My freshmen kept talking about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. They hated it. They loved it. They thought I should read it. That was regardless of whetMy freshmen kept talking about Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief. They hated it. They loved it. They thought I should read it. That was regardless of whether they hated or loved it, interestingly enough. So I read it. I’m glad I did.
As I try to write this review, I fear that I’m still too close to the book to sum it up. I think about it and am transported to yesterday, lying on the carpet in my living room in the afternoon sunlight, ignoring the sounds of my dog eating his stuffed toy as I stared at the last pages of the book, willing the story to continue. It’s one of those books that is hard to leave. (And it would have lovely for the story to continue because I’m dying to know how the next few years after the novel’s resolution went. How could they go?! How easy for the author to just jump decades when his characters had to deal in seconds.)
Though unorganized, my thoughts about The Book Thief are an accumulation of positives. The fragmented style of the self-conscious narrator, though seemingly a bit rudimentary at first, grew on me and offered some poignant moments. Liesel, the girl who clings to books for company and answers, writes them and destroys them, loves them and hates them, was--of course--a lovable protagonist (and a strong-willed, fiery heroine!). So many other characters were also memorable and endearing, particularly the gruff Rosa, who threatened to be the standard stifling stand-in matriarch, but fiercely cursed out those expectations and became something better. Also, simply reading a novel about the European WWII front that generally focused on non-Jew Germans was a new experience me and stretched my sympathies in more directions. I must mention “The Word Shaker,” a book within this book, if only to say that it too is hard to leave, and may not ever leave me. I, too, am haunted by humans.
“I know what happens and so do you. It’s the machinations that wheel us there that aggravate, perplex, interest, and astound me.”
“There would be punishment and pain, and there would be happiness, too. That was writing.”
“I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.”
“I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race--that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”...more
A little over halfway through Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story, I began to panic. I had been gathering her bread crumbs--little biA little over halfway through Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black: A Ghost Story, I began to panic. I had been gathering her bread crumbs--little bits here and there about feathers, a flap of wings out the window, a gossamer black, an untimely death. But so many crumbs don’t make a meal. Pages later, the story hit its climax, and I waited like an entranced fledgling, hungry for some answers--more crumbs. I was reading a story that was a story of something else, but the something else was late. My desperate panic mounted, because it all hinged on the resolution. I had stayed through pages on textile manufacturing and funeral props, feverishly transversed alleyways that led to practically nothing, and perused account books with a stern eye, and I deserved to know why. To answer that looming question, Setterfield included the last two paragraphs of her three-hundred page novel.
They were good.
But still disappointing.
Which, I suppose, is kind of the point. But I’m not going to let her get out of this that easily! I wanted more. I deserved more.
I read Bellman and Black because I read The Thirteenth Tale, and, as someone who has read The Thirteenth Tale, I naturally wanted to read every single thing that Diane Setterfield has ever written. Ah, to have The Thirteenth Tale be your first published book. (Kind of like being a football star in college… “everything afterwards savors of anti-climax”.) Of course, as you may have guessed from my previous comments, the plot and resolution of Bellman can’t compete with Thirteenth Tale. And while Setterfield’s beautiful attention to detail is still quite riveting, I’d much rather watch her prose caress a book cover and extoll storytelling than explain the dyeing process or applaud a department store. (Although, let’s be honest: her study of rooks and Victorian funeral consumerism was fascinating.)
I may be a bit disappointed, but I will still do my annual “Diane Setterfield” google search to make sure I read her next book.
