Sunday, October 31, 2010

Dracula ~ Bram Stoker

So I did manage to read more of Dracula at the football game today.  Okay, technically it was during the pregame warm-ups but I got through a whole chapter, despite the weird looks I was getting, and I consider that quite an accomplishment.  I haven’t quite finished it though (I have fifty pages to go) but I want to get this post up today and I think I’ve read enough for a quick review.

I must say, I do enjoy it.  Bram Stoker does not romanticize vampires.  Vampires are evil, people.  They suck your blood and destroy your soul.  Edward and his buddies may choose animals but a) that’s still murder and b) sometimes they eat people too.  That said, Stoker does sexualize his vampires.  Lucy, Dracula’s first victim in the novel, becomes voluptuous in tone and increasingly beautiful after death.  The vampires also seem to obey the heterosexual rules of Victorian England – men eat women, and vice versa.  Yet despite the sexual qualities of his vampires, Stoker does not ever represent them as desirable.  This is how it should be.

Dracula is written as a series of first-person accounts, in the form of diary entries, letters, and newspaper articles.  Stoker seems to have the same issue with the first-person as I do – a desire to explain why the writer is bothering to write.  While this is generally obvious with all these forms, he seems to take it even further than I do with an insistence on explaining the initial motivations of the diarists – Jonathan Harker is recording his journey, Mina is practicing shorthand, Dr. Seward is recording the actions of his patient, and Lucy is imitating Mina.  Stoker takes it even further still and explains why these accounts have all been compiled and put in order.  I’m not sure if any of these explanations actually strengthen the story, but they certainly do settle those like me who get anxious at the narrative “I.”

As for voices of his characters: my one complaint is that they’re not quite distinct enough.  Quoted characters have many idiosyncrasies – dialects, slang, cursing – but the main voices tend to be the same.  One character that only actually has one entry but is quoted often, Dr. Van Helsing, is Dutch with imperfect (and often confusing) English.  Occasionally this seems to be echoed in the voices of the narrators, which is a bit off-putting.

As for Van Helsing, I have some suspicions about him.  He’s quite a wealth of vampiric knowledge and has many unexplained absences towards the beginning of the novel.  He also withholds information, often seemingly without reason (in a very Dumbledorian way) and often with catastrophic and foreseeable consequences.  This may just be to provide fodder for the novel, though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn of darker motivations in the last fifty pages.

As to what you know you’re all waiting for – the rules for the vampires that Stoker sets – these are sometimes a bit confusing and seemingly contradictory, as they are delivered in Van Helsing’s imperfect English.  However, I’ll try to list them here as best I can: garlic, crucifixes, and the Catholic Host repel vampires; the wild rose prohibits movement; vampires can only rest in holy ground, which is transportable, and can be sterilized by making it even more holy, through the addition of a Host; a stake through the heart kills a vampire, and beheading and a mouth full of garlic prevent mistakes; vampires can shift forms to anything from a bat to a cloud of fog but only at night – they can move around during the day but are stuck in human form; being bitten does not ensure instant death or instant transformation – this can take days or weeks and you can see the human transforming into the monster; the vampire can control the mind of his victims; and the vampire has the strength of twenty men.

Though I do have a few complaints about the novel, it’s quite a fun read.  It’s difficult to put down and fun to yell at the characters for sometimes being incredibly dense (because obviously vampires exist…come on now).  Plus, it’s a bit of an adventure and a mystery, which is a nice change of page from my normal literary choices.  I just wish that I had read more of the novel late at night in semi-darkness, because I never really had the good scare that I was hoping for.  I honestly am not sure how it will end – Stoker doesn’t seem like the typical happy ending-writer of the nineteenth century, as he’s already made victims of two female main characters and a whole bunch of children, so I’m really curious to see if he will allow Count Dracula to be destroyed.  Either way would be satisfying, though for different reasons, so I think that I will be pleased at the end.

Happy Halloween!

Happy Halloween all!

So this is where I was going to post pictures and my thoughts on yesterday's Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in D.C.  However, though Arianna Huffington was generous enough to give us a free ride down there, between the supreme lack of organization, unforeseen traffic, and the mob at the subway (we ended up taking a half-hour long speed walk from RFK stadium to the National Mall), by the time we got there the rally was packed and there was no way of getting in and from outside it we couldn't understand a word.  Instead, we ate PB&J on the lawn of the capitol and had drinks at a Thai pub, before getting back on the bus and taking another 5+ hour bus ride.  To be honest, it wasn't so bad.  I read a lot, napped, exercised, talked to my husband and friend - pretty much what I would have done if I'd stayed home, except I also got to scale the wall at the capitol.  Not so bad.

