Monday, October 27, 2008

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

"Before I even mention me, I should tell you some other facts: 1. At nineteen, Bob Dylan was a seasoned performer in Greenwich Village, New York. 2. Salvador Dali had already produced several outstanding artworks of paint and rebellion by the time he was nineteen. 3. Joan of Arc was the most wanted woman in the world at nineteen, having created a revolution. Then there's Ed Kennedy, also nineteen... No real career. No respect in the community. Nothing."

I enjoyed the actual process of reading this book but once it was over and I discussed it with some people in my Young Adult Lit class, I realized how sloppy the novel actually was. Despite some problems that I had with a few major plot points, the novel was still redeemable up until the final chapter where everything came together in a way that was far too neatly packaged and a bit too didactic for my likings. I will give Zusak this, though-- the novel plays out in a way that made me see each event unfold as it happened, and it was a lot more like I was watching a movie than it was like I was reading a book. Maybe that's common for other people and my imagination is lacking, but that doesn't happen for me very often.

The main character, Ed, is in a bank depositing his paycheck from the cab company he works for when a bank robbery goes down. Although he is an unlikely hero, Ed still manages to save the day. After his short fifteen minutes of fame end, he goes back to his normal life sharing his shack with his dog the Doorman, chasing his best friend Audrey who is too busy being a tart to acknowledge his affinity for her, and playing cards with his underachiever friends when he's not carting people around town in his cab. Everything is fine until the cards start coming in the mail, where he must "protect the diamonds, survive the clubs, dig deep through the spades, and feel the hearts." He becomes The Messenger, delivering people what they need and not knowing who is sending him or why. Without giving the plot away, I'll just say this-- I Am the Messenger reminded me a lot of a toned down version of The Boondock Saints without any of the murder. Sometimes he's helping lonely old women and priests, but other times he's beating the snot out of young punks and pistol whipping abusive men. You never really know what he is or isn't capable of or what he's going to have to do next. Since the instructions on the cards sent to him are vague, he has to assess situations himself and find out how to make life better for the people he has to protect. If he doesn't take care of a situation in an appropriate or timely matter, he knows his life is at stake.

Zusak has a YA bestseller set during the Holocaust called The Book Thief that I want to read, but I think I'll wait a while before picking one of his books up again.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Real Time by Pnina Moed Kass

Spoilers, kind of.

In our post-911 world, it is sometimes hard to remember that terrorists are humans just as we are. This novel was difficult to read because we got to know the terrorists, Omar and Sameh, as well as we get to know their victims. Both boys are sixteen-year-old Palestinians living on the outskirts of Jerusalem. As Sameh tells us, "All over the world sixteen is paradise, opportunity, girls, cars, everything. I watch television in Omar's house and see sixteen... Here sixteen is the magic age of death... A sixteen-year-old is a walking grave. Why give a job to someone about to die? Kids who explode themselves and kill Israelis have no future, so don't give them a future" (22). His family is living in poverty and so Sameh has found work illegally with a Jewish man willing to pay him under the table so that Sameh can provide for his mother and siblings. When Omar tells him that if he becomes a shaheed, a suicide bomber, his family will be provided for forever, Sameh decides to sign on for the task and blow up a bus at a popular stop where there are often a large number of soldiers. When the time comes, Sameh sees that there is a mother with a newborn and cannot go through with the bombing. Unfortunately, Omar is on a van trailing the bus and goes through with detonating the bomb.

The other characters that we get to know are all living on a Kibbutz that they have escaped to for their various reasons. Lidia had to flee from her home in Argentina. Baruch Ben Tov, an elderly Holocaust survivor, finds comfort in his work as the Kibbutz' head gardener. Vera moved to the Kibbutz because her lover had killed himself and she needed to find something that would give her own life meaning after she was left behind. Thomas is a teenager whose Grandfather was a Nazi in WWII that is traveling to the Kibbutz at the beginning of the novel to find out what his grandfather did and to do something positive for the Jewish community as means of some kind of apology he feels that he owes for his predecessors. Vera picks Thomas up at the airport to take him to the Kibbutz but on the way back they both end up on the bus that is Omar and Sameh's target.

