Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Fault In Our Stars by John Green

"This Support Group featured a rotating cast of characters in various states of tumor-driven unwellness. Why did the cast rotate? A side effect of dying...And then began the circle jerk of support: everyone talking about fighting and battling and winning and shrinking and scanning."

"It was Lida the Strong. Lida in remission...saying my name, saying, "Hazel is such an inspiration to me; she really is. She just keeps fighting the battle, waking up every morning and going to war without complaint. She's so strong. She's so much stronger than I am. I just wish I had her strength." 
"I'll give you my strength if I can have your remission."

One of my all time favorite students handed me a copy of this book which I plowed through so quickly I only barely remember crying and loving it. As the movie comes out in a few weeks and teenage girls and boys around the nation have made the preview the most liked YouTube video of all time, I thought it would be worth rereading (particularly because someone whose opinion I value really disliked it and threatened not finishing it) to see if it was still spectacular and heartbreaking and funny and true the second time around.

It is incredibly beloved by all, so you should probably read it, but it is incredibly beloved by me because I feel so much like I have occupied so many of the spaces that Green creates in this novel. 

The book begins with teenage girl Hazel Grace who has terminal cancer meeting  teenage boy Augustus Waters who is in remission. They are both incredibly charming and smart and  well-read and sarcastic - exactly my kind of people. Hazel at one point quotes one of my favorite poems ("The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock") and at another point quotes one of my least favorite ("The Red Wheelbarrow"). As a teen I'd be friends with both; as a teacher I would adore both. 

The novel takes place in Indiana and Amsterdam. While I haven't spent a significant amount of time in her particular corner of Indiana, I have been to the Indianapolis Museum of Art sculpture garden where she goes on a picnic. I have walked the streets of Amsterdam where they walk and spent a few days in Vondelpark where her mom goes to hang out. 

One of the first guys I ever dated as a youngster had battled cancer and was in remission. He was able to keep his leg (although not his entire femur), and walked with what I imagine is the same limp Augustus has. Hazel has understandably mixed feelings of dating anyone in her terminal state; a concern I sort of understand. I also dated someone who was ill, and he died after we stopped seeing each other. Hazel doesn't want to be the grenade in someone's life that wrecks them - and death is wrecking. I have seen my grama piss herself after one of her surgeries for her cancer and known the helplessness of watching someone I cared about be humiliated in that way. I have had one student die and several close to death and felt all the feelings that happen when someone who is way too fucking young loses all their potential experiences. 

The absolute best part of the book is the unapologetic honesty. It feels so honest the way Hazel thinks about her prognosis and acknowledges Cancer Perks and realizes she is the reason her family is so broke and obsesses over her mom's existence after her death and it is just hard which is how it is which is how it should be shown because it's true.

I plowed through this book again in two days still crying and still loving it. 

The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham

She was silent.  Vaguely, as when you are studying a foreign language and read a page which at first you can make nothing of, till a word or sentence gives you a clue; and on a sudden a suspicion, as it were, of the sense flashes across your troubled wits, vaguely she gained an inkling into the workings of Walter's mind.  It was like a dark and ominous landscape seen by a flash of lightning and in a moment hidden again by the night.  She shuddered at what she saw.

Kitty Fane is unhappily married to a bacteriologist working for the British government in Hong Kong.  She imagines that the Assistant Colonial Secretary with whom she has been carrying on an affair will marry her, if they can both procure divorces, but he seems content to keep on in secret.  When her husband Walter discovers her infidelity, however, he demands that she accompany him into a Chinese city beset by cholera.

It's an act of desperate, unimaginable cruelty.  Walter--brooding, unsociable, bookish--wants to kill Kitty, and his anger is such that his own life is acceptable collateral.  If you imagine that the cholera-stricken Chinese will offer Kitty an opportunity to recognize the shallow vanity of "society" and find redemption by caring for others, you are of course correct.  The cholera epidemic awakens Kitty to the reality of death, though this awakening also gives her valuable perspective on her infidelity:

After all they had gone through, when they were living amid these scenes of horror and desolation, it seemed inept to attach importance to the ridiculous act of fornication.  When death stood round the corner, taking lives like a gardener digging up potatoes, it was foolishness to  care what dirty things this person or that did with his body.

