, Charles Wallace and Calvin is grim, there seems to be some missed opportunity to add some levity so it doesn't get quite so oppressive once the conflict with IT kicks into full gear. Still, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend this book to anyone (child or adult) and I've even sought out the sequels which I never even knew existed as a kid.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
There is a tricky bit of narrative navigation required to enjoy The Hunger Games, which is the notion that at some point an entire society would eithe...moreThere is a tricky bit of narrative navigation required to enjoy The Hunger Games, which is the notion that at some point an entire society would either be so put-upon by an oppressive government or have evolved such a dearth of basic human instincts like protecting our children that they would succumb to the notion of an annual kill-or-be-killed television event featuring kids as young as twelve years old. Suzanne Collins attempts here and there to weave that dichotomy into the prose but by the end it comes across as flimsy and ultimately unrealistic. The rewards to the victors aren't high enough, the penalty to the losers is too unthinkable. Principally, the whole psychological control angle that seems to be designed to suffice as explanation for everyone's pliability is flawed because it wouldn't really be in any government's interest to try to elaborately encourage the oppressed to enjoy the instrument of their oppression, which is how The Hunger Games are presented.
Nevertheless, if you can simply accept that the premise is somehow realistic (or, as I suspect, that revelations in later books will indicate that the passive acceptance portrayed in this volume is not at all uniform), there is something amazing happening within the pages of The Hunger Games.
Collins's novel follows Katniss Everdeen, a tough, no-nonsense teenager who hails from as close to the bottom rung of society as possible. She makes herself an outlaw just by the simple act of trying to feed her family, by hunting outside her district boundaries with her partner Gale. Her world is all about survival: Getting the next meal, hunting enough extra to trade for other necessities and keeping her mom and beloved little sister safe. But the reaping is coming, the day when each district draws the name of one unlucky girl tribute and one unlucky boy tribute to participate in the annual Hunger Games, a brutal contest that pits the dual tributes from each of the twelve districts against each other in a fight to the death.
Katniss ends up as District 12's girl tribute, along with an enigmatic boy named Peeta whose past is intertwined with her own. She feels she owes the boy an un-repayable kindness but she is reluctant to let her emotions enter the picture because she knows that if she is to survive, it means Peeta has to die. Typically, being a tribute is a death sentence. But as her training begins and Katniss sizes up the competition, she begins to wonder if she might actually be able to pull of the unthinkable. But then there's the problem of Peeta and what it means for him if she's to emerge as the victor.
The plot is nothing particularly new, but that's okay since it's all in the execution with The Hunger Games (pardon the pun). Katniss is a believable and likable protagonist, she's flawed and conflicted but fierce and scrappy. Her tendency to get sucked up in pageantry and struggle with self-loathing afterward rings genuine, and her impotent bitterness at the system reflects the reader's own. Other characters are remarkably well-realized as well, considering the story unfolds entirely through the eyes of Katniss.
What's most remarkable is Collins's ability to make readers truly care about the other characters despite a relative lack of time devoted to them in the text. Katniss's sister Prim, the young girl from District 11 that reminds Katniss of Prim named Rue, the talented stylist that shows Katniss compassion and humanity and even the drunken mentor that is Haymitch. The fates of these characters feel like they matter with just a few pages devoted to each and the result is that when the book turns grim—and because of its nature it is bound to eventually—the tension and emotional investment is extremely high. Largely this is achieved through Collins's ability to let the reader experience the world of Hunger Games vicariously and empathetically through Katniss. Her triumphs become the audience's triumphs, her losses are ours. This is, a lot of the time, an incredibly emotional book.
The one aspect, and perhaps the most critical, that does struggle a bit with reader connection is the complex relationship that develops between Peeta and Katniss. It is occasionally difficult to reconcile the internal tug-of-war Katniss has over her feelings (or lack thereof) for Peeta considering we have the exact same information she does and it's the one instance where it's not easy to empathize because the audience falls for Peeta long before Katniss, if in fact she ever does (it's not really a spoiler to say the relationship is left un-resolved). Some effort is made to frame the relationship as a love triangle with the third point being Gale, but he's such a minor character throughout that it's hard to really see him much as competition with the affable and devoted Peeta.
As a whole work, The Hunger Games is primarily a gritty but gripping tale which does a surprisingly good job of having a social message without ever being preachy or overt about it. Katniss's description of her daily struggle to survive and the offhanded marvels she finds when she's brought to the Capitol to compete in the Games raise some difficult questions about the nature of decadence and casual regard for basic necessities so long as they are plentiful while conveniently ignoring the people who aren't so lucky not just in Panem, Hunger Games' fictional country, but in our own modern world. The contrast between first world excess and third world brutality is brought into relief by the Capitol's largess and the lower Districts' poverty.