Real Time is written so that the perspective is constantly jumping from one character to another so that you get everyone's back stories in bits and pieces and you experience all of their grief and shock in a personal way. Reading the book made me extremely emotional because it was believable and written in a way that the reader could easily become invested in the characters--even the characters that weren't easy to like or understand. What I found to be the most touching was the interaction between Baruch Ben Tov and Thomas. At the beginning of the novel, Baruch is understandably apprehensive about working with a young German boy but still carefully lays out his visitors' room so that he will feel welcome. When Thomas is wounded and in the hospital, Baruch is the one that visits with him and takes care of him, speaking in Thomas' own language to bring the boy comfort despite feeling that the language and everything that went with it has been a harsh intrusion into his own life.

The climax is the bombing of course, but the most significant part of the book is what comes after when the characters are all trying to heal and work their way through what has happened. At the end of the book, a new voice is brought in, and another attack is being planned to illustrate the cycle is never ending. It wasn't the way that I wanted the book to end but given that the world we live in is such a dangerous place it is probably the only way the book could end realistically.

I think that this is a very important text. We often try to protect young adults from the realities of the world that we live in but I don't know that that's what is best for them. I think that exposing them to truth, even if it is through a fictional work such as this, is the best way to help them so that the world doesn't seem as shocking when they have to accept it as it is all at once later on.

Stop Pretending: What Happened When My Big Sister Went Crazy by Sanya Sones

Stop Pretending is a fictionalized account of the author's own sister's mental breakdown told entirely in poetry.

The story is told through the eyes of the younger sister, Cookie, who at thirteen idolized her older sister (simply referred to as Sister) until the breakdown happened on Christmas Eve. The episode began when Sister tried to run barefoot to Christmas Eve midnight Mass despite the fact that she was Jewish and barely dressed, covered only by her nightgown. After a long night full over other manic behavior, she is taken to a hospital's psychiatric ward to be institutionalized.

The story follows Cookie as her friends drop off one by one, her family unit falls apart under the weight of sudden unexpected stresses, and as she struggles to reconcile the girl in the hospital that does not recognize her during visits with the older sister that she use to look up to, steal clothing from, and go to for advice.

The poetry in Stop Pretending is not particularly well written. I liked the book, regardless, though. As the daughter of a man who is manic-depressive, the things that Sones wrote about rang true, obviously due to the fact that the poems were based off of the journal entries written in her youth about her sister. I appreciated that she portrayed all sides of the spectrum-- the good days, the bad days, the days that the person you're talking to is sometimes on a completely different planet. Beyond her writing about manic depression, her writing about simply being a teenage girl seemed honest an accurate as well. One of my favorite poems in the book is "Secret Rendezvous at the Full Moon Cafe" where she wrote about synchronizing her watch with her boyfriend's so that at the stroke of midnight they could look out on the moon at exactly the same time. That seemed like something I would have done at that age.

Stop Pretending isn't a book that I can see myself recommending to anyone but it is a book that I'm sure I would to have loved stumbling over when I was in middle school or maybe freshman year of high school.

For information about mental illness, check out NAMI, The National Alliance for the Mentally Ill.

Stuck in Neutral by Terry Trueman

With only 114 pages, this book can be read in an hour or less. That doesn't make reading it any less painful, however, as it might be one of the worst young adult fiction books I have ever read. At any rate, it certainly knocks The Southpaw out of the place for the book that I have enjoyed reading the least.

The thing is that the book probably should be interesting given the content. Shawn is a fourteen-year-old boy much like anyone else you would meet his age minus the fact that he has a case of Cerebral palsy so bad that he cannot control his muscles at all--not to speak, to move, or even control where his gaze is directed. Given that he has no way to communicate, everyone around him thinks that he has a severe case of retardation and has the mental capacity of a four-month-old while in fact Shawn is extremely smart and has a photographic memory. (I personally don't find this to be believable, but if this had been well written, I feel like it could have been effective.) The only time that he can get out of himself is when he has grand mal seizures which create a kind of out of body expierence for him where he can visit the people he loves with his spirit and enjoy the bodily sensations that he misses out on-- running, laughing, etc.

Shawn's father is a dead beat dad that is never around and has left the family. Regardless of his status as a father, he has gained national fame due to Shawn's condition because he published a poem about his "relationship" with Shawn that led to multiple talk show appearances and media attention. When Shawn's father finds about a man who killed his young son Colin to stop Colin's suffering due to his inoperable seizure condition, Shawn's father begins to entertain the thought of euthanizing his own son because he thinks that might be what's best. Through the novel, we watch Shawn panic as he tries to figure out whether or not his father will go through with it and kill him.