Redemption comes in the form of an order of kindly Catholic nuns that care for sick and orphaned children; Kitty's only consolation comes from joining them in their duty.  Much of The Painted Veil proceeds according to the progression of moral development you might expect; it defies expectation perhaps only in the sense that the marriage, and Walter, are irrevocably broken before their excursion and cannot wholly be saved in any sense.  Maugham is careful not to oversell Kitty's moral development; her new compassion and awareness leave her a better person but also more isolated than ever.

But ultimately The Painted Veil failed to retain my imagination after it ended.  Maugham traveled throughout Southeast Asia, but his China rarely seems anything but an Englishman's view, described as through the curtains of a sitting chair.  Perhaps this makes sense, given Kitty's perspective--she is sheltered, for the most part, from the Chinese and from the devastation of the cholera--but it makes it difficult, I find, to comprehend the causes of her growth.  I wonder what the novel would have been like if Kitty had been able to spend more time within the city walls.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

And let me now posit this: 'dignity' has to do crucially with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being for the private one at the least provocation.  For such persons, being a butler is like playing some pantomime role; a small push, a slight stumble, and the facade will drop off to reveal the actor underneath.  The great butlers are by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing.  They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstances tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills it to do so, and this will invariable be when he is entirely alone.  It is, as I say, a matter of 'dignity.'

I'm a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go because it is a masterpiece of subtlety.  It seems at first to be little more than a English boarding school story, a little stuffy, a little boring, in which nothing much happens.  By the time you realize--spoiler alert--that the boarding school is actually a facility of clones who are destined for organ harvesting, you are not sure that you have not known it all along; the realization has become too mixed up with the dull stuff of petty life.

The Remains of the Day is a bit like that.  By the time you realize that Lord Darlington, the beloved master of the butler narrator, Mr. Stevens was--spoiler alert--a Nazi sympathizer, it is impossible to pinpoint where you first knew it, and if you're like me, you spend a little time shuffling back through the prior pages to figure out when you missed the "big reveal."  But, like Never Let Me Go, it's not there--or, in a way, it was always there.  Yet there is a vast difference between the two.  In Never Let Me Go, the big reveal never comes because the information has, in a sense, always been part of the clones' lives, and no one ever thinks to draw attention to it until a well-meaning schoolteacher voices her pity.  In The Remains of the Day, Lord Darlington's poor choice of friends is consistently and thoroughly repressed by Mr. Stevens, who chooses to see his late master as the paragon of English nobility and gentleness.

The story, as Mr. Stevens would tell it, is one of a world that has disappeared.  When the novel opens, Darlington House has been purchased by a louche American and most of the staff, save Mr. Stevens and an odd housemaid, have drifted away.  Mr. Stevens' spirited attempts to serve his new master are the source of some deft Wodehouseian humor revolving around the butler's inability to respond to his new master's jokes:

For it well may be that in in America, it is all a part of what is considered good professional service that an employee provide entertaining banter.  In fact, I remember Mr Simpson, the landlord of the Ploughman's Arms, saying once that were he an American bartender, he would not be chatting to us in that friendly, but ever-courteous manner of his, but instead would be assaulting us with crude references to our vices and failings, calling us drunks and all manner of such names, in his attempt to fulfil the role expected of him by his customers.  And I recall also some years ago, Mr Rayne, who travelled to America as valet to Sir Reginald Mauvis, remarking that a taxi driver in New York regularly addressed his fare in a manner which if repeated in London would end in some sort of fracas, if not in the fellow being frogmarched to the nearest police station.

Though Mr. Stevens' game attempts to humor his employer, he clearly longs for his heyday in the service of Lord Darlington.  But he is too much in his own head to banter, always coming up with some obscure witticism much too late.  He is too much in his own head in general, and cannot see that he has mistaken the kind of story he is in: the forgotten world of dignity and honor he longs for never existed, and while much of his regard for his old employer is well deserved, his inability to accept the enormous error of Darlington's judgment evokes the reader's frustration and, ultimately, pity.