A book that manages to elicit strong emotions (a particular sequence about halfway through the arena section nearly moved me to tears), forces one to ask difficult questions (I'm certain the concepts of wastefulness and greed in our everyday lives that the book forced into my mind will linger with me for weeks to come) and is just a captivating tale to boot (I tore through the book in about a day and a half) is one that shouldn't be missed, even if you have to force the suspension of disbelief just a little. (less)
For an author who I've heard of spoken in such reverent tones for so long before finally acclimating myself to, my first exposure to Salman Rushdie's...moreFor an author who I've heard of spoken in such reverent tones for so long before finally acclimating myself to, my first exposure to Salman Rushdie's work was not at all revelatory. In retrospect, starting with Rushdie's first novel, Grimus, and one the author himself has spoken ill of, may not have been the most prudent way to experience the work of a storied novelist. And, truth be told, literary fiction as read voluntarily is kind of a new engagement for me though my initial choice to try Grimus (as opposed to, say, Midnight's Children) was based on the fact that Grimus is marketed as science fiction, the sort of genre book I gravitate toward. But that first couple of pages nearly stopped me before I'd really begun.
I'll say these negative things up front, to get them out of the way: Form-wise and mechanically, I think the choices made in Grimus (which I understand now may be much more common in this vein of novel than I realized) are pompous and unnecessary. The eschewing of standard quotation marks in favor of initializing dashes and then mixing narrative with dialogue, the flipping of perspective and point of view without consideration, the excessive use of the semicolon—all probably nothing more in the end than stylistic choices but ones which I feel detract far more than they add to the prose. The lyrical nature of the writing and the deft hand at description suffice (eventually) to reveal that this is not an unaccomplished writer struggling with basic composition but rather someone altogether too bored with convention to be concerned with trifles like readability. That's both a criticism and a praise, because the truth is that Rushdie does display great skill in crafting this novel, but his willingness to force readers to work harder than they should in order to identify this skill is little more than ego-stroking.
Yet, Grimus did eventually win me over. The story chronicles Flapping Eagle, an outcast from his people because of circumstances beyond his control surrounding his birth. He becomes immortal. He spends a lot of time sailing, living, man-whoring, eventually deciding he wants to die. He arrives via inter-dimensional travel in a place called Calf Island and meets two ugly people, living in a hut near the sea. He disturbs their lives, and is lead to the town of K, where other immortals congregate. He disturbs the town there, as well. It's difficult to summarize the plot exactly because Grimus is less about what happens as it is about the people it happens to and the reactions of all the other characters to the spectre of Flapping Eagle as he moves destructively in and through their lives.
At its core the novel is symbolic, high-minded and a book to make you consider things. Things like death, things like certainty, things like obsession. Rushdie plays with language, plays with names, plays with constructs of time and perspective. There is fun in the book, with notions of pan-dimensional stone frogs called Gorfs who play a game with order, with fleeting romances and quests that seem sort of heroic but really aren't. There is plenty of tragedy in Grimus, because there is tragedy in Flapping Eagle, and tragedy in K, and tragedy in immortality. There is a worrisome amount of sex, too, elevated at times into an enduring and unified force which seems to contain power and motive and a destructive power that nearly rivals Flapping Eagle's existence. Perhaps Rushdie is trying to say something about the weight, the heft we lend to sex. Perhaps he just likes writing about people getting it on.
And that's the mesmerizing thing about Grimus: You don't really know which parts are significant and which are insignificant and which are just there. It's, in a way, like Waiting For Godot, trafficking in literary negative space enough that you can find meaning in small passages or decide that moments which seem to be pivotal to the plot are disposable. As much as I disliked the way Rushdie's mechanical style forced effort on my part to parse the text, I loved that his writing forced effort to discern what was being said behind what was being described. Is he saying something about modern society when he describes the way the citizens of K use obsession to drown out the maddening din of the Grimus effect? Is the Grimus effect a symbol for information overload? For technology? For spirituality? I think the answers to all are both "yes" as well as "no."
The heaviest complaint I have with Grimus is that its ending is weak and entirely too convenient. Not convenient in the sense that the characters all get off scot free (quite the opposite in fact) but in that it provides a nice little bookend, and everyone kind of accidentally gets what they want. It's not "and it was all a dream," because it neither re-casts the narrative in the light of irrelevancy nor tries to shock the reader, but it's almost as bad in the way it takes all the interesting ideas and symbolic food-for-thought and suddenly makes them mere constructs, un-symbols that are now literal facets, of and exclusive to the world that Grimus creates. And Rushdie takes those elements which are no longer applicable to the real world the reader inhabits and tucks them away on a shelf and seems to simply ask, "Did you like the story?" Which, to me, misses the point entirely.(less)
As much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games, the conceit that these brutal gladiatorial contests involving children would go unchallenged by the populace fe...moreAs much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games, the conceit that these brutal gladiatorial contests involving children would go unchallenged by the populace felt forced. Having now read the sequel to that novel, I see that the bigger failing of Suzanne Collins's first entry in the series wasn't the notion of the Hunger Games, but the sense of how oppressive the ruling bodies of Panem really are. I think perhaps if a more directly sinister, power-mad aura had been conveyed (as opposed the a sort of generically uncaring, faceless regime that comes across in book one) the suspension of disbelief wouldn't have been as difficult to achieve.