This is also where I was going to post a book review* of Dracula in honor of Halloween.  Unfortunately, my many naps yesterday got in the way of me finishing all 400 pages, so I will scurry to finish it today and post tonight.  It may be a touch difficult since I have big plans today as well (i.e. my first football game…vomit).  Nobody will mind if I read between downs will they?  (Did I get the jargon right?!)

This is also where I was going to post a picture of my kickass Halloween costume.  But, um, I didn't make one for about the tenth year in a row.  Maybe next year.  Definitely next month though (wearing a costume on November 18?  What could it possibly be?  Kudos to anybody who doesn't know me in real life who guesses correctly).

Happy Halloween to all!

*Just a note about reviews: I'm going to try and make them a bit shorter and less rambling in the hopes that maybe people will start to actually read them.  Maybe I'll find some sort of online book club that will allow me to ramble on for hours about all the particulars of what I'm reading…

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Top Ten Tuesday: Scariest Books

It's Tuesday again, meaning another installment of the Top Ten meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  This week's subject is scariest books, in honor of Halloween.  It took some scraping for me to pull together a complete list (including stealing from other people's lists) as well as a modification of how I think about the word "scary."  Normally I think of scary as being ghosts and demons and things hiding under the bed, and scary books mean me hopping around at night hoping that the things under the bed won't be able to slash/grab/bite at my ankles if I keep moving.  Most of my choices don't include that kind of fear but all involve some sort of creeped-outedness which continues to haunt me.  Getting started…

1. Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews: I admit it.  I went through a shameful V.C. Andrews phase in late middle school that my mother really shouldn't have allowed considering the number of extravagantly-descripted sex scenes that take place in her novels.  In my mother's defense, I think that Flowers in the Attic was the only Andrews novel my mother ever read and while it does have incest, it's also probably the most prude of Andrews's novels.  Anywho.  This is creepy, upsetting, disturbing…  You'll never look at a donut the same way again.
2. My Sweet Audrina by V.C. Andrews: The only author to make the list twice!  This is also creepy, upsetting, and disturbing.  It also features distorted time, death-by-prism, sex in a freshly dug grave, and a really mean cousin.  Scary.
3. Close to Shore by Michael Capuzzo: This is not at all scary in the Halloween sense but terrifying in the "Holy shit, I'm so glad it's okay to pee in the ocean but wait I'm never getting in the ocean again because that shit's scary!" way.  Yes, it will make you say "shit" twice in one sentence.  I never knew that I was afraid of sharks until I read about the shark that ended up in the middle of New Jersey by swimming up a freaking river and remembered that beach that I was at in Bermuda where I swam farther from shore than ever before to jump off of a rock into crazily deep water and cut myself and bled into what were probably shark infested waters and oh my god a shark probably followed me to shore.  Oh, and don't go swimming in the ocean with your dog because you'll most likely get eaten.  I've completely forgotten what I'm supposed to be talking about.
4. American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis: I wouldn't have thought of this on my own but a lot of other bloggers mentioned it and they are absolutely right.  This is completely disturbing and despite the fact that it's been at least eight years since I read it there are certain…er…things I still can't do as a result.  Cough.  Awkward.
5. Coraline by Neil Gaiman: In the interest of full disclosure, I never read this.  I did however watch the movie while flying to France last summer and that was the most unsettling plane ride I've ever been including the time when the pilot came on to say "We're really smoking now!" and I started hyperventilating.  These people have buttons for eyes.  Eyes.  Need I say more?  Yes - don't watch it in French.  It makes it even worse.
6. More Than You Know by Beth Gutcheon:  I barely remember anything about this novel except huddling in my old loft bed in my room at my parents' house terrified that ghosts were going to climb up the latter and that I would have to jump for it and all the ghosts waiting below would get me.  That's really all I remember.  I had to search "New England ghosts" on to even find the name of the book, which really isn't helpful because New England is the ghost epicenter of the universe.
7. Running Out of Time by Margaret Peterson Haddix: I also had to search for the title of this book, which I accomplished by going to the "Plagiarism Allegation" section of the wikipedia page for The Village because M. Night Shyamalan totally ripped this book off.  It's about a girl living in 1840s Indiana except it's actually a tourist attraction and she doesn't know it and somebody stopped bringing in the modern medicine (sound familiar?).  What if this is happening to me?
8. Pet Sematary by Stephen King: This was my first Stephen King novel, which I read i when I was about twelve in the middle of the night when my parents were asleep.  Ditto my comment about the ghosts/monsters under my bed.  Did I mention that my parents' old house was built on what was once an Indian graveyard?  Or at least the golf course next to it was.  (I normally say "Native American" but "Native American graveyard" just doesn't sound the same.)
9. Welcome to Camp Nightmare by R.L. Stine: I knew that I had to include at least one R.L. Stine or Christopher Pike book on here and since I couldn't remember the specifics of any Pike book and living dolls didn't start creeping me out until just a few years ago, Camp Nightmare was the obvious choice.  It's all a test.  Ditto the crazed What if this is happening to me? comment.
10. Dracula by Bram Stoker: Okay, I haven't actually read this either.  Nor have I seen any of the many adaptations.  In fact, when I got this card while playing Cranium the other night, I was unsure whether to pretend to be a vampire or an evil dinosaur/dragon hybrid (we still got it).  However, I will begin Dracula tonight and since I found myself unable to round out the list with a tenth, I think it counts.