“Once you said a thing, it could never be taken back and would be taken up and repeated and altered and told again, no matter how misshapen and out of true.”...more
I want John Green to write the dialogue of my life. (I would also accept Aaron Sorkin, but that's for another review.) On a really, really good day, II want John Green to write the dialogue of my life. (I would also accept Aaron Sorkin, but that's for another review.) On a really, really good day, I might have one enjoyably clever exchange, or craft one deliciously cynical remark, or be shocked by abrupt sincerity, or witness a delicate verbal dance from the painfully poignant to facetious tomfoolery. But the characters of The Fault in Our Stars live, not in the literal heart of Jesus, as one character suggested, but in words. Beautiful, witty, desperate words. It may lack verisimilitude, but I don’t care; even though I can’t believe that a sixteen-year-old could speak with the consistent awesomeness of Hazel Grace, I still want to teach her/parent her/befriend her/be her. (My love of the novel’s dialogue may have led me to occasionally overlook the fairly important detail about terminal disease.)
I know there are segments of teen culture that share books like soul-secrets, joke about semantics, and fall in love with their peers’ diction. (I teach some of them. They wanted me to read this book.) But still, what I loved most about The Fault in Our Stars is that John Green created this fantastic alternate reality where reading is cool, contemplating the nature of life, death, and reality is foreplay, and even parents manage witty rejoinders. I want to live there. Can we build this world?
Maybe it’s mortality. Maybe we need to realize that we too are staring at oblivion.
It makes me happy that my students are reading this book.
“(Witness also that when we talk about literature, we do so in the present tense. When we speak of the dead, we are not so kind.) You do not immortalize the lost by writing about them.”
“The world is not a wish-granting factory.”
“Grief does not change you… It reveals you.”
“It occurred to me that the voracious ambition of humans is never sated by dreams coming true, because there is always the thought that everything might be done better again.”
“We are like a bunch of dogs squirting on fire hydrants. We poison the groundwater with our toxic piss, marking everything MINE in a ridiculous attempt to survive our deaths.” ...more
I'm not enthusiastic about writing my Dust review. Which sadly echoes my feelings about reading it. While the early episodes of the Wool series tuggedI'm not enthusiastic about writing my Dust review. Which sadly echoes my feelings about reading it. While the early episodes of the Wool series tugged at me, Dust became that book I had to finish so that I could be done with the series and move on to something else. Perhaps it is because the early books in the series were all mystery and questions, while this last piece tried to offer sufficient answers and sufficient closure. Both were sufficient. I just wanted more.
I did like that there was a girl who ran around clutching a puppy and a book. Howey somehow put my teacher persona into his story, so that was cool.
Now this is the review I have to finish so I can be done with it and move on to something else. So uninspired. Sorry.
"There was no going back. Apologies weren't welds; they were just an admission that something had been broken. Often between two people."
"That's the problem with the truth... Liars and honest men both claim to have it."
"Were a story ends is nothing more than a snapshot in time, a brief flash of emotion, a pause. How and if it continues is up to us." (from the "Note to the Reader")...more
One of my favorite quotes, attributed to C.S. Lewis (although apparently said by a fictionalized C.S. Lewis in the film Shadowlands--thanks for the diOne of my favorite quotes, attributed to C.S. Lewis (although apparently said by a fictionalized C.S. Lewis in the film Shadowlands--thanks for the disillusionment [AGAIN], Google!), is: "We read to know we are not alone."
That sums up the experience of reading the Hyperbole and a Half book for me. Because while I chuckled at the Simple Dog's stupidity and the Helper Dog's idiosyncrasies, I was reminded of my dog. And so much more so, as the strange, bug-eyed, triangle-haired, curve of a human Brosch shared her shame, depression, awkwardness, silliness, laziness, joys, and disappointments with me, I was freed. Someone else thinks like that too?! I'm not alone. And I laughed because Brosh exists. And wrote about it. And drew it. And I'm not alone....more
I read this book six months ago, and am reminded of why I write these reviews: they help me remember what I read. As it is, The Blind Assassin is a faI read this book six months ago, and am reminded of why I write these reviews: they help me remember what I read. As it is, The Blind Assassin is a faint memory, colored by warm regards.
This is what I remember:
I felt like a researcher, delving into archives and lovingly touching worn pages, trying to put together clues and characters.
Atwood's prose took my breath away.
This is what I marked:
"Gods always come in handy, they justify almost anything."