The plot of the novel, which consists principally of reminiscences, involves Stevens taking a rare holiday to the West Country to pay a visit to Miss Kenton, a former housemaid whom he imagines he might be able to coax back into service at Darlington House.  Over the course of the road trip, he extent of Stevens' repression becomes clear: he has engaged in willful self-deception for decades, not only about Lord Darlington, but about other things: his relationship with his father and the barely concealed love Miss Kenton has harbored for him.  We can see, as Mr. Stevens cannot let himself see, the theme of self-negation that runs through his reminiscing, from the moment in which he (spoiler alert, again) declines to attend to his father's deathbed in order to promptly a serve a houseguest, and the moment in which Miss Kenton practically begs him to admit that he loves her to prevent her from marrying another man.  Here's how that ends:

As I approached Miss Kenton's door, I saw from the light seeping around its edges that she was still within.  And that was the moment, I am now sure, that has remained so persistently lodged in my memory--that moment as I paused in the dimness of the corridor, the tray in my hands, an ever-growing conviction mounting within me that just a few yards away, on the other side of that door, Miss Kenton was at that moment crying.  As I recall, there was no evidence to account for this conviction--I had certainly not heard any sounds of crying--and yet I remember being quite certain that were I to knock and enter, I would discover her in tears.  I do not know how long I remained standing there; at the time it seemed a significant period, but in reality, I suspect, it was only a matter of seconds.  For, of course, I was required to hurry upstairs to serve some of the most distinguished gentlemen of the land and I cannot imagine I would have delayed unduly.

It is impossible to say whether Stevens heard the crying, and repressed it, or whether he simply repressed the knowledge that she would be crying because he would not let himself respond to her plea.  The knowledge that the "most distinguished gentlemen of the land" were busy upstairs working out a failed policy of appeasement offers little sympathy.  For what, in the end, was all this self-denial for?  He says, in the passage I quoted at the beginning of this review, that a good butler only removes the costume of his profession when he is "entirely alone"; here is a man that cannot discard the polite fiction of his service because it has long since replaced anything resembling a breathing man.

Never Let Me Go refuses, somewhat frustratingly, to imagine that its tortured souls have any recourse.  We are brought into sympathy with its protagonists because we recognize how little control we have over our own existence as well.  But The Remains of the Day is infinitely more frustrating--and affecting--because we cannot reach through the pages and throttle the man within it, or compel him to fashion a life worth living on his own terms.  The title of the book suggests that, for all the ways in which we foil our own ambitions, and punish ourselves for wanting and dreaming, there is time left to fix our mistakes.  That's a lovely thought and this is a great book.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Surprised by Sin by Stanley Fish

I've been taking a class on Milton (who is great--I never knew!) and, of course, that involves reading Paradise Lost, one of English's longest and most persnickety poems.  The story, if you're a godless heathen, is Genesis: Adam and Eve enjoy some good times in the Garden of Eden, before a very bitter fallen angel named Satan infiltrates it and convinces them to eat the fruit from the only tree God's told them not to touch.  Things after that pretty much suck.

>One of the aspects of Paradise Lost people have been trying for centuries to figure out is this: Why is Satan the most compelling character?  He's the one that gets all the poetry, the fancy rhetoric, the courage and the devil-may-care attitude.  Here he is, talking to Beezlebub in Hell:
Is this the Region, this the Soil, the Clime,
Said then the lost Arch Angel, this the seat
That we must change for Heav'n, this mournful gloom
For that celestial light? Be it so, since hee
Who now is Sovran can dispose and bid
What shall be right: fardest from him is best
Whom reason hath equald, force hath made supream
Above his equals. Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor: One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.

Badass! God, by contrast, comes off as a self-righteous, authoritarian prude.  Why would Milton make Satan look so awesome and God look so bad?  William Blake famously said that Milton was "of the Devil's party without knowing it."  Could it be that the righteous Puritan Milton really was more emotionally invested in his artistic depiction of the devil?

Fish replies to these claims with a breathless piece of Reader-Response criticism.  He argues that Satan's seductiveness is part of the design of the poem; we are supposed to be attracted by Satan because that's his M.O.  We respond to his lies, his rhetoric, his sublimity on an internal level, and then must face the cognitive dissonance of our intense attraction to Satan.  That, Fish argues, is the way we learn to cast our gaze inward on our own fallen nature.  If we are dissatisfied with God's language, well, as Milton reminds us in On Reformation: "The very essence of truth is plainness and brightness; the darkness and crookedness is our own."