What's on yours list?

Monday, October 25, 2010

Writing Update

So my writing has been going infinitesimally better since my semi-freakout about my lack of motivation last month.  I started the Steeplechase, and I've pretty much just made it up as I go along.  I found another link by a student at Columbia College about the behemoth and with both in mind, this is what I've come up with: twelve installments of approximately two pages each (with 1.5 times spacing).  Each moves forward from the scene before with some vital element changing.  It may be a bit shorter than what is intended for this assignment, but I kind of like the succintness.

So far, I've written about two and a half installments.  I'm using it to explore the relationship between Lori, the main character from my short story collection, and Anna, her college lover that she abandoned in favor of a more traditional (and more miserable) marriage.  Having always told the story in the third person from Lori's perspective, I have experiemented with Anna both old and young, and now Lori in the first person.  Oh, have I mentioned that I abhor the first person?  No?  To be brief, it generally feels unnatural and forces me to ask too many questions, which distracts me from whatever I'm reading or writing (the obvious exception to this is when it's meant to be in an epistolary form, in which case all my questions are answered).  In general, it's going better than I thought it would.  It's been helpful to understand Anna better, which allows me to make her a fuller character.  She's always been something of an ideal for me, meaning a stereotype, so it's nice to make her into a real person with flaws and whatnot.  I think that next I will be telling the story from an outsider's perspective and after that… who knows?

But after this week I'll be taking a break from all that.  Why, you ask?  It's because I've done it.  I've taken the plunge.  I've signed up for the behemoth - NaNoWriMo.  For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month) is not exactly a competition but more of a challenge where participants attempt to write a 175-page, 50,000-word novel during the month of November.  I'm peeing my pants just thinking about it.  It's intimidating and a really great way to get me to have a breakdown on at least 15 days out of the upcoming 30-day month, but also sounds like an excellent way to get my ass moving and write something.  A novel in particular.  I tend towards short stories though I've always really wanted to write a novel, and hopefully this will make it happen.  I even have an idea and everything.  PLUS, there's apparently going to be a little widget that I can put on here that will show updates of my word count so that whenever I see it I can feel bad for myself and go make a soy chai latte and get cracking.  Or crying.  One of the two.

At the risk of sounding like a psycho, I'm so excited.  And off to buy some kleenex.

Incidentally, I had to choose not to participate in Vegan MoFo (or Vegan Month of Food) which I've been looking forward to doing since last year.  Vegan MoFo is an event similar to NaNoWriMo (and apparently inspired by it) in which a whole bunch of bloggers try to write about vegan food for the entire month of October November (shooting for about twenty posts).  Usually it takes place in October, which means that I could have done both, but this year it was changed to November which means that even while being employed only part-time, attempting it would have been sure to short-wire my brain.  I chose NaNoWriMo because:
a) I don't actually create recipes which means you would have been stuck looking at pictures of a month's worth of my meals with occasional links to the recipes,
b) I've always wanted to write a novel, and
c) oh yeah, I'm not actually a vegan (though I always usually eat like one at home).