The great news is that book two eradicates all that by building the tension—which was already feverish through most of the first installment—through a process of thoroughly vilifying the Capitol. The indignation Katniss feels is palpable, and her impotence to affect the plight of the populace, a plight she begins to feel responsible for through a very convincing transference process, is transferred in parallel to the reader. Collins makes every travesty sting, and she even gives a human face to direct the loathing in the slimy character of President Snow. By the time Katniss is drawn back into the arena for an unprecedented victors-only edition of the Hunger Games, it doesn't even feel surprising, much less unreasonable that the Capitol would casually throw its beacons of hope back into the fire.
Catching Fire basically takes everything that was not quite perfect about the first book and fixes it, then blows the doors off the whole concept. Gale becomes a much more well-rounded character here, as do several other secondaries like Haymitch and Cinna. Even some of Katniss's reluctance toward Peeta, which felt a bit discordant in book one considering how much of the rest of her perspective was effortlessly transmitted to the reader, gets a bit more rational in feel. There is even more of the breakneck pacing than in the previous book and four hundred pages fly by as if it were a magazine article. This is how escapist reading should feel: Visceral, emotional, exhilarating.
Two teeny tiny complaints that don't truly detract from the book are that it does suffer from second-in-a-trilogy syndrome in that it doesn't even come close to having a proper conclusion, worse even than the cliffhanger ending of The Hunger Games. The second is that there is a touch of one-upsmanship happening where events from book one are mirrored here only (supposedly) bigger and more spectacular. In a way that isn't unwelcome in the least since after finishing the first book I was saying, "More, please!" But occasionally there is a sense, especially once Peeta and Katniss end up back in the Capitol preparing for the next games, that this is rehashing what we've already experienced.
Still, the narrative motivation for the parallels are clear enough and it serves the development of the characters and the story so it's picking nits. This series has been great so far and is just getting better, I can't wait for the last chapter. (less)
For the first few hours after I finished Mockingjay, the final chapter in the Hunger Games trilogy, I thought I just hated the ending. But as I reflec...moreFor the first few hours after I finished Mockingjay, the final chapter in the Hunger Games trilogy, I thought I just hated the ending. But as I reflect more on it, I think the entire book was disappointing, even leading up to the final 50 or so pages.
I won't spoil the end, but here's the problem I have with it: Up through the finale of Catching Fire (as stunted as it was), even though we see all the events through Katniss's eyes, her own negative self-image is not what is reflected back from the supporting cast. Throughout the first two installments even when she loathes herself and struggles with her own actions, we see what others see in her, the good they find, the inspiration she ignites. There is a great scene in Catching Fire where Peeta teases Katniss because she can't see the purity in herself that others do (and occasionally find resentful). In that moment we understand what Peeta is talking about, even when she can't. Katniss is a survivor and she does what she has to to protect her family, her loved ones, even herself. But she's motivated by more than just cold self-preservation, she also wants to do the right thing and her actions—even murderous ones—are never beyond the reader's ability to sympathize.
Where Mockingjay breaks down is that it transforms Katniss from desperate survivor, justifiable murderess, into a stone sociopath. The key is that at some early point in the third book, I stopped rooting for her. She spends an excessive amount of time in the book convalescing which destroys the frantic pacing that made The Hunger Games and Catching Fire so ridiculously readable, and while Suzanne Collins makes an effort to repeat a situation similar to the arena for a third time, it fails. I was able to forgive the Quarter Quell for being a contrivance because it had internal consistency and a suitable lead-in but with Mockingjay the motivations are all wrong and the stakes are too far removed, creating a forced atmosphere. The rest of the story involves the war against the Capitol, but it's not a war novel—it maybe should have been.
Broadly speaking you can see that sense of Collins reaching desperately to write herself out of a corner throughout the novel. Characters change drastically because they need to in order to maintain a rough similarity to the structures established in books one and two (the love triangle, the conflicted protagonist, the life-or-death stakes) but that need exists only in the author's head. And even with all that effort, it's still wildly divergent from the previous entries. The result is a book that tries to split the difference between maintaining what the reader has come to expect from the series and needing to be broader in scope to best serve the story. The tepid middle ground results in a muddled, unfocused plot leading to the unsatisfying conclusion.