The one part of the novel that I strongly reacted to was the scene where Shawn's father goes into Shawn's special education classroom and says this:

"Shawn is profoundly developmentally disabled. I'm here with him today at his school. You might not be aware of it, but your tax dollars, to the tune of thirty-five thousand dollars a year in services, staffing, special equipment, and a wide variety of additional expenses, are used to support each and every uneducable child, like Shawn, in programs designed to educate the uneducable. That's thirty-five thousand dollars per child, per year, year in and year out. If 'educating the ineducable' sounds just a little too paradoxical to you, well that's exactly why we're here today, at Shoreline High School. We've come to visit my son and honestly examine just what your money is buying."

I seriously doubt that a student in a condition as extreme as Shawn's would be in a public classroom at all, but regardless, I became a bit upset about the arguement he continued to present about why there should not be an effort to educate the severely disabled in the public school system that are, in his words, uneducable. We got into a heated debate about this in the class that I'm reading it for (an education class, mind you) and I might or might have not flown off my handle at a handful of my fellow students. Moving on, though...

The most interesting thing about this novel was that it was written by a man who has a son (Sheehan) with cerebral palsy that has been identified as developmentally disabled in the same ways as Shawn was in the book. While I don't have children and I understand that Stuck in Neutral is a work of fiction, I can't imagine being a mother writing about a mother killing a child similar to my own, even if it was in their interest. I don't doubt for a second that Trueman loves his son but the father in the novel seemed like he was exploiting his son much more than he was acting out of love for him. To read about Trueman went through as a father you can read his interview here. (You must scroll down past the biographical information to get to it.)

There is a sequel to this book told from Shawn's brother Paul's perspective, titled Cruise Control.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Sounds of the River by Da Chen

Colors of the mountain will never leave our door
Sounds of the river will linger forever in our ears.

-- a couplet painted on the door of the old Chen house

I read Colors of the Mountain late last year. I liked it so much that I gave the book to my brother for Christmas, knowing that he too would enjoy it. I told him that the book was great but also informed him that when he came to the end, he would feel like the story was not over. (I ended my review of the book by stating much the same thing.) However, my brother is much smarter than I am. After he finished the book, he looked to see if Da Chen wrote another.

Sounds of the River literally picks up right where Colors of the Mountain left off. Da is getting ready to leave Yellow Stone to go to college in Beijing. This a dream come to for Da and his family. Little does he know that corrupt teachers, suicidal roommates, and poor living conditions await his arrival in Beijing. But the same dogged determination that got Da into college helps him to survive and even prevail. He become a voracious student of the English language, going from the bottom of his class to the very top. His knowledge of English lands him a sidejob as an interpreter for the Sports Ministry. A couple of chapters are devoted to the time Da spent as a translator and guide to a group of NBA stars touring China. Da's dealing with the NBA stars is hilarious, especially his interactions with Kareem Abdul Jabbar.

With Sounds of the River, Da Chen strikes the same balance as he did with his first book. He candidly describes his time in Beijing, with both poignance and humor. Da grapples with love, death, and religion, causing this book to strike a more mature tone than Colors of the Mountain. Sounds of the River ends with Da preparing to go to America, leaving me feeling much the same way that I did when I finished the first book. This time I checked, but unfortunately there is no third book. Hopefully Da is working on it.

Friday, October 17, 2008

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon

I recall that once my favorite English teacher from high school noticed that I was reading Tom Wolfe's A Man in Full, a book he admitted to having read but didn't seem to care for. "Well," he said, "I'll say this--the man knows how to spin a good yarn." It wasn't really a compliment, but I think that his sarcasm betrayed a certain notion that plot is somehow subordinate to Big Ideas. Is that notion misguided or justified? I'm not certain--but surely to dismiss Wolfe's plot-making ability as little more than quality weaving is to slight a literary skill too rare in modern literature.