"Any life is a rubbish dump even while it's being lived, and more so afterwards."
"Farewells can be shattering, but returns are surely worse. Solid flesh can never live up to the bright shadow cast by its absence. Time and distance blur the edges; then suddenly the beloved has arrived, and it's noon with its merciless light, and every spot and pore and wrinkle and bristly stands clear."
"What fabrications they are, mothers. Scarecrows, wax dolls for us to stick pins into, crude diagrams. We deny them and existence of their own, we make them up to suit ourselves--our own hungers, our own wishes, our own deficiencies."
"Why is it we want to badly to memorialize ourselves? Even while we're still alive. We wish to assert out existence, like dogs peeing on fire hydrants. We put on display our framed photographs, our parchment diplomas, our silver-plated cups; we monogram our linen, we carve our names on trees, we scrawl them on washroom walls. It's all the same impulse. What do we hope from it? Applause, envy, respect? Or simply attention, of any kind we can get?"
"At the very least we want a witness. We can't stand the idea of our own voices falling silent finally, like a radio running down."
"What you don't know won't hurt you. A dubious maxim: sometimes what you don't know can hurt you very much."
"People cry at weddings for the same reason they cry at happy endings: because they so desperately want to believe in something they know is not credible."
"Romance takes place in the middle distance. Romance is looking in at yourself, through a window clouded with dew. Romance means leaving things out: where life grunts and snuffles, romance only sighs."
"The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date."
"So much better to travel than arrive."
"But I like my stories to be true to life, which means there have to be wolves in them."
"That's the kind of stories I know. Sad ones. Anyway, taken to its logical conclusion, every story is sad, because at the end everyone dies."
"I am not scoffing at goodness, which is far more difficult to explain than evil, and just as complicated. But sometimes it's hard to put up with."
"An odd thing, souvenir-hunting: now becomes then even while it is still now. You don't really believe you're there, and so you nick the proof, or something you mistake for it."
"When you're young, you think everything you do is disposable. You move from now to now, crumpling time up in your hands, tossing it away. You're your own speeding car. You think you can get rid of things, and people too--leave them behind. You don't yet know about the habit they have of coming back."
"But in life, a tragedy is not one long scream. It includes everything that led up to it. Hour after trivial hour, day after day, year after year, and then the sudden moment: the knife stab, the shell-burst, the plummet of the car from the bridge."
"But thoughtless ingratitude is the armour of the young; without it, how would they ever get through life?... Without the protection of surliness and levity, all children would by crushed by the past--the past of others, loaded onto their shoulders. Selfishness is their saving grace."
"What we all want: to leave a message behind us that has an effect, if only a dire one; a message that cannot be cancelled out."
"Love is giving, marriage is buying and selling. You can't put love into a contract."
"The dying are allowed a certain latitude, like children on their birthdays."
"Nothing is more difficult than to understand the dead, I've found; but nothing is more dangerous than to ignore them."
"In Paradise there are no stories, because there are no journeys. It's loss and regret and misery and yearning that drive the story forward, along its twisted road."...more
It is not a good book to read when you're in a I-haven't-taught-in-a-month-and-sometimes-I-think-teaching-is-Things about Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar:
It is not a good book to read when you're in a I-haven't-taught-in-a-month-and-sometimes-I-think-teaching-is-my-life-force funk. Because it has some compelling shit. Plath so expertly captures and conveys Esther's descent into uncertainty, depression, and paranoia that it is not only plausible, but it is also strangely engrossing.
It presents the stifling position of (white, middle class) American women in the 1950s with the same precision and pathos as the instructional videos I watched in college (to analyze, not follow) that directed wives and daughters to freshen up before the man in their life came home from work. But knowing Esther, the protagonist, made the situation more personal and real.