I find this a very compelling way of reading the poem, and perfectly in accord with the kind of poetry Milton writes elsewhere (though I admit I am not quite yet an expert).  Some critics have derided this image of God as a disciplinary schoolmarm, but I think those critics--and to some extent Fish--discount the way in which the poet himself is entangled in this process, having to endure the same education that we are.  Paradise Lost is not very interesting if you regard Milton as an uptight jackass (like Robert Graves did) who is constantly bringing the ruler down on the reader's fingers; but as the introspection of a blind, defeated, and utterly broken man, it's something different all together.  

I'm going to post a longer review, of course, on Paradise Lost, which is a great poem, though perhaps not what the Kindle Generation wants or feels they need.  When I do, I'll share more thoughts about the best way to read the poem, but to be sure, they will be closely modeled after Fish's reading.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Then they set out along the blacktop in the gun-metal light, shuffling through the ash, each the other's world entire. 

Nobody wants to be here and nobody wants to leave. 

Other Fifty Bookers Reviews of The Road

*Where Chris says it will never be made into a movie, lolz (2007)
*Where Brook says she will need a McCarthy break (2009)
*Where Carlton doesn't see what all the fuss is about (2010)
*Where Brent compares it to No Country for Old Men (2013)

I'm pretty late to the party, but for a reason - I saw the movie not realizing that it was a book; once I found out I decided to wait a few years so the more dramatic and terrible scenes were out of my head. The cruelty of humanity scenes definitely stayed in my mind, but the ending was actually fuzzy. There's not too much to say about the book: there's a man, there's a boy, there's an apocalypse. It won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize and was turned into a movie. It is grey, grey, grey. 

The Road is an incredibly difficult book for a few reasons. 

First, I think if I were a parent, I wouldn't be able to read this novel. As a non-parent I am tormented by the choices that are being made, by the care that's being provided, by the questions that are being asked. I can't imagine picking up this up as a parent and finishing it. 

Second, there aren't any answers. The story details the daily life of a father and son in some kind of post-apocalyptical world, and this world is never explained. Cormac McCarthy counters that it doesn't matter, but if you are a reader who needs answers and will not get them. I like knowing the motivation of why the world is the way it is, but I suppose McCarthy is right to the extent that it doesn't matter. So what if it's global warming or volcano or nuclear disaster? In any of those cases the reaction can only be " what do we do now?"

Third, like everything else in this text, the point of view is maddeningly elusive. It begins with SUCH an objective third person(1) that when it occasionally switches to second (2) or first (3) it's startling and unsettling. It happens only a handful of times in the novel, but each time stands out SO much that I'm ready to start scouring the academic parts of the internet.  

(1) When he woke in the woods in the dark and the cold of the night he'd reach out to touch the child sleeping beside him...His hand rose and fell softly with each precious breath. He pushed away the plastic tarpaulin and raised himself in the stinking robes and blankets and looked toward the east for any light but there was none.
(2) Like the great pendulum in its rotunda scribing through the long day movements of the universe of which you may say it knows nothing and yet know it must.
(3) He lay listening to the water drip in the woods...If only my heart were stone.

It is not an overstatement to say that it is one of the most depressing books of all time. Even the most depressing books (The Bluest Eye, for example) has some kind of redemption - even if it's not the character we want getting what is owed to them, someone survives, someone makes it, someone gets SOMETHING out of the shit that is handed to them. I don't think it's a spoiler alert to say that a Pulitzer Prize novel doesn't end with unicorns eating rainbow burritos. 

I went to a brilliant conference on teaching Holocaust literature, and one session was about how to handle the idiot kids who say things like, "Why didn't the Jews do x, y, or z? I would have." We were told real stories to share with students at the beginning to show kids: this was not a time of making better choices, this was a time of making IMPOSSIBLE choices that needed to be made anyway. This book, featuring a holocaust of humanity, is that impossible choice. What is the point of surviving? How do you kill yourself when you were 'lucky' enough to survive? What is the point of your child surviving in this ugly world that is left? How do you kill your child to spare them?