Such is the recorded opinion of Michael Chabon, who admits to missing the "ripping yarns" of the genre fiction of yore. It's in that vein that he delivers The Yiddish Policemen's Union, a hulking Frankenstein's monster cobbled from bits of alternative history, Philip Marlowe novels, and Rothian postmodernism. Though YPU provides enough material philosophical and spiritual for the reader to ruminate upon, it is first and foremost a novel of things happening, meant to be marveled at. Though it may be a fruitless task, I will attempt to synopsize:

The divergence point of Chabon's alt-history is the 1948 death by car crash of Anthony Dimond, representative of the territory of Alaska to Washington. Apparently in our world it was Dimond who squashed Harold Ickes' proposal to create a protected Federal district for the temporary residence of Jews in Sitka, Alaska. In Chabon's world, the proposal passes with Dimond out of the way, and soon millions of Jews are seeking refuge in the Sitka District: The "Frozen Chosen."

Fast forward to 2008, the 60-year anniversary of the settlement, and the expiration date of the agreement, which means that "Reversion" is imminent for the Jewish district and soon most of Alaska's three million Jews will be refugees once again. If that wasn't story enough for you, Chabon layers on top of this the story of Meyer Landsman, a detective investigating a gunshot homicide perpetrated in his own building that seems to have ties to the Verbovers, a powerful and mafia-like Orthodox sect of Jews that live on a nearby island.

If that isn't enough for you, wait! I haven't even mentioned that Landsman's partner is also his cousin and half Tlingit Indian, or that his father was a chess prodigy and his uncle a former police chief disgraced by accusations of embezzlement, or that Landsman left his ex-wife because he couldn't bear dealing with the pain of having convinced her to have an abortion, or that the homicide victim is reputed to have been the Tzaddik Ha-Dor, the once-in-a-generation would-be Messiah, or that the victim's death is somehow related to Landsman's sister's death in a plane crash, or that all of this seems to be tied into a shadowy conspiracy cooked up between Alaskan Hasidim and the evangelical United States president to return Israel to Jewish control. Whew. Breathe.

Clearly, The Big Sleep, this is not--Raymond Chandler's tight and careful plotting produced books under 200 pages; Chabon doubles that but stuffs in enough that it would have felt more comfortable at twice that again. But while Chabon hasn't quite got the noir genre's laconicness down pat, he does a good job with Landsman, into whom he funnels as much of Philip Marlowe's personality as is possible. The genius of this lies in the dialogue--I had never made the connection between the kind of rapid-fire quips that characterize noir and the brusque recursiveness of Jewish humor, but there it is. I am reminded of Mastrionotti and Deutsch* from the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink; it is no surprise that it is the Coens who are slated to begin filming YPU early next year.

But back to the book. Reading it feels like traveling through the legendary and labyrinthine Warsaw tunnels which run beneath Sitka, but when you emerge on the other side, what are you left with? For one, you are left with a mess. It's hard not to feel that YPU has a few ideas too many, and some of them could have been left on the cutting-room floor. For another, you are left with the unfortunate conclusion that while you weep for the fate of the Jews, for whom the Disapora comes with a countdown this time around, it is much more difficult to feel pity for the individual characters of this novel, who are drawn a little too broadly and rely a little too heavily on their archetypes.

Thirdly, you may be left with the opinion of Richard Johnson of the New York Post, who titles his Page Six piece "Novelist's Ugly Views of Jews." This is, of course, the Post, which could sensationalize a ham sandwich, but I wish to briefly unpack the criticism here: Mainly Johnson takes issue with the fact that YPU "depicts Jews as constantly in conflict with one another, and its villains are a ruthless, ultra-Orthodox sect that resembles the Lubavitchers." What exactly is Johnson's understanding of Judaism today, that its various sects are friendly in a way that the splinter denominations of Islam and Christianity have failed to be since their inception? In fact, I think that Chabon's depiction of internecine conflict among the Sitka Jews is one of the novel's great successes; in a population of three million Jews with no Palestinians to brush against (though the native Indians serve this position to some extent), isn't it natural that such issues would arise along sectarian and secular lines? Johnson's criticism is pure silliness, and I have not seen it repeated by any respectable source.

And yet, let me bring up something that Johnson does not: One of the most poisonous and absurd claims made about Jews today is that they have extensive control over world institutions like the media and the United States Government. This idea is particularly pervasive in Islamic communities and the controversial specter of it taints even serious academic work, like Mearsheimer and Walt's claims about the undue influence of the Israel Lobby. By presenting a "ripping yarn" in which a cabal of Orthodox Jews plot to undermine the stability of world events, isn't Chabon playing into the hands of such absurdity? And even if the Post is too dim to pick up on it, doesn't that in a way back up their claims that YPU reinforces an ugly stereotype?

