Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Hunger Games

My colorist and I share a love of YA fiction. I slipped her a copy of Lonely Werewolf Girl, and she tipped me off about The Hunger Games (and that the follow-up to LWG is finally out!). Naturally, I picked up The Hunger Games immediately.

It. Was. Awesome. and I could barely put it down for the two days that it took to read it. It takes place in the dystopian future, where the former America is split into 12 districts and ruled by a central Capital (really central, like, former-Denver). Each year, "the Hunger Games" are held, in which one boy and one girl from each district have to Fight To The Death while the whole thing is televised. The district of the winner gets a fair amount of food while the other districts starve.

The book naturally has a lot of predecessors, most notably Shirley Jackson's 1948 alarming short story The Lottery, which you really must read if you haven't already, and the 1999 Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, which I have not read (but have one friend who said it's her favorite book of all time).

Anywho, as you might imagine, the young female protagonist, Katniss, becomes a contestant in the Hunger Games and struggles to survive and still hold true to her idea of herself (ie not "a murderer".) Interestingly, Katniss is a hunter, and every once in a while examines her own easy attitude toward killing and eating animals as relates to her predicament of needing to kill humans.

Another theme I liked very much about the book is how Katniss and her fellow district contestant accept or give gifts. Katniss keeps a running tally of goods and ills done her - she sees every "gift" she receives as something to be repaid. Her more generous companion does not keep score.

There are three books in the series and I intend to pick up the second one very soon! Anyone else reading these great books? Like any good fiction, I think it really defies labels, particularly that of "YA."

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire

I went to a party where a lot of folks were reading the second Larsson book, The Girl Who Played with Fire. All of them were really wrapped up in it and, even though I'd previously told myself, "NO MORE!" I thought... "Maybe one more."

I thought the first book was very readable and certainly captivating, but I was really turned off by the violence and I thought the characters were flat. The second book (Plays with Fire) does expand on the Lisbeth character more (she is most compelling to me) but to sort of re-dick extremes. I'm talking a Luke-I'm-your-father sort of extreme. Without ruining it for you. Or, perhaps I already have.

Larsson heaps abuse on the ladies in this book, just like he did in the first, ostensibly to show, if you haven't been paying attention, that women suffer unconscionable violence at the hands of men. What I believe, gentle reader, is that Larsson contributes to the very culture of violence toward women that he portended to abhor. I was thrilled to see my very thoughts laid out in handsome prose on ye old Tiger Beatdown - I encourage you to read the post if you're at all interested in these books, it's really brilliant.

Anyway, seriously, NO MORE! I am done with you, Stieg Larsson, and I won't read the third book or the forth one either!

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Unnamed

The Unnamed is Joshua Ferris's new book. I really admired his first novel, Then We Came to the End, so I had high hopes. I think Ferris's storytelling is modern and fresh. The Unnamed didn't rock my world, but it is certainly a well-constructed book and I admire the risks he takes.

In the story, an NY lawyer named Tim Farnsworth has some kind of affliction that causes him to walk. The urge to walk is the unnamed thing - no doctor or psychiatrist can diagnose it or even categorize it as a mental or a physical disorder. The not-knowing of his illness is the worst for Farnsworth, in fact, he comes close to suicide several times.

This book is being described by some as the existential contemporary dilemma of suburban America, that we wish to throw off the binds of society and family and abandon our bodies and souls to a sort of undefined naturalism. To me, instead, the story rang like a tale of addiction - Farnsworth, despite all rationality, and at the risk of everything comfortable and wonderful in his life, wife, child, career, home, friends, walks. The interactions between him and his wife becomes a story of just how far this couple will stay together in "sickness and in health".

Tonally, I like how Ferris writes:

He was tough and he was special and he had inner resources, he had many things going for him, and others had seen much worse, time was precious and things happened froa reason and there was always an upside, and it only took a good attitude to fight and win and nothing was going to stop him and tomorrow was another day.

Like other books about the existential zeitgeist of our time, those pesky bees popped up. My favorite bits were the ones with the lawyers. Ferris writes offices really well.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Gaudy Night

So, I finally got that Dorothy Sayers recommendation I was waiting for and 'twas Gaudy Night. It was excellent, and I am very happy! Apparently it's the book that distinguished Sayers from a mere genre writer of detective fiction (the horror!) to an actual writer of literature-y fiction (huzzah!)

The main character is Harriet Vane a (wait for it...) writer of detective fiction and really terrific, strong, female character that's reticent to marry the handsome, charming, intelligent (filthy rich) Peter Whimsey because she fears he might not treat her as an equal (amongst other things).

Vane is asked to return to her alma mater, Oxford, where, in one of the women's colleges, a "poison pen" is wrecking havoc on the school. This "poison pen" writes vile things on the walls and sends people nasty and threatening notes. What's really interesting is how Sayers tells a rivoting mystery without that classic event of so many detective stories: a murder. In fact, she manages to tell the whole tale of the "poison pen" without ever actually writing any dirty words herself, leaving the reader is left to imagine what might have been written.

Written in 1936, the book displays a rather interesting pre-war sentiment. Here are two colloquial characters:
"When I was a lad," replied the foreman, "young ladies was young ladies. And young gentlement was young gentlemen. If you get my meaning."

