Sunday, September 30, 2012

Review: A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines

A Lesson Before Dying is set in a small Cajun community in the late 1940s. Jefferson, a young black man, is an unwitting party to a liquor store shoot out in which three men are killed; the only survivor, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death. Grant Wiggins, who left his hometown for the university, has returned to the plantation school to teach. As he struggles with his decision whether to stay or escape to another state, his aunt and Jefferson's godmother persuade him to visit Jefferson in his cell and impart his learning and his pride to Jefferson before his death.

I had a difficult time reading this book, not because of the writing, or the voice, or the characters. All those worked, and worked very well, and that is in part why I won't focus on them this time. What made it difficult is the story itself. At first glance there was nothing I could relate to: a male protagonist coaching a death row inmate, Louisiana plantation in 1940s, persistent, and sometimes surprising, racial divides, poverty, level of education so low you could determine it from speech alone. All this was so far from whe world where I grew up in Eastern Europe and so far from my life now that at times it was challenging to stay conected to the story. Then I would read about Grant's aunt cooking for everybody and loving it when her family and friends enjoyed her food, or about adults making sacrifices to improve their children's lives and give them the opportunity of something better, and I would remember my grandmother and my parents, and that the nature of humanity is the same regardless of time, place, skin color or education, and with this understanding I would be able to regain my grasp on what was happening and keep going.
Another complicating factor was that the main emotions running through the book are anger, bitterness and general dissatisfaction. Grant is unhappy with working as a plantation teacher and being forced into coaching Jefferson. His aunt is unhappy that he doesn't see the bigger picture and even when he does become invested in helping Jefferson he does it in a way with which she disagrees. Vivian, the woman Grant is in love with, is unhappy to not be able to get a divorce from her absentee husband and not have to hide her relationship with Grant. The reverend is upset that he isn't able to get through to Jefferson while a man so much younger, who he belives is a sinner and for all his education still doesn't really understand life, eventually does what he couldn't. And Jefferson himself is bitter and angry about the unfair verdict and the demeaning defense strategy of his attorney, as well as the fact that his young life was going to be cut shortonly because he was at the wrong place at the wrong time and didn't have the werewithal to run. Keeping up with all this negativity was a bit trying for me at times.
We never learn how old Jefferson was, or any of the other characters for that matter, or whether he had a mental handicap, so a lot of his actions and reactions were puzzling to me. I never understood why it took a stranger to make him stop taking out his anger on his godmother, who couldn't be responsible for his predicament by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, there were a few things I didn't understand, such as why Grant essentially punished his students for him being dissatisfied with his life, shortchanging them in the process, or why he professed his love for Vivian and yet asserted himself at her expense, or why Grant's aunt's preferred method of communication was to glare and give silent treatments instead of explaining what her nephew clearly didn't grasp. It may take me a while to understand these thing, maybe I'm simply too young and haven't seen enough of life just yet to do so right now.
This book may have been difficult and not at all uplifting, but it did not leave me indifferent, and it made me think about issues that have never particularly affected me. It made me look at the world around me from a different perspective. It made me wonder about the things the grandparents of people I see around me haven't told them about the past. I may not be able to fully appreciate this novel now, but it certainly has altered the way I look at the world around me and that alone makes it worth reading.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Literary Arts and Philately

A while back I posted about the British Royal Mail releasing a set of stamps depicting some of the most famous literary characters and today I'm back with a little more of, if not the same, then similar. You see, since last Wednesday I felt an urge to rekindle my fondness for collecting things, and there are few things as small and usually inexpensive to collect as stamps. I have also discovered that currently our US Postal Service offers two stamps from their Literary Arts series, the ones honoring Mark Twain and O.Henry (I am currently a proud owner of the latter), as well as a commemorative stamp issued to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the publication of Edgar Rice Burroughs' first story, "Under the Moons of Mars," and his first Tarzan story, "Tarzan of the Apes," in 1912.