That question is more rhetorical than it sounds; I bring up the issue only to bring it up and would probably argue against it in the end. But I do think that it contributes to one aspect that did leave a bad taste in my mouth: YPU, for all its concern with religious issues, seems at times to have a rather uncomplex attitude toward religion in general. Though we might argue about the significance of it, the villains of the novel are conspiratorial Jews--and its heroes are humorous, self-effacing, Woody Allen-like ones--and what's more, they're aided by an amoral and evangelical president who wants to bring on the End Times. Though I understand this is the perception many have of our sitting president, it seems to me to evidence a certain lack of nuance on Chabon's part. There is no worth, I believe, in fiction that does not subvert our expectations, and while Chabon distracts us with the aurora borealis of conceit and plot, the cast lacks the capability to surprise us.

Don't think that I'm not recommending the book, I am--sometimes a good story is good enough. Let us not forget that one of the most powerful people in Jewish Sitka is Itzak Zimbalist, the boundary maven. It is against Jewish law to carry anything across boundaries on the Sabbath, a law circumvented by creating makeshift boundaries with rope, cable or wire around entire communities, and it is the boundary maven who is in charge of keeping this border, the eruv, intact. So do not doubt the power of string, the effectiveness of a "good yarn."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Magus by John Fowles

If The Magus has any "real significance," it is no more than that of the Rorschach test in psychology. Its meaning is whatever reaction it provokes in the reader, and so far as I am concerned there is no given "right" reaction.
--John Fowles

Whew. That's a relief. Because I can tell you now, I have as little idea of what The Magus means as when I started. But you know, I don't really mind, because even if I'm a little fuzzy on the concepts, there is no book like The Magus. I cannot remember the last time a piece of literature had me so on edge--it is a book that thrives on suspense, and not just the "erotic adventures" and "terrifying violence" promised by the jacket.

The protagonist of the book is Nicholas Urfe, a young Londoner just out of college who takes a job as an English teacher on the remote Greek isle of Phraxos in order to escape a messy and ruined relationship with an Australian girl named Alison. (Okay, so, besides the school being in Greece, does that sound like anyone you know?) Before he leaves he is warned by his predecessor not to fraternize with a particular man, a foreign millionaire who owns a mansion on the island's west side and is widely believed to have helped the Nazis during their occupation of Greece.

But of course, Nicholas' interest is piqued and he ends up visiting the man, whose name is Maurice Conchis, at Bourani, his massive estate. Conchis begins to tell him the story of his life, and asks Nicholas to return and stay with him each weekend. But after a while strange things begin to happen--mysterious figures appear, seeming illustrations of the stories that Conchis tells. No sooner does Conchis tell him about his childhood sweetheart who died decades ago than Nicholas, lulled out of the guestroom at night by the sound of music, comes downstairs to find Conchis playing piano accompanied by a young girl on recorder, the spitting image of his long-dead lover. It is all a game, of course, but the underlying lesson is always just out of Nicholas' grasp. It is as if he is trapped in a grotesque performance, a masque, and it can be truly bizarre. Here he is walking down on the beach with the girl, whose name is Lily, and looking back toward the house:

A figure appeared on the terrace, not fifty feet away, facing and above me. It was Lily. It couldn't be her, but it was her. The same hair blew about in the wind; the dress, the sunshade, the figure, the face, everything was the same. She was staring out to sea, over my head, totally ignoring me.

It was a wild, dislocating, disactualizing shock. Yet I knew within the first few seconds that although I was obviously meant to believe that this was the same girl as the one I had just left down on the beach, it was not. But it was so like her that it could be only one thing--a twin sister. There were two Lilies in the field. I had no time to think. Another figure appeared beside the Lily on the terrace.

It was a man, much too tall to be Conchis... I couldn't see, becasue the figure was in all black, shrouded in the sun, and wearing the most sinister mask I had ever seen: the head of an enormous black jackal, with a long muzzle and high pointed ears. They stood there, the possessor and the possessed, looming death and the frail maiden.