I did not, at any point, entertain the idea of what I would do if I were in The Man's place or The Boy's place. How do you turn to cannibalism? How do you let yourself and your child starve to death? It's pointless to play Let's Pretend because no one knows deep inside what their actions would be. So we watch theirs, from a distance, like the narrator, and I think it's set up in such a way that it's almost impossible to pass judgement. 

If you're in the mood to kind of hate everyone forever, this is the book for you. It's not a good time, it's not satisfying, it's not beautiful. It is GOOD in the way that good medicine is GOOD for you even if you hate every moment. I finished the novel in two days, not because it was so compelling, but because I knew I couldn't leave it unfinished and I wanted it over as quickly as possible. 

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Jarvius Cotton cannot vote.  Like his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather, he has been denied the right to participate in our electoral democracy . . . Cotton's great-great-grandfather could not vote as a slave.  His great-grandfather was beaten to death by the Ku Klux Klan for attempting to vote.  His grandfather was prevented from voting by Klan intimidation.  His father was barred from voting by poll taxes and literacy tests.  Today, Jarvius Cotton cannot vote because he, like many black men in the United States, has been labeled a felon and is currently on parole.

So starts Michelle Alexanders condemning book about how our criminal justice system inherits the racism started with slavery, continuing through Jim Crow, persisting through desegregation, and rebirthed as the War on Drugs.

Alexander's narrative runs like this: following the success of the civil rights movement and desegregation, public intellectuals committed to a discourse of colorblindness.  This effectively killed overt racism.  Racism, however, did not end; it became covert.  Thus, for example, Kevin Phillips, Republican strategist, noted the following lessons from Nixon's successful presidential bid:
Nixon's successful presidential election campaign could point the way toward long-term political realignment and the building of a new Republican majority, if Republicans continued to campaign primarily on the basis of racial issues, using coded antiblack rhetoric.  He argued that Southern white Democrats had become so angered and alienated by the Democratic Party's support for civil rights reforms, such as desegregation and busing, that those voters could be easily persuaded to switch parties if those racial resentments could be maintained.
Enter the War on Drugs.  Reagan took advantage of pre-existing fears of black, urban, drug-crazed youths by promising a crackdown (pun intended) on crime.  The Republicans, thus, were able to take advantage of hidden racial tensions.  To keep this racial tension alive, the federal government poured funds into the War on Drugs, and its ugly brother, Mass Incarceration. Unsurprisingly, this disproportionately affects African-Americans.  See also Crack-Cocaine Disparity.

Alexander also explains how civil rights activists were complicit in this shift.  As Republicans embraced a colorblind, anti-crime rhetoric, liberals focused on social policies like affirmative action and equal employment opportunities.  Activists were not willing (or able, arguably) to fight for "criminals" while they were focusing on more deserving individuals (e.g., hard-working and upward socially mobile minority members).

Think the War on Drugs is not racist?  Non-minority Americans use drugs as often as black Americans, Alexander counters.  Yet, she continues, law enforcement targets neighborhoods full of minorities.  Stop-and-frisk does not occur on college campuses (despite that they are warrens of illegal alcohol and drug consumption).  (Try the experiment I tried with myself: ask yourself how many of your non-minority friends have broken the law; now ask yourself how many of them have been stop-and-frisked.)

Nor is the problem of mass incarceration limited to minorities actually in prison.  The collateral consequences of a felony conviction has created a caste system.  For example: there are 2.3 million people in prison in the U.S; another 5.1 million are under some form of "community supervision" (i.e., parole or probation).  And felons cannot vote.  This a community of people who, by law, have fewer rights than everyone else.  One might reply, "But they did something to deserve this."  Perhaps. I find such rationalization difficult to accept in light of radical, disparate impact the criminal justice system has on minorities.

But this book is not merely a history.  In fact, it is a two-pronged call to action:  (1) we need to acknowledge the racial origins of today's prison industrial complex and (2) we need to reform the system.

There are quite a few barriers to reform.  Of course, the population involved is itself a barrier--voters do not love convicted felons.  They love recidivist felons even less.  Another barrier is the vested economic interests: "Rich and powerful people, including former vice president Dick Cheney, have invested millions in private prisons.  They are deeply interested in expanding the market--increasing the supply of prisoners--not eliminating the pool of people who can be held captive for a profit."