Turns out, the Literary Arts series was first introduced in 1979 with a stamp honoring John Steinbeck and since then featured 28 prominent authors in a variety of genres, including Edith Wharton (1980), Tennessee Williams (1995), Ayn Rand (1999) and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (2007). I wonder who will be commemorated next year.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Review: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

Katniss Everdeen, girl on fire, has survived, even though her home has been destroyed. Gale has escaped. Katniss's family is safe. Peeta has been captured by the Capitol. District 13 really does exist. There are rebels. There are new leaders. A revolution is unfolding. The success of the rebellion hinges on Katniss's willingness to be a pawn, to accept responsibility for countless lives, and to change the course of the future of Panem. To do this, she must put aside her feelings of anger and distrust. She must become the rebels' Mockingjay--no matter what the personal cost.

From that heck of an ending in Catching Fire I knew that the last installment in the series was going to be very different and it didn't disappoint. More than ever I could see the behind-the-scenes network of rebels, the grownup world where Katniss was a kid who was not treated like one and where, as valuable an asset as she was, she was simply a pawn in the games of people easily twice her age. In Mockingjay she finally saw her life for what it has become and desperately tried to find a way out all the while having no choice but to continue playing her part.
To me Mockingjay is the book where Katniss truly becomes a strong heroine. Some might argue that in this book she is rescued, supported and kept safe more than ever before, and while that is true I have said it before and will say it again, to me not needing anyone to have your back isn't necessarily a sign of strength. Knowing your weaknesses and taking them into account while moving forward is. Questioning what people tell you and making up your own mind is. Seeing the true nature of things that aren't as straightforward as a knife or an arrow and acting according to this knowledge is.
I've always seen Katniss as been capable of the same kind of cruelty and manipulativeness as President Snow for example, but her goals have never been selfish or cruel. She may have only ever loved two people, her father and her sister, but everybody else has never been just collateral for her and this always made her capable of doing what needed to be done without losing her humanity or her sense of self. I don't think that Katniss is a particularly sympathetic character, what with her tendency to fall back on the old faithful adage of "offense is the best defense" unfairly hurting people in the process, and her curiosity about how her displays of affection affect the two rivals for her heart, but I do like her for the good in her.
Fandoms tend to compare books and series, and trash some while showering others with praise. I tried really hard to enjoy this series on its own merit but there were scenes that awakened a very strong sense of deja vu in me. I couldn't help noticing similarities in character dynamics and entire scenes and wondered on more than one occasion whether haters trash that other series just because, without even bothering to read the books, or they truly don't notice these things. If there was anything that spoiled the Mockingjay experience for me this was it.
I keep trying to decide what was my favorite thing, section, element about this book and inevitably I come back to how well it shows that life isn't black or white, bad things can have goodness in them and good things can have darkness hiding deep inside. Another thing I liked, although not in the straightforward sense, was that at the end of the day the choice everybody's been waiting for Katniss to make was ultimately made for her, whether she or we the readers like it or not. Oh the irony.
Mockingjay was the most complex, nuanced and mature book of this series. Because of that, and despite the deja vu moments, it will always be my favorite Hunger Games book.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Paris Review

"The Paris Review is a literary magazine featuring original writing, art, and in-depth interviews with famous writers."