There are twin sisters; Nicholas sees through that ruse instantly. But what he cannot see through is the next layer of the ruse, and when he does, he is met instantly with the next. Conchis' explanations shift, he readily drops one explanation for another while intimating something completely different; he is playing three or four hands at a time. This is what makes The Magus so fascinating; the game is labyrinthine, circular, impenetrable. So many books and films play with this conceit--one man trapped in the mind-games of another--but their games are so simple and flimsy. But there is no opportunity for Nicholas to gain any sort of understanding of what lies behind the masks; behind the doors there are only more doors. He falls in love with Lily, but which explanation of her identity can he trust? Is she a ghost? An actress? A psychological patient? Or perhaps a psychologist herself? Or maybe, like Conchis, simply a pure sadist?

And truly there must be sadism here. There is no other way to explain just how vicious the game becomes. Nicholas' amusement fades to abject desperation and terror; while the players in the game never pretend that it is anything but, the stakes begin to look increasingly serious. Mental abuse morphs into physical abuse, and Conchis plays one trick that is so savage, so heartbreaking, that it makes the book's final chapters difficult to read. I had to stop myself from writing that the masque "spins out of control," because as dark as it becomes, every move seems preordained by Conchis, and culminates in a surreal tableau that reminds me of Heironymous Bosch, or perhaps the end of The Man Who Was Thursday viewed in negative.

Ultimately, perhaps it was foolish of me to expect such an unwieldy trick to tie itself neatly at the end, and moreover I expect that if Conchis' motivations could be explained away in a pithy sentence, the masque would hardly have been worth it. But the book is so heavily decked in concept, in philosophy and ideas, that I feel as if I, like Nicholas, have come out the other end of the ordeal with very little to show for it. What is it he--and I--are meant to understand? While in a way I am relieved by Fowles' quote above, I consider it also a bit of a copout.

I recall a blog post by my friend Helen that suggested that there can be no humility without humiliation. I wonder if that isn't part of it--Conchis games are, ultimately, quite cruel--but Nicholas in many ways is a puffed-up little shit and treats Alison quite cruelly himself. Nicholas comes out of the ordeal a different person, a better person; he has been broken and remade. But what of his anger, which is surely justified? Once the anger is gone, as is true in so many cases, there is only sadness, and it is that sadness which is transformative; he cannot be remade if he is not broken and there is no way to break a dish gently.

The greatest flaw of this book is that it succeeds on account of its terrific plot when it wishes to succeed on account of its ideas. But that's hardly damning, isn't it?

The Giver by Lois Lowry

Somehow I never got around to reading The Giver in middle school, which is a shame, because I think it might have given my impressionable little mind quite a bit to think about. It is, essentially, 1984 for the tween set, a slim dystopian novel written from the perspective of a teenager.

The protagonist, Jonas, is about to enter into the Ceremony of Twelve, in which he will be assigned the career which has been chosen for him. The village of The Giver thrives because these assignments are well-made; the council who decides them observes the children painstakingly so that they might make the best decision possible. The society in which Jonas lives is peaceful and self-sufficient, lacking in physical and emotional pain but, as we come to learn later, lacks also the pleasures that come with taking risk--that is to say, concepts such as love, adventure, and even sex.

But there is one man in the village still familiar with these things: The Giver. His job is the most secretive, and in many ways the most powerful in the village. He has collected all the collective memories which might endanger the stability of the society, memories that include not only exquisite happiness but terrible pain. Jonas' assignment--to the surprise of everyone--is that of Receiver, or the Giver-in-training to whom the Giver must bequeath all his memories before he dies. Throughout the process, Jonas becomes privy to not only what society can be, if risk is not eliminated, but also to the darker side of his own society that ensures its survival. The Giver reveals to Jonas that the village is built on a system of euthanasia which eliminates the elderly as well as undesired children.

I can think of few young adult books that can boast of as many strong and affective scenes as The Giver. One of my favorites comes when Jonas, having experienced love through the Givers' memories, asks his parents--two people to whom he has been assigned, and have been assigned to each other--if they love him. They chide him for his "imprecise language," saying that they desire his success, and enjoy his company, but love--what is that, exactly? Love is messy, and has necessarily been eradicated.