Even though much of the very autobiographical novel deals with the specific circumstances surrounding educated young white women in the fifties, there were moments when the prose so perfectly gave voice to the challenges young adults face in making decisions about their futures that I wanted all of my college-decision-making students to read it, if only so that they didn't feel alone. Esther's reasonable fear that choosing one path for her future effectively eliminated her chances of traveling on any other will resonate with me, I know. Though it did occur to me that, because this is such a fundamental part of the novel, I missed the ideal time in my life to read it. Here, I saw my students, when it would have been so much more compelling to see myself.
My last comment relates to that as well. Why did it take me so long to read this? As I limped through Catcher in the Rye and sped through The Perks of Being a Wallflower--heck, I can even include A Separate Peace and Looking for Alaska here--surely some part of me had to wonder where the introspective female protagonist of a coming of age story was. And, finally, I've found her....more
Hugh Howey's Third Shift: Pact disappointed me. I fear that my expectations were to blame more than the book. But my expectations were a bit justifiedHugh Howey's Third Shift: Pact disappointed me. I fear that my expectations were to blame more than the book. But my expectations were a bit justified based on the situation. It was the last book in the Shift trilogy. And Second Shift ended with a huge development that I was excited to see play out in a climactic way worthy of the series' Return of the Jedi book. But, alas, Third Shift: Pact is just a stepping stone leading to the Dust series, so, while I was eager for intense battles driven by fear, then anger, then hate, and shocking revelations about paternity, I got a lot of ambivalent wandering by Solo and ambivalent wondering by Donald.
I may have liked the book better if I liked Donald better. (Light spoilers to follow.) I have trouble attaching myself to a character who, in general, is being blindly carried along by the current all the while muttering to himself that he hates the current. He seems to just be blundering along. Sure, he stops taking his pills. But where's the revolution?! This book handed him the opportunity for a revolution and he acted like an emotional child. And, sure, his actions and attitude in book eight make a statement about the perverse control of the Silo-plotters and explore the corrupting influence of power and highlight just how damaged he is by the system, and that's all important, but I would have more willingly accepted those themes if they had been told through a more compelling character.
Solo, on the other hand, kept my interest, particularly in his relationship with Shadow.
The last reason why the book failed to excite me as much as I dreamed it would is that the Pact--the attempt at a shocking, the reader exclaims obscenities while reading on the subway revelation--wasn't a big deal to me. Books 1-7 have sufficiently proven that the Silo plan (as we previously knew it) will fail and continue to lead to more destruction than salvation, so the great conspiracy unearthed in Third Shift has little to add....more
Let’s do away with the Robert Galbraith pretense early.
If J.K. Rowling wrote a treatise on her favorite detergent or an epic on polynomial factoring,Let’s do away with the Robert Galbraith pretense early.
If J.K. Rowling wrote a treatise on her favorite detergent or an epic on polynomial factoring, I would read it. (And I would probably like it.) So step right up for a totally objective review of her most recent novel, The Cuckoo’s Calling!
Aside from spending weeks of my undergraduate and graduate careers studying “The Purloined Letter,” reading dozens of independent novel essays on And Then There Were None, picking up The Hound of the Baskervilles in high school, and eating up any out of print Encyclopedia Brown I could find in elementary school, I have had very little experience with detective novels. (So step right up for a totally objective and knowledgeable review of The Cuckoo’s Calling!) I’m not sure, then, if the way my fingers just itched for a pen and a notebook during character interviews or the way my kindle edition just refused to shut between chapters was Rowling’s doing or the genre’s. Okay, I’m pretty sure it was Rowling’s. Either way, this character-driven reader was pretty excited by the novel’s plot development, detail, and resolution. And even though I armed myself against red herrings and the character-you-least-suspect and easy targets, I thought her resolution was the perfect combination of surprising and credible. A very fulfilling mystery.