I'm only starting to dip my toes into the universe of criminal justice reading (see, e.g.Don't Shoot), but this book strikes me as essential reading.  Even if you want to disagree with Alexander's points, the book synthesizes a great deal of the academic literature and presents important challenges to how we currently operate our criminal justice system.  So: essential reading for anyone interested in criminology; good reading for anyone generally interested in crime, racism, or history of slavery/civil rights movement.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin

The first thing you need to know about my boyfriend is that his book taste does not skew towards 'romance.' The books he's read over the time we've been dating include the following words in their titles:

Capital Punishment
Jim Crow
Federal Courts
Ritual Abuse

You might argue: But what about The Time Traveler's Wife and The Perks of Being a Wallflower and Everything Is Illuminated and The Great Gatsby? Well, besides his weird thing for Fitzgerald, he read those books because a cute girl told him to. And even still, none of them are traditional romances with a love arc and a happy ending - they just happen to have SOME romance in them.

So when the movie preview for this book came out, and my boyfriend got all excited because he loves this book, and we clarified that he was not talking about a Shakespeare play, and he used the word 'romantic' to describe it...well, I ordered the book on Amazon very quickly to get some insight into his Fatal Guantanamo Ritual Abuse Satanic Federal Court brain. Thus my 748-page-long journey started.

The first thing you need to know is that the part of the book that is shown in the preview is indeed romantic as fuck - but that part is only up to page 215 and isn't picked up again until page 710 - and even then it's only sort of  revisited. You might ask yourself if the last 38 pages of a book is really the time to start wrapping up the original plot and the answer is no, absolutely not, and the ending is truly ambiguous. It's one of those 'you get to decide how you think it ends' except, very annoyingly, the narrator ACTUALLY says "You must answer within your own heart." If I wanted to answer within my own heart I would write fanfiction.

Now onto the actual book, and I will try very hard to limit my cursing: the novel is a bit of magical realism and follows multiple plot lines over a long period of time with shifting perspectives that eventually interact. I love magical realism (Marquez, Murakami, and Bender are all favorites) and the structure is one I really enjoy (Everything Is Illuminated and A Visit From the Goon Squad are also favorites). I was really ready to love this book.

The first chunk of the book is about Peter Lake, a burglar and general criminal who is incredibly charming and handsome and the Penn family. Poppa Penn is wise, realistic, and hilarious; his daughter Beverly Penn is beautiful and ill, and the family is the kind that you wish you were raised in.  This is the romantic chunk.

The second chunk of the book is a few generations into the future and centers around the newspapers published by the Penn family and gives the background of various employees in their journey to work there. Virginia Gamely, from the magical Lake of the Coheeries, travels to New York City and starts working there.  Hardesty Marratta whose incredibly wealthy father's will says "All my worldly possessions, ownerships, receivables, shares, interests, rights, and royalties, shall go to one of my sons. The Maratta salver, which is on the long table in my study, will go to the other. Hardesty will decide." Hardesty - mountaineer dirt bagger - takes the salver which cryptically says "For what can be imagined more beautiful than the sight of a perfectly just city rejoicing in justice alone" and heads off to New York City and eventually works for the newspaper as well. There is a lot of talk about what this "perfectly just city" is or should be. The gorgeous Christiana who goes from being a wealthy man's armpiece to...working for the Penn family who owns the newspaper. This goes on for hundreds of pages. Also sprinkled in their little stories are the story of a gang chasing a man, the story of a man who doesn't know who he is, the story of a Mayor being overthrown, and the story of a giant ship that is impossibly large and has mysterious plans.

All of the book is overly descriptive:
"Peter Lake's eyes were the only vital part of his face as they took in the quickening images that hurtled past, and they moved with machinelike, supernatural speed, fastening precisely upon every detail, catching a glimpse of more of each of the billions that he was assigned to see. The velocity and rhythm of these many lives combined into a pure and otherworldly whistle, like that of a loon in the deep forests on a still, clear night. They lay in all positions. Some were merely dust, others the ivory bones that children fear, spookishly luminescent. In unending scenes and drolleries, they clutched amulets, tools, and coins." (this description continues for a whole page). 