So yeah, NaNoWriMo it is.  Though I can promise at least one vegan posting in the upcoming month in the form of a vegan Harry Potter dinner party (yes I know I'm the biggest loser in the world but hey, at least it appeals to both aspects of my blog!).  And feel free to yell at me via comments if my word count seems to be falling behind.  I need all the motivation I can get.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Book Review

If you haven’t read my review of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix yet, take a look before reading on!  Also, just to warn you: the Harry Potter books have been out for anywhere from 3-13 years and have been made into movies, games, fanfiction, et cetera, as well as being a hot topic in the news and just about everywhere else; therefore I will be making absolutely no effort to avoid spoilers in these reviews discussions of the books so for the uninitiated, read at your own risk.

I love this book.  Unabashed, unadulterated, love.  It is tied for my favorite Harry Potter book with Prisoner of Azkaban, though it may even be a little bit ahead.  Nearly everything about Half-Blood Prince is spot-on and supremely satisfying.

Where do I start?  The end of course!  What ultimately sets this book above the others for me is the final adventure.  Harry and Dumbledore’s journey into the underground cave is dark and eerie, and ultimately more fearsome than Harry’s previous adventures where the enemy and the risk are readily apparent.  The silence of this scene is particularly disturbing – like an empty house late at night, where the absence of sound suggests the presence of something else.  As Professor Trelawney suggested three installments earlier, magic is often associated with “loud bangs and smells and sudden disappearings” (Prisoner of Azkaban, 103): it can be brash and obvious and ungraceful.  Penetrating the cave, on the other hand, takes a bit of divination; it requires intuition and understanding beyond the obvious for Dumbledore to find the entrance and understand the magic contained within, something that no spell could help him with.  This is magic as we have never seen it – as much of the mind as of the wand and despite the terror of it, it contains beauty beyond what Hogwarts can teach.  Before, magic was a helpful skill; here, Dumbledore show that it can be a form of art.

But the final adventure is not enough to carry the whole novel.  As always, the writing itself is more important than anything and Rowling’s writing in Half-Blood Prince is particularly excellent.  Remember how I loved the succinct and apt writing in Goblet of Fire, only to be disappointed when Order of the Phoenix reverted to Rowling’s initial whimsical and wordy style?  Well, she certainly got it back in Half-Blood Prince.  Just look at the two books sitting on a shelf: Half-Blood Prince is more than two hundred pages shorter than Order of the Phoenix but contains no less content.  Rowling replaces hundreds of pages of realistic but overdone complaints about Umbridge with loads of actual important information, without in any way challenging the tightness of the plot or taking away from the daily lives of Harry and his friends.  She strikes a great balance between all the aspects of the story here, which I really think she failed at in Order of the Phoenix, and the effect is so much more satisfying.

Rowling also reminds us of her skill to give excellent and practically invisible clues about what is to come, showing both how well she planned out the series and her ability to make her readers smacks themselves during rereads.  Before the release of Deathly Hallows, I heard predictions about Snape’s redemption; as one friend of mine explained, Dumbledore’s simple final word – “please” – was more of a supplication than the groveling that Rowling would have you believe it to be.  She aptly discerned that Dumbledore was asking Snape to perform the dreaded act, rather than pleading with him not to.  I have to admit, I did not believe any of this.  I, like Harry, was convinced of Snape’s guilt and found the whole debate to be ridiculous.  This was probably my fourth or fifth reread of the book, and it is the first time that I discovered the clue that Snape is really one of the good guys.  Snape’s taunt, as Harry chases him through the grounds –  “Blocked again and again and again until you learn to keep your mouth shut and your mind closed, Potter!” (603) – was a kind of revelation for me.  Though never particularly effective, Snape is Harry’s teacher until the end.  Even while fleeing to join Voldemort and apparently abandoning Harry to his fate, Snape reminds Harry of what he needs to do to survive and, more importantly, succeed.  Though Harry is too stubborn to accept this, Snape is teaching him what little he can in these moments; if I had understood this on my first reading, I would have understood Snape’s true nature as well as my friend did.