And yet, I have the same for The Giver that I do for many dystopian novels. I feel that the strongest dystopian novels are terrifying because it is easy to see that society might one way inexorably dissolve into the world depicted, but so many set up philosophical straw men in that they depict societies that have no redeeming features whatsoever. The best dystopias are seductive, and Lowry seems to establish the positive attributes of hers, but who really would ever argue that such an anesthetized, numb society would really be preferable to our own? I understand that the village, as in all dystopias, is meant as symbol, the reductio ad absurdum of dangerous ideas, but I am not sure what real ideas Lowry means to counteract.

I think the truth must lie in the fact that this is a young adult book, and those ideas which Lowry wishes to repel are ideas that foster in the minds of the young. It is a strongly didactic book, and seems to boil down to the simple truism that great happiness is impossible without great pain. I find great similarities between this and Tuck Everlasting--which I noted can be reduced to the idea that life necessitates death--but I reiterate that this is a lesson no serious adult needs. Am I wrong? I may be. But still I think that both books lack the sophistication that some of the best juvenile fiction possesses, and which enables them to be read and enjoyed by both children and adults.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Tribulation Force by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins

"The Red Horse of the Apocalypse was on the rampage."

This is a horribly boring book. It made me feel as if I had brain rot. The first 400 pages are a complete reiteration of the first book, Left Behind. Because the first book and the first 400 of this one as well, are about what happens in the first few weeks after the tribulation, there is very little plot and it moves along at less than a snail's pace.

All of the characters are incredibly shallow. They don't evoke any emotion or concern for themselves, the lost world around them, or the tragic events that rip their lives apart. No main character in the story resists God or salvation, and Buck, yeah, Buck has long hair that he blow dries.

OK, so what do the authors take 450 pages to tell us? Buck gets to meet the wall wailers and moves to NY to be a publisher of the Anti-Christ's newspaper, Rayford becomes the pilot for the Anti-Christ and inexplicably gets married, a leading Rabbi gets saved and announces on TV that Jesus is the Messiah, Bruce dies, Chloe finally marries the world renown and virgin journalist Buck and last but not least the treaty signaling the beginning if the tribulation is signed in Jerusalem. All of which would easily have fit on the back of this massive volume. It might also be worth noting that both marriages including Rayford and Amanda's entire relationship and Bruce's death all happen in the last 50 pages, and yes, the wedding IS a double ceremony.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Paper Money by Ken Follett

Characters: Tony Cox, Mrs. Cox, Tim Fitzpeterson, Dizi Disney, Felix Laski, Arthur Cole, Kevin Hart, Derek and Ellen Hamilton, Deaf Willie, and Billy.

So, the book starts in the middle of the story, with politician Tim Fitzpeterson being set up to have an affair with Dizi Disney. He takes the bate, and the next morning Tony Cox comes to his door, and blackmails him in order to find out which company will be granted a licence to drill oil.

Every chapter until the midpoint of the book introduces a new character, and unfolds a little more of what is going on. Basically, some time back, these two losers, Tony and Felix, met up in a casino. They both boasted about being guys who could get any info they wanted, Tony through sex and Felix through money. So, they wanted to see which was more effective. Tony has to find out which company will be licenced to drill and Felix has to find out the route of an armored truck carrying over a million in cash.

They both get the info they are looking for, and when they exchange this information, Tony robs the truck and Felix buys the failing company, who's shares will sky rocket once the licence is released. Of course some mishaps happen along the way.

The newspaper is also having trouble getting a story, I guess nothing is happening today. But, everyone who is involved with this drama keeps calling the paper with a potential story, which they are unable to use until they verify it. Arthur Cole is the editor of the paper and Kevin Hart is the reporter. Kevin figures out what is going on, but he never gets proof enough to publish.

Mrs. Hamilton is having an affair with Felix. The thought of sleeping with her husband repulses her, but she wants to love him. So, she gives each man an ultimatum, Derek can sell the company and they will live happily ever after, or Felix can step it up and marry her and she will leave Derek.

During the robbery, Deaf Willie gets shot in the face. His handicapped son hears that Tony Cox did it. So, Billy walks to Tony's house to kill him. Tony isn't home, so Billy stabs his dog and mother to death instead.

In the end, it is Felix who buys Derek's company, because it is the one that gets the licence. He also purposes to Ellen, but since her husband sold the company, she decides to stay with him. The thing is, Felix doesn't actually have the money. But, he is inadvertently bailed out when Tony brings the million he stole to the bank Felix owns for safe keeping. Using the stolen funds, the men are able to pull off their scheme nicely, losing only the women in their lives.