Some of the book is romantic:
"He could say nothing. He had no right to be there, he had already been profoundly changed, he was not good at small talk, she was half naked, it was dawn, and he loved her."

Some of the book has observations that I agree with:
"Well, actually," he said, "I seldom watch television myself - only the good programs. You know, the culture stuff."
"What's the difference what you watch?...No matter what it is, if you don't move your eyes and set the pace yourself, your intellect is sentenced to death...And besides, you just watch all those dramatizations of literature because you've forgotten how to read...Give me a night by the fire, with a book in my hand, not that flickering rectangular son of a bitch that sits screaming in every living room in the land."
(I felt very self-congratulatory reading this because I was camping and reading it next to a fire - that I later dropped the book into - and I feel very self-congratulatory re-reading this now because as I write Serious Book Reviews, my boyfriend is buying a television).

Some of the book is philosophical (okay, a  lot of the book is this [ok, like, most of it]):
"The universe is still and complete. Everything that ever was, is; everything that ever will be, is - and so on, in all possible combinations. Though in perceiving it we imagine that it is in motion, and unfinished, it is quite finished and quite astonishingly beautiful. In the end, or, rather, as things really are, any event, no matter how small, is intimately and sensibly tied to all others. All rivers run full to the sea; those who are apart are brought together; the lost ones are redeemed; the dead come back to life; the perfectly blue days that have begun and ended in golden dimness continue, immobile and accessible; and, when all is perceived in such a way as to obviate time, justice becomes apparent not as something that will be, but as something that is."

Some of the book has that Ayn Rand feel where the author is trying to brainwash you within the story. I can't find the exact quote, but the newspaper that everyone works for that is this amazing place to work for pays everyone in shares and the longer you work there or the more education you receive or the more whatever you receive, you get more shares, and thus you have incentive to work harder and make the newspaper make more money that way your salary goes up, but everyone's goes up together or down together depending on profit...something like that.

The thing that really drove me crazy, besides the way-too-many plots, the overly descriptive writing, the ambiguous ending, the uninteresting political crap that wasn't political because their debates were just about how winter is awesome and the above TV quote, the fantastical elements that seemed to have no purpose, was the description of women. Mark Helprin does not believe that average looking women deserve to be in novels. Every. Woman. Is. Utterly. Perfect. Perfection. Perfect. What follows are descriptions of women - some are main characters, and some we only see in the scene quoted - from the novel. To clarify, each bullet point is a different woman.

  • She looked no more than fourteen or fifteen, had astonishing green eyes, and red hair that was piled up in beautiful waves and falling tresses. She was freckled...she had a most attractive bosom...the girl, in fact, was twenty-seven years old.
  • She was a red-haired beauty, an Amazon...she was perfect and insatiable. Each breast was a marvel. Her forest of red pubic hair was soft, fragrant, and deep. She was as white as ivory...
  • Her golden hair was lit so brilliantly in a crosslight that it appeared to be burning like the sun...she was beautiful...perfectly formed, rich, and young...lovely blushing girl...she was beautiful...her limbs, smoother and more perfect than ivory, beautiful in themselves as examples of form, beautiful in their motion...she was beautiful, half naked, glowing...
  • Anarinda was very beautiful...Oh, Anarinda, breasts as round as clams, Thighs as smooth as flounder's soul, Hair as gold as hay. In you my bell shall toll...
  • Her broad face was so perfectly beautiful above a high gray collar...that she seemed like a goddess...
  • One was small and had red hair..The other was much larger and far more sensual...and she had flying blond hair, red cheeks...Little Liza Jane was sixteen, and fully developed. Dolly was still pubescent, but what she lacked in volume she made up for in freshness..her dancing bosom...he opened his eyes to feast upon the many breasts and legs in the bed. But they were all tangled up in one another already, and the two girls were breathing in slow lascivious hisses...They were not interested in him, although they let him enter and satisfy himself several times...
  • she was still painfully beautiful...not to mention, her beauty...
  • And Jessica Penn, standing, was an unmistakable fusion of womanly beauty and ripening sex
  • I knew that you would be the most beautiful woman in the world. And goddammit, you are.