And then there are the things that Rowling just always excels in: characters, setting, words. Even though her two main characters, Robin and Strike, initially came off as inane and abrasive, it wasn’t long before Rowling challenged the very preconceptions she produced by introducing me to their endearing capabilities and complexities. Watching their relationship develop was a blast, and it is well poised to offer sufficient room for professional growth, friendly support, and sexual tension in future Cormoran Strike books. Just as with Harry Potter and The Casual Vacancy, Rowling had me completely immersed in her world, particularly with her descriptions of the paparazzi and celebrity lifestyle. And you’ve just gotta love a writer who criticizes the scandal-driven, self-congratulatory reporting of a model’s suicide, “a morality tale stiff with Schadenfreude,” by mocking their cliched allusions to Icarus. Oh J.K. Rowling. I love your words.
“How easy it was to capitalize on a person’s own bent for self-destruction; how simple to nudge them into non-being, then to stand back and shrug and agree that it had been the inevitable result of a chaotic, catastrophic life.” ...more
All previous Wool comments remain: complex, credible characters; epic themes built on a story about real human relationships, a sophisticated setting,All previous Wool comments remain: complex, credible characters; epic themes built on a story about real human relationships, a sophisticated setting, well-structured plot... All still very present in Hugh Howey's Second Shift: Order. So I'll talk about the new things.
Second Shift: Order introduced Mission, a young adult whose illegal birth mandated his mother's execution. Not only did his character bring a reverberating melancholy to the story, but it also allowed for some artful prose and reflections on life, death, and burdens. He's the first character since Juliette that I really love. I was interested in other characters and definitely empathized with them, but I didn't want to be their friends, like I do with Mission and Juliette.
Despite my expectations of the second book in a trilogy, Second Shift: Order may have my favorite ending so far. The resolution is clean, cathartic, and haunting, and absolutely appropriate for the world Howey's constructed. I also enjoy that the web of relationships that he draws between characters and floors and occupations and silos--a reminder that those in power's emphasis on isolation and alienation to retain power is clever, but futile--is starting to connect generations and books.
On to the next!
(And now I'm caught up with book reviews! So maybe they'll start being good again!)
On revolution: "That word means something else, you know... It also means to go around and around. To revolve. One revolution, and you get right back to where you started."
"Predict the inevitable... and you're bound to be right one day."
"When there's only God to blame, we forgive him. When it's our fellow man, we must destroy him."...more
When I go to visit my grandparents, I know what's going to happen. They'll ask me to call when I reach the 95 and explain, again, that then they can wWhen I go to visit my grandparents, I know what's going to happen. They'll ask me to call when I reach the 95 and explain, again, that then they can watch for me and open the garage. They'll order pizza when I get there. Soon after my arrival, Pappy will, with a conspiratorial grin, show me a selection of ice creams in his freezer and chips on the shelves over his washing machine. While I'm in the middle of eating large meals--or mere minutes after--Nanny will offer me more food, including the cake that she cooked for my visit. Pappy will explain that bunnies sometimes dig holes and give birth to their young in his planters. As we play cards, as Nanny draws a card, she will say that she's "just going to hold on to this one" and "trying to get something going"; she will also lament her shortage of "funny guys" and the substandard selection of cards my husband lays down for her. The morning of my departure, Pappy will get sentimental and talk about how much it means that my husband and I visit "old people" like them and enjoy it. Nanny will tear up and mutter, "You get so excited when someone's coming to visit, and, before you know it..."
The first, most important, point of this anecdote is that my grandparents are awesome. The second, more pertinent, point of this anecdote is that I can predict what they're going to do. As the reader digs more deeply into the world of the silo in Hugh Howey's First Shift: Legacy, she realizes that the misty figures behind it all base their entire world's success on the belief that they can predict human behavior--that of the mob and of individuals--more accurately and closely than I can predict the behavior of my adorable grandparents. And they bet their world on it.
This, in and of itself, is intellectually tantalizing enough to lure me into the book. Can human behavior be so closely monitored and determined? If humans seems to deviate from that behavior--as the protagonist of one of our two time periods, Troy, does--could it perhaps surprise and upset the puppeteers or have they explored all avenues of rebellion? If human behavior can be so predicted, do humans have free will? If human behavior is so thoroughly understood, monitored, and manipulated, are humans stripped of their free will? Are those conditions (human behavior being thoroughly understood, monitored, and manipulated) only present in Howey's fictional world? (Note: Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant before her father did.) Fun stuff.