This was a very crappy book.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

The Bride of Stone by Thomas Williams

The Bride of Stone is the third book in the Seven Kingdoms Chronicles. However, it is a prequel to the first two. They are fantasy books about seven kingdoms on an island, and their struggles to serve the Master of the Universe. The book(s) is interesting and keeps you turning the pages. It has an interesting way of presenting truth. It isn't fabulous, but it is fun.

All of the books deal with the Crown of Eden, a crown that has jewels from the Garden of Eden. The crown exaggerates the deepest desire of whoever wears it, even giving them physical characteristics that resemble heir desire.

Morgultha is the "bad guy", she is probably a million years old, and in one of the books she mates with the Devil so she can have an evil child to help her take over the seven kingdoms. This woman is desperate. In this latest book, Morgultha attacks the seven kingdoms with an army she has created by reanimating the bodies of dead people and animals. She is defeated by the general, Percival, who unties the seven kingdoms into one army. After the battle, Percival is named high king of all seven kingdoms.

He rules justly for a few years, until he is tempted by some bad guys to wear the crown. The crown causes him to be overcome with pride. He fills all of his halls with filthy art that doesn't display the true beauty of the Master of the Universe, cheats on his wife, promises his daughter to a king she doesn't want to marry, and alienates his son by forcing him to be a warrior when he doesn't have the physical ability to do so.

All of this leads to his wife's death, his daughter falling in love with some other guy, who Percival kills after scaring his daughter's face for life with hot oil, and his son hating him and the rest of the family and being a general trouble maker. Soon, the proud king decides that he really needs the 500ft mountain that can be seen from all seven kingdoms carved into a statue of his naked self.

Now, there is a sculptor who is better than any other sculptor that ever has been or will be, and he is only seven. So, his dad sends him to get some special lessons from a sculptor who only makes art that glorifies the Master of the Universe, and the boy learns to make this kind of art as well. When, I think his name is Damien?, gets older, he falls for this barmaid and makes a sculpture of her. When she steals all of his money and breaks his heart he swears to hate all women forever and won't sculpt and females.

Of course, Damien and his mentor are soon commissioned to make two figures, Adam and Eve. Damien refuses to work on Eve, but makes an exceptional Adam. However, after Adam falls on his mentor and kills him, Damien is forced make Eve after all. He makes the most beautiful woman that ever has been or will be, and falls in love with her.

So, the night he finishes both statues, the kirk (like a priest) comes to destroy them and kill Damien for making them because he is one of the guys who hates art and beauty. One of the monks hears of this and warns Damien. They both escape with the two statues. They sell Adam and after being commissioned by the king to carve the mountain nude of the king, they pack up and take Eve with them.

As Damien works for the king, he passes this wall every day and hears this girl singing the saddest songs in the world. So, he starts to talk to her and makes friends. The girl is the princess, hidden away by her father so that no one will see her awful scar.

Now, Morgultha is still at work. She convinces some ancient spirits to sell her the incantation for animating sculptures. They let her animate one, and whatever sculptures that one touches, they are animated too, but if the first one is destroyed it destroys all of them. So, she animates Eve, who becomes a live person that Damien loves, and she has Eve animate a little model of Percival that Damien had made as a model for the mountain statue. Then, she has the Percival statue make 1000 more just like itself, and leaves Eve with Damien, just as the ancient evil spirits told her to do.

The things about Eve though, is that she mirrors all of Damien's thoughts and desires, so she has no personality of her own at all. Anyway, there is a war. Percival goes to meet the army of statues that look just like him and is killed. One of the statues comes to kill the rest of the royal family. The prince escapes, but the princess is trapped and Damien has to come and save her. The statue starts to choke her, so Damien runs home and destroys Eve, destroying all the other statues as well. When he strikes Eve, he goes blind, but somehow makes it back to the castle.

Then they escape. In the night an angel comes to the princess and asks her lets her chose to have her own beauty back or Damien's eyesight. She gets Damien's sight back and he thinks she is gorgeous even with her scar. So they live happily ever after as peasants, and the wicked prince rules in his father's place until he is overthrown and the seven kingdoms are once again split into the seven.