There are more examples, because again, it's basically every woman in the novel. I wish I could better articulate why it's so bothersome to have fully featured men who are short or tall or skinny or fat or old or snub nosed or ANYTHING and then only have these perfectly beautiful women. Every time a woman was introduced I had to roll my eyes through the description.

In 750-pages you can read super detailed imagery, philosophical rants, magical realism/fantasy that doesn't really WORK, a few chase scenes, a few fight scenes, a few scenes that make no sense and are not explained in any manner, and a lot of beautiful women who exist to be fallen in love with and/or fucked by men in weird ways - I just don't know why you would want to. I really didn't and finished four books between starting and ending this novel.

The boyfriend says he's going to reread the book, and I'm very curious to see if his memory of the book matches up to what he reads.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

I had just come to accept that my life would be ordinary when extraordinary things begin to happen. The first of these came as a terrible shock and, like anything that changes you forever, split my life into two halves: Before and After.

"Keep talking about monsters and they're gonna put you away. Then you really will be Special Ed."
"Don't call me that."
He flicked away his cigarette and spat a huge glistening wad over the railing.
"Were you just smoking and chewing tobacco at the same tie?"
"What are you, my mom?"
"Do I look like I blow truckers for food stamps?"

The first compelling aspect of this novel is the cover. I don't think anyone can walk by it and not be interested. The only thing that stopped me from actually picking up the novel for so long is the word 'children' and knowing that all my freshmen had read it in middle school - I thought it would be a little 'young' for me in spite of my hardcore love for young adult literature. And then I got to the part where the protagonist makes a very offensive yo' mamma joke and I was stoked to go on. The combination of the fantastic and beautiful with the cynical and real is one of the things I really enjoyed about this book - the contrast makes the fantastic more lovely and the cynical more hilarious. 

As mentioned in my Divergent review, "Young adult novels seem to come in two genres lately: the Normal Kid Who Discovers a Secret World That They're Suddenly a Part Of and the World Run By Suspicious Government That Teenage Hero Must Fight" - this book falls into the former category. 

Jacob, a teenage boy, grows up on his Granpa Portman's stories about his childhood. He was a kid in WWII and survives by being sent off to a boarding school. He tells Jacob fantastic stories about this place where little girls float and little boys have bees living in their bellies - and of course has photos to prove their existence. As Jacob grows older, he realizes that these stories are impossible, and cynically disbelieves them and becomes too 'cool' to listen to them (like all good young adult protagonists, he is an outcast and not cool at all). After his grandfather's death he becomes fixated on the idea of finding the school and the woman who saved Granpa Portman from the war and finangles his way to the island off of Wales where the school was. 

(Total side note: A recent Holocaust event in my city involved three Holocaust survivors and one woman whose parents were survivors. We have had so many novels and non-fiction written from the perspective of survivors, and I find it really interesting that we are now looking to the second and third generation to tell their stories - either fiction or non. This book is similar to Everything Is Illuminated in that a younger generation is trying to reach back to the older generation who has been lost to discover what their lives and experiences were like.)

I don't think it's a spoiler to say that he does find the home and the children certainly are peculiar, but there are more surprises than that happening here. It is a mystery story, a family drama, and of course there is a romantic interest. Battles must be fought and choices must be made and it belongs firmly in the fantasy and young adult genres. 

But the coolest part of the book is by far the photographs:

The book ends with an acknowledgements page that says: "All the pictures in this book are authentic, vintage found photographs, and with the exception of a few that have undergone minimal postprocessing, they are unaltered." 

My book also comes with an interview with the author and he describes his process by saying: "I started collecting vintage snapshots...I noticed that among the photos I found, the strangest and most intriguing ones were always of children. I began to wonder who some of these strange-looking children had been - what their stories I thought: If I can't know their real stories, I'll make them up."

Finding out his process made the book that much more interesting and of course I had to go back through and pour over all the photos to see how the original photographer created these haunting images...he doesn't photoshop them to make them more 'realistic' and in some it's obvious that they were double processed or simply cut and pasted, but that makes the whole book more charming.

I look forward to reading the sequel, but this one did not end with such a cliffhanger as to require buying it in hardcover (the Divergent ones, on the other hand, had me going to MULTIPLE Targets to find the sequels, and I happily paid hardcover prices for them).