It's bad enough that the ending results in a main character that is nearly impossible to care about, what's worse is the fact that it feels like an alternate ending from the special features on a DVD: The "dark" take that is interesting in a curious sense but didn't play well with test audiences. You're intrigued by what it could say about the characters, but it doesn't fit well with what we've learned about them so far, leaving you relieved that they stuck with the better, lighter conclusion. Except here, this is the only ending we've got. And there are so many things wrong with it (again, no specific spoilers, just generalizations): Katniss's breaking point could have been handled in a dozen different ways but Collins goes for the jugular and as a result undoes everything that matters not just to Katniss, but the reader as well. She never explains Katniss' actions sufficiently, never contextualizes them so we can get a sense of whether she was justified or maybe will be in the future, never even attempts to make sense of it. And perhaps worst of all, the resolution of the love triangle that has been such a pivotal part of the story until the final pages and epilogue is whipped by in a blur as if it were an afterthought, a non-issue. It's so incredibly flippant that it made me irritated that I had even cared which suitor she would choose to begin with.
Obviously I have affection for the books, the characters and the series as a whole. If not, I wouldn't care the way I do about how it ended. But it reminded me of two other trilogies: One is The Matrix movies, where my low opinion of how the story drew to a close affected my overall perception of the earlier movies that I liked so much. The other is Scott Westerfeld's Uglies trilogy (since expanded), which did the opposite by letting the books change the world without trying to return to the hook from book one, allowing the story to happen naturally. I don't have a problem with Collins choosing to go a darker route with her finale than Westerfeld did (though his isn't exactly a comedy either), but there's dark and then there's dismal. Even worse, it feels rushed and incomplete while being dismal.
What I feel is the most frustrating part is that I don't even feel that a similar outline of this book, expanded differently, would have been as disappointing: Even if the same key events took place with minor revisions it could have been done in a satisfying way. Instead this feels too much like an early draft, one an editor needed to draw big red lines through and say, "Less moping, less grim-for-grim's-sake, more intrigue, more vitality." I still recommend the series, and I'm probably more generous with this entry than I should be on the strength of the first two, but I can't help but warn others that this isn't the conclusion I wanted from a series that I loved for 700 pages and then resented for about the last 200. (less)
Despite a near universal loathing for the ridiculous concessions writers force upon audiences of time travel tales, I love them. I'm not even sure why...moreDespite a near universal loathing for the ridiculous concessions writers force upon audiences of time travel tales, I love them. I'm not even sure why since I so often find myself annoyed when the logic—even the story's internal logic—stumbles, but something keeps me trying them over and over. H. G. Wells's The Time Machine, written over 100 years ago, is probably as deft a treatment of the subject as I've yet encountered.
In large part this is accomplished by avoiding the messy paradoxical elements of visiting the past (other than returning through time to the origin point, all time travel occurs to the future in this novel), and focusing instead on a nineteenth century scientist/scholar visiting a far-flung future in which the evolution of humanity has branched into a parable of class division and a political dissection of, essentially, socialism.
Politics aside, this book does what most good speculative fiction does which is frame a particular thought process into a fantastical story which is both entertaining and thought-provoking at once. I read the entire 128 page book in a few hours which speaks to its readability and found myself enchanted by the descriptions of the Morlocks and the Eloi, the struggle for the narrator (referred to only as "The Time Traveler") to escape his uncertain fate and the reactions by the crowd of dinner guests who form the audience hearing of the Traveler's tale. The bulk of the book is devoted to a quoted first-hand account by the Traveler of his eight-day adventure with the Eloi and Murlocks, but the framing of the story as a spoken-word tale amongst society gentlemen works well to create a particular sense of setting and atmosphere, such that it feels a lot like a valiant campfire tale.
In particular I found the end of the book to be remarkably unkempt—satisfying while being fairly open-ended instead of trying, as too many time travel tales do, to draw to a conclusion a narrative that almost by definition defies beginning and end. It seems almost comical to me that one of the earliest and most drawn-upon sources for time travel fiction turns out to be one of the best but I suppose there really shouldn't be much surprise there. Of course, this is all only true if you focus solely on the nuance of plot and the intrigue inherent in the story itself. The main flaw in the book is that Wells scarcely bothers to create much in the way of character (perhaps this is obvious of a writer who doesn't even bother to name the protagonist); the most well-rounded character of all is an Eloi female named Weena who herself is remarkable only for her devotion to the Traveler. Additionally there is a fairly unnecessary sequence late in the book where the Traveler proceeds beyond the year 802,701 AD and watches as the sun dies, a sequence that defies some commonly understood modern scientific notions and doesn't really add much to the overall tale.
Still, I enjoyed The Time Machine and found it to be, especially for a beleaguered time travel devotee, a pleasant reminder of why this particular subgenre holds fascination in the first place, coming straight from one of the original inspirations.(less)