In addition to this revelation about Snape, the information about Tom Riddle that Rowling shares (without oversharing!) in this text is invaluable to the series as a whole.  Not only does it provide the basis for Harry’s comprehension of his nemesis in the final installment, which leads to his ultimate victory, but it helps us understand Harry himself better as well.  I think that this is the first time that we really see Harry’s choice.  After all, Harry and Riddle aren’t so different.  In addition to similar physical appearances and a disturbing connection that won’t be fully unraveled until the final installment, both are orphans.  Yes, we knew that, but let’s take a minute to compare the two.  Harry was raised in a home by people who abused and neglected him, alongside a boy who is beloved and spoiled.  Every aspect of his young life reminded him that he was alone and unloved.  Tom Riddle was raised in an orphanage by people who were overworked but genuinely cared for their charges (why else would they take them on trips or even bother to question Dumbledore’s motives when he comes for Tom?), alongside children who were his equals.  From all we can see, young Tom was shabby but cared for, a far more promising beginning than the demeaning, soul-deadening childhood Harry experienced.  Both are generally helpless, but Tom, who was at least cared for, chooses a life of violence and solitude whereas Harry, whose anger is much more justifiable, chooses to be good.  Yes, you could make the argument that they just fell into the path started by their parents and ancestors, but that’s a copout.  Rowling has designed characters who make choices, rather than succumbing to some inherent nature, and that’s how I read them.  Harry and Voldemort have choices and make them independent of their respective childhoods.  Tom’s youth shows Harry to be all the more impressive for denying his early rage and right to vengefulness.

But Half-Blood Prince isn’t just about what lies under the surface.  It’s also about kids growing up, which Ron gives an exceptional demonstration of.  Won-Won Ron’s (rather delayed) discovery of girls just makes me so happy, in a very different way.  Rowling’s description of his failed relationship (if you can even call it that) with Lavender is exactly like a million “relationships” that I knew of (and/or participated in) in high school and middle school, except instead of being melodramatic and ridiculous, it’s absolutely hilarious.  Rowling wields a wicked pen quill when describing their uncomfortable and very public lusty outbursts, once telling us that “There was a noise like a plunger being withdrawn from a blocked sink and Ron surfaced” (313).  Is there any better way to describe the sound made at the end of a very wet kiss performed by two very inept kissers?  I think not.  The slurping, sucking sound that Rowling evokes is perfect, pointing to her skills in both metaphor and observation.

Oh, and Ginny.  I love Ginny.  Before Half-Blood Prince, she tended to be shunted to the side (even despite her very important role in Chamber of Secrets) and so we never got to see how excellent she really is.  Spunky and as fiery as her hair, she just seems like she’d be so much fun to be around (and probably an enthusiastic lover… just sayin’).  Sure, you might say that she’s a bit obsessive but hey, it works out in the end (ßSPOILER!). I once crushed on a guy for four years only to find, upon finally getting with him, that he was rather dumb, a bit sleazy, and had some creepy stalkerish tendencies.  Fortunately for Ginny, Harry is only a bit dumb, which is entirely preferable to the latter qualities.  I just wish that she’d been less of a throwaway character up to now.  She’s got more personality than Ron and Hermione and provides a much better match for me Harry – her energy and instincts (as demonstrated in Order of the Phoenix) would have been a lot of help on some of his earlier adventures.  Harry deserves several punches for not realizing that sooner, because Ginny is freaking awesome.

Note that in the first paragraph I said that I love “nearly everything” about Half-Blood Prince.  My one real complaint would be that Rowling overdoes the point about Harry suspecting that Draco Malfoy has become a Death Eater, and Ron and Hermione thinking that he’s a nutter.  I suppose that this is to make up for Harry’s enormous mistake in Order of the Phoenix and to show that his instincts really are good, but this bit gets a little tiresome.  There are only so many times I can hear (read?) Ron and Hermione sigh at Harry’s folly without wanting to shout, “Okay already!  I get it!”  In the end though, the fact that Harry proves to be right despite his apparent nutterness is what makes Ron and Hermione’s later trust in him more believable so I suppose that it’s acceptable, if irritating.

However, believe you me: the incessant sighing in no way detracts from my love of Half-Blood Prince.  As this excessively long adulation demonstrates, I LOVE reading and thinking about it and trust me, I could go on.  I barely even mentioned Draco Malfoy, but I won’t keep you for longer.  In fact, if you made it this far I applaud you.  I just hope you love Half-Blood Prince as much as I do, because it really is excellent.  (The movie is too.  I think I’ll go watch that right now…)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Fictional Crushes?

Today is another Top Ten Tuesday over at The Broke and the Bookish and, like last week (when I didn't post at all), I'm a little stumped.  This week they're looking for our top ten fictional crushes and I have to say, it's harder than I thought it would be.  This is all I managed to come up with (in the order that they came to me):

1. Ginny Weasley (yes, from Harry Potter)
2. Fitzwilliam Darcy (duh)
3. Sawyer (from LOST)
4. Richard Alpert (also from LOST)

One's a girl (she's just so spunky!), one's predictable, and the other two aren't even from books.  Why the massive failure, you ask?