While it introduces a new cast of characters and shifts its setting a bit, First Shift continues to develop on the strengths of the first five books, most enjoyably with its mystery and suspense. The books just pull you in. I will be finishing all of the Wool books before my brain is released and I can read other things....more
This Side of Paradise was F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel. And it felt like it. I imagine that the twenty-two-year-old Fitzgerald used This Side ofThis Side of Paradise was F. Scott Fitzgerald's first novel. And it felt like it. I imagine that the twenty-two-year-old Fitzgerald used This Side of Paradise first as a way to grapple with his college years and then as a way to try on different styles. Sometimes the reader was so distant from the protagonist, Amory, that it felt as if I were reading the summary of a story rather than a story. Sometimes I was reading a play. Sometimes I was reading a philosophical dialogue. Sometimes I was reading poetry. It's like Fitzgerald was like, "I like to write. Look what I can do!" It wasn't deliberately experimental in the revolutionary style of Ulysses or winking-at-the-audience silliness of Tristram Shandy; it was just a bunch of different styles stuffed into one novel. This, combined with Fitzgerald's lackadaisical, rambling structure--"And then Amory met this girl. And then Amory made this friend. And then Amory went to this place. And then he met this new girl"--surprised me, as two of my favorite elements of The Great Gatsby are its concise plot and thematic unity. Apparently Fitzgerald figured that out later.
My favorite aspect of This Side of Paradise was Fitzgerald's character descriptions. (Though not of Amory. Maybe part of my problem was that I lacked interest in the self-absorbed, entitled protagonist.) But some of Amory's friends and most of his fleeting love interests were described with such precision and elegance that I couldn't decide if I longed to be able to write that way or if I longed to be described in that way.
As I copied down the following quotes, I remembered also that the culmination of the story, which, to me, became a sort of treatise of the Lost Generation, was stirring and felt very pertinent right now.
"A man can be twice young / In the life of his sons only."
"I suppose that all great happiness is a little sad. Beauty means the scent of roses and then the death of roses."
"Summer is only the unfulfilled promise of spring, a charlatan in place of the warm balmy nights I dream of in April."
"I simply state that I'm a product of a versatile mind in a restless generation--with every reason to throw my mind and pen in with the radicals."
"As an endless dream it went on; the spirit of the past brooding over a new generation, the chosen youth from the muddled, unchastened world, still fed romantically on the mistakes and half-forgotten dreams of dead statesmen and poets. Here was a new generation, shouting the old cries, learning the old creeds, through a revery of long days and nights; destined finally to go out into that dirty gray turmoil to follow love and pride; a new generation dedicated more than the last to the fear of poverty and the worship of success; grown up to find all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken..."...more
There's just so much that Hugh Howey's Wool does right.
It creates characters that are believable and broken and heroic--characters that the reader groThere's just so much that Hugh Howey's Wool does right.
It creates characters that are believable and broken and heroic--characters that the reader grows to know and admire so quickly, that pull the reader into emotional investment in the story.
It sets its story in a unique, very tangible world, just different enough from our own to appropriately reflect upon it.
It is unpredictable. And suspenseful. And Howey seems most at ease as a writer when he leaves his readers with unanswered questions and with mystery, which supports his themes well but also (thankfully) departs from current lets-make-everything-explicit trends (ie: Baz Luhrmann's Great Gatsby).
It make tough, meaningful plot choices. (Reader, be warned.)
It changes point of views, effectively destroying an overly simplistic good vs. evil moral binary.
It deals with big issues--deception, who should have power, who should have knowledge, the ethics of utilitarian-based sacrifice, government conspiracies, revolution--but grounds them in real, complex relationships between people.
It gets you.
"Killing a man should be harder than waving a length of pipe in their direction. It should take long enough for one's conscience to get in the way."...more