If you enjoy reading literary journals The Paris Review is the place for you. There are dozens of back issues to peruse in the Archive, very interesting interviews with authors you most likely already love, and a blog to keep things fresh and constantly evolving. The first time I stopped by 2 hours were gone in the blink of an eye and I knew that many more would be spent reading all the fascinating materials. Check it out for yourself!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Review: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire picks up a short while after the end of The Hunger Games with Katniss at odds with both Peeta and Gale and with President Snow working to contain the effects of Katniss's actions in the Games by threatening her into proving to the country that she is just a girl madly in love, who only wanted to not lose her sweetheart. She doesn't know it but unrest is growing in Panem, and she with her mockingjay is the symbol of the rebellion. This dynamic is the foundation of the story from here on out - people planning and plotting in the background while all Katniss really wants is to live in peace with her family and to spend her days hunting. She is the reluctant hero, with everybody but herself realizing her influence, and using her for their purposes.
The first part of the book is relatively slow, after all Katniss is at her best in a survival situation and whiling away her time at 12 isn't particularly action-packed, but when the rules of the Quarter Quell are announced and there isn't a shadow of a doubt that the Capitol is out for her blood action slams into high gear and doesn't let up will the very end in the best traditions of The Hunger Games.
My favorite part of this book was the introduction of new characters who enriched the world Suzanne Collins created, allowing us a peek at the past victors and their lives of annual coaching of tributes and the Capitol keeping them all on an unimaginably tight leash. Once again Katniss can't see beyond the immediate task at hand but she has a good heart and a mentor who is possibly the craftiest victor in the history of the Games. I have to say, the relationship between Katniss and Haymitch is possibly the most interesting one in the series. They don't particularly like each other but it's hard to doubt that they are as similar as any other two characters in this series and watching them interact and work together gave spice to the story.
Throughout the book I couldn't shake the feeling that while Katniss's affection for Peeta was real it somehow only bloomed under pressure from the Capitol. At home she was a teenager who did her best and was angry at him for not understanding the game she was made to play, yet as soon as the cameras were on them and no place was outside of the Capitol's earshot she began to need him, understand him and want to support him. It was like a circumstance-activated survival instinct that made her acknowledge Peeta as an ally only under certain conditions. I didn't get an impression that Katniss herself realized this, but as I said earlier, she is at her best when lives are on the line and it's time to act, not in analyzing and introspection.
Whereas The Hunger Games ended with things as buttoned up as they could be Catching Fire ended on a cliffhanger that left me staring at the page with my brain barely able to process what happened and doing the equivalent of the "Wait, what?!?!" stutter. I actually had to re-read the last few pages before things snapped into place in my mind. When they finally did I knew that Mockingjay was going to be good. Really good. Fortunately I already had the book.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Mark Twain in Trinity Park

If you're ever in Ft. Worth, TX visit the Trinity Park and watch the river for a bit with Mark Twain.
The life-size bronze statue of the great writer was "Given to the families of Fort Worth for the pleasure of reading together" by Red Oaks Books (Red Oak Foundation) and was placed on a bench overlooking the river in 2007. It was dedicated on June 28th of that year and remains a popular spot for children and adults alike to sit a while and read a page from Huckleberry Finn with Mr. Twain.

* Photo by Barbara Schmidt © 2010

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, "The Hunger Games," a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.

For a while now people have been telling me that I had to read Suzanne Collins's best-selling trilogy but I resisted. The hype was too much and when the movie came out it only became worse. I told my friends I'd read it "one of these days". Finally one of them just handed me the book and told me to ask for the next one when I was done. It lay on top of the pile for a few weeks until I started feeling bad for keeping it for so long. So I picked it up and... couldn't put it down, breaking only to do the necessary things, such as eat, sleep and go to work.
Collins's ability to keep a breakneck pace even with the unhurried scenes helped with that of course, but her storytelling and masterful world building played a tremendous role as well. The only thing that irked me was the fact that everybody had their "eyes trained" on something or someone all the time, but that wasn't too hard to get past.
I've heard so much talk about Katniss being a strong character because she doesn't need a guy, or anybody else for that matter, to take care of her that I couldn't help but ask myself whether I agreed with that claim throughout the book and again when I finished reading it. The answer was invariably "no". Now, now, hold the booing and the stomping, there is a method to my madness. Katniss is skilled at providing for and defending herself and her family, she's deadly even, but to me that's not strength, that's resilience, adaptability, will to survive, doing what needs to be done, so she is tough, sure, but strong? No so much, because toughness is not the same thing as strength to me. I don't see wanting/needing love, affection, another person's company, support or help as a weakness. To me not wanting that is a handicap. I think she's been so hurt that she has adopted an exoskeleton of sorts that prevents her from feeling some things, protects her from getting hurt, and when Prim was reaped the violent emotions cracked the shell and she's begun to come alive in a way. After all, in all of this book the only person I felt she really loved was Prim. I think Katniss has potential to become truly strong, but she is not there yet.
I'm a big fan of action and adventure, which this book has plenty of, but I'm also a fan of interesting characters and there's no shortage of those here either. I liked that every new person introduced was flawed somehow, had a story full of demons, even the ones who at first seemed like there wasn't much of a story to them, like Peeta. Having Katniss as the first-person narrator helped with the suspense because quite frankly the girl is not much of a great thinker or strategist. It's just as well though - sometimes it took her a while to figure things out and in the process more of the background story could be told.
Considering that we know that there are three books in the series and that there is a love triangle conflict it wasn't much of a mystery that both Katniss and Peeta would survive, but I was looking forward to finding out what would happen to make books 2 and 3 necessary. In observance of the no-spoiler policy for the sake of possibly a handful of people who have not yet read the books or seen the movie I won't go into detail, but let me tell you, it was good. I didn't expect it to happen quite as it did so after a relatively predictable novel a surprise ending was welcome.
By the end of this book it was obvious that the real story was only beginning and although Hunger Games didn't exactly meet my exalted expectations it promised more and I began Catching Fire without even a day's delay. Fortunately my friend had the book ready for me before I asked for it. Come back next week to find out what I thought!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Chetham's Library