"Wot this country wants, "said Padgett, "Is a 'Itler."
Like her other books, this one is very funny and awfully smart. I love the character of Harriet Vane, and look forward to reading the other books that are about her. She appears in Strong Poison and is also in Have his Carcase (?) and Busman's Honeymoon.

This song comes up in the book, btw. Lovely. Also, thank goodness (and I don't think I'm ruining it) despite the fact that Whimsey is the famous detective, it's Harriet who is respected for her detective abilities and gets herself out of her own scrapes. Ultimately, Gaudy Night examines the sort of clash of pre-war England as people choose a cultural allegiance - progressivism and intellectualism or political and social regressivism (in a 1930s kind of way).

I would highly recommend this book - at 501 pages (paperback), you can really sink your teeth into it, and you'll want to!

Oh, brush up on your latin! And, if you have already read it and are a Harry Potter fan (or not...) check this out! Hilarious.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

The White Tiger

The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga, won the Man Booker Prize in 2008. I'm a believer in the readability of Man Bookers, so that was enough for me. It is extremely readable although not exactly pleasant to read.

Centered around the issue of class conflict in India, it's about a young man named Balram Halwai (his last name implies that he should be a sweet maker) who is the son of a rickshaw driver. He becomes a driver for a wealthy person and eventually an entrepreneur. Balram is partly able to break the expectations of class and caste by the changing social environment in India and also partly because he kills his boss. I'm not, by the way, ruining it for you - that is all disclosed in the first chapter.

Balram spends his day driving his boss to newly erected malls and hotels that he's not allowed to enter. He and his fellow drives are caught in a "chicken coop" where:
A handful of men in this country have trained the remaining 99.9 percent - as strong, as talented, as intelligent in every way - to exist in perpetual servitude; a servitude so strong that you can put the key of his emancipation in a man's hands and he will throw it back at you with a curse.

Another major theme of the book is corruption in India. In the paperback copy of the book, there's a "Conversation" with the writer - he is asked "Your novel depicts an India that we don't often see. Was it important to you to present an alternative point of view? Why does a Western audience need this alternative portrayal?" Adiga's answer is that it's not an "alternative" view at all, for him it's a common view of India (re: the corruption). The White Tiger is an interesting departure from some of the popular (and beautiful) books about India that have been mainstream in the US recently - like Divakaruni or Lahiri's books or Kiran Desai's stunning The Inheritance of Loss. Me? I love reading books about India and there are just so many terrific contemporary Indian writers! The reason I found this book unpleasant was merely because the main character is, well, a murderer and has this really immoral behavior justification, and it's largely heart-breaking (although also rather humorous in sections.) Adiga will undoubtedly have more for us to read soon.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

The Help

My sister gave me a copy of The Help for my birthday and told me, "If you don't cry like, 4 times, you're a monster." Eek. I got a little anxious when I was 3/4 of the way through and hadn't shed a tear.

The Help, by Kathryn Stockett, is a compelling story about a group of American Southern women. I had a hard time putting it down, even though the book is highly problematic. Told from the perspective of two African-American maids and one white woman, the book is about how the three of them write a book about the maids' experiences working in the homes of white families in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 1960s.

The appropriation of the African-American women's stories and voices made me feel uncomfortable. Aibileen, a kind older woman who brings a very 21st century to bringing up children in the mid-20th century, ruminates:

Minny near bout the best cook in Hinds County, maybe even all a Mississippi. The Junior League Benefit come around ever fall and they be wanting her to make ten caramel cakes to auction off. She ought a be the most sought-after help in the state. Problem is, Minny got a mouth on her. She always be talking back. One day it be the white manager a the Jitney Jungle grocery, next day it be her husband, and ever day it's gone be the white lady she waiting on. The only reason she waiting on Miss Walter so long is Miss Walter be deaf as a doe-nob.
Even Stockett felt uncomfortable - in the after-word, she writes:
I was scared, a lot of the time, that I was crossing a terrible line, writing in the voice of a black person. I was afraid I would fail to describe a relationship that was so intensely influential in my life, so loving, so grossly stereotyped in American history and literature.
It is, of course, absolutely impossible to capture another person's experience (and nearly impossible to capture your own), but one makes allowances for artist license. I am very sensitive to racial prejudice, so, for me, parts of the book were inappropriate.

Most of the white people in the book are racists, some of whom actively work to harm the welfare of the African-Americans, most whom merely look the other way when they saw it happening. I feel quite positive that any white reader of the book would identify with the white character who has the idea to write the book and works with the maids to tell their stories. But what I found most disturbing is that it's quite unlikely that those same readers would have followed the rather exceptional actions of that character. It's more likely that they would have fallen firmly in the "look the other way" category, or, let's face it, the Civil Rights movement would have ended well before a mere handful of decades ago, and racial injustices would be a thing of the past, which they are not. The Help allows privileged white readers to pat themselves on the back for something we don't deserve.

I noticed the British cover and the American cover are quite different! I'm afraid the American version has fallen prey to that well-known publishing-world fear that images of black people on the cover will keep write readers from picking up the book. All of this is just proof that we still have a long way to go to heal the long, shameful history of racial injustice in this country. If people are reading The Help with a critical mind and asking themselves some hard questions, I think that is helpful.

I did, by the way, get a bit misty a few times near the end, so I guess I'm not a complete monster after all!