A fellow blogger, Lucy at Literary Relish, has been posting about monthly meetings of the Manchester Book Club that she belongs to and I try to follow along as best I can, vicariously living through her lively accounts of the fun the group had discussing the new reads. Then just as I caught up on the latest MBC adventures and was browsing through my stash of ideas for the Special Feature posts my gaze landed on a picture of a beautiful library, all dark wood and books, that looked like it belonged in Hogwarts. The caption read "Chetham's Library, Manchester, England. Oldest free public reference library in the UK". I knew it was meant to be.

From the Chetham's Library website:
Chetham's Library was founded in 1653 and is the oldest public library in the English-speaking world. It is an independent charity and remains open to readers and visitors free of charge. [...] The Library began acquiring books in August 1655, and has been adding to its collections ever since. As well as a fine collection of early printed books, the collections include a wealth of ephemera, manuscript diaries, letters and deeds, prints, paintings and glass lantern-slides.
And from Wikipedia:
The library established in 1653 under the will of Humphrey Chetham, as part of Chetam's Hospital. It has been in continuous use since 1653 and operates as an independent charity, open to readers and visitors free of charge. It holds more than 100,000 volumes of printed books, of which 60,000 were published before 1851.

If you're lucky enough to live in Manchester or the vicinity stop by the library and tell me whether it really is like a corner of Hogwarts, and the rest of us will have to be satisfied with their official and Facebook pages.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Review: Sam Cruz's Infallible Guide to Getting Girls by Tellulah Darling

A friend shared this book trailer a while back and it was so engaging and fun that I immediately wanted to read the book. A few clicks later I'd requested the galley from NetGalley and was eagerly anticipating reading it.
It was delightfully fun, just like the trailer. Amused by the clever and not too sensitive banter the characters engaged in on a regular basis I laughed out loud and wrapped up my reading sessions with a feeling of having had a good time. As I went along though several things began to nag at me and it only got worse. One was that Sam and Ally's main focus seemed to be on "who's in charge". They put a lot of energy into having the last word, coming out on top, controlling the situation. It seemed to be almost a competition both with each other and whatever other partners they found themselves with. Another thing I couldn't get over is that while the story is supposed to be about two best friends falling in love what I saw on the pages is them falling in lust. It was all about sex with those two, and with every other character in the book for that matter. I understand teenage hormones and our not-so-demure society, but this tendency for everybody to barely make it to the bedroom made the whole thing seem terribly shallow, which combined with the dominant agenda I talked about earlier resulted in the kind of message I wouldn't want to be sending to teen and pre-teen readers.
It wasn't all questionable though. For example I really enjoyed Ally's journey to realizing her full potential as a young woman while remaining true to herself and Sam's transformation from a womanizer to a guy capable of making a commitment and sticking to it. I think the scene where Sam had an epiphany as to what kind of life he was building for himself was the strongest one in the book, closely followed by the scene where Ally sheds her assumed persona but sees that she can't go back to being exactly who she was before Sam worked his magic on her. The quirky secondary characters presented a cute backdrop for their changing relationship, although for the life of me I couldn't tell apart the diner guys.
The book is told by the two main characters and while at first the author seemed to struggle with Ally's voice she soon found her stride and it became just as alive as Sam's. The character voices were actually what I enjoyed most about the book, they fit the characters and evolved with every new change in Sam and Ally's world views.
I think that Ms. Darling has talent and potential, and had I not found the characters' focus questionable throughout the book I would've enjoyed this fun bit of light reading a lot more. As it is, if you're looking for an undemanding book that would give you a reason to laugh you've got one right here.