To start off with, what is a crush really?  It's an infatuation, generally on somebody that you've just met or barely even know, based on rather superficial reasons.  "She's cute" or "he reads the same books as me" or "just look at his eyes" are pretty common explanations for crushes.  It's when you get to know somebody better that  a) you stop having a crush, or b) you develop actual feelings.  Take Darcy: at first he seems like the biggest possible douche-wad.  It's only when Elizabeth actually bothers to get to know him that she realizes how amazing he really is (interesting sidenote: I thought my husband was an ass when I first met him).  Meanwhile, she's been wasting her time on George Wickham, who's cute and speaks well but turns out to be superficial, a dirty dirty liar, and basically scum.  That crush didn't really pan out so well, did it?

Poking around in some of the other responses, I found that many are from YA novels, which I don't really read much of.  I'm thinking that maybe this is easier for YA readers because YA characters are less complex and therefore easier to form a crush on.  Like Edward from Twilight: he's hot and sparkly.  Anything else?  I didn't think so, but that's enough to get you interested, is it not?  On the other hand, you have Jimmy, who is funny and seems to attract girls, but is also a bit of a dunderhead and a womanizer.  Atwood portrays him as more than a cute comedian, thus making him less crush-worthy and more interesting.  I'd much rather a complex character than one who is one-dimensional but slobber-worthy.

As for my LOST choices?  Sawyer, though massively hot, manages to be appealing on other levels.  Yeah, he can be a shit but he's also intelligent, thoughtful, loving, and always a surprise.  You like him because of his complexity not because he is without it.  Richard Alpert?  Yeah, he's just eye-candy.

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Room with a View Book Review

Sorry for the horrible quality
but my edition is from 1993
and this was the best I could
find without exerting myself.
E.M. Forster’s third novel, A Room with a View, is one of those books that have been on my to-read list for a while but I repeatedly forgot to actually acquire.  After I finally found it at a used bookstore a few months ago, it had to wait around for a while longer for me to finish rereading the Harry Potter series and a couple of books by Margaret Atwood.  After that wait, I was excited to return to Victorian England under the guidance of an author completely new to me for what the back of the book promised to be an interesting, thoughtful, intentional narrative.  After all that waiting and build-up, I’m sad to say that I was rather underwhelmed.

You know how in high school your English and creative writing teachers always said, “Show, don’t tell.  Show, don’t tell,” until it became a demented mantra that haunted you in your sleep and made you never want to write another word because what the hell does that even mean?  Forster could have done with a bit of that.  He seems to want to show how Lucy Honeychurch has more depth than most middle class society and that she feels and thinks more complexly than those around her.  He does this by having her say what she is supposed to say and then having the narrator go on long-winded accounts of what makes her so complex.  Rarely did I find anything complex in her actual character; rather, I had to trust that the narrator knew what he was talking about.  Isn’t this why we have free indirect discourse?!  He seemed to make some attempts at using free indirect discourse, but his usage was not nearly as polished or compelling as, say, Jane Austen’s.  Granted, she is the master whose writing is used to teach students what free indirect discourse is but still.  Forster often left me thinking, well, if you say so.

It also doesn’t help that almost none of the characters are likable and few are much more than caricatures (like Charlotte, the spinster martyr).  Even Lucy, though supposedly struggling for independence, mostly seems to just be a useless, occasionally rebellious little girl who generally does what is expected of her no matter how ridiculous.  That’s kind of the point, I guess, but her struggles are neither compelling nor believable.  The Emersons plant some ideas in her head, making her even more confused and prone to sudden fits of rebelliousness that she herself doesn’t understand.  The Emersons are probably the only interesting characters and also the ones who get the least amount of page-time.  Is this to show how Lucy’s “change” was really independent of them?  No, because they’re constantly on her mind (according to the narrator) and, as the forward-thinking Emersons eventually admit, no matter how independent they are women only ever act for a man.  Which Lucy then, to the disappointment of every female everywhere, proves.

Also, what’s all this garbage about musical people being more complex?  As any reader of Jane Austen knows, “playing” was an accomplishment expected of women in Victorian England, now matter how vain or silly or shallow they are.  Charles Bingley’s horrible sisters could play and they were no more complex or independent than a paper napkin – nay, a package of paper napkins.
EDIT: In thinking about this more, I realized that it's important that I point out that Pride and Prejudice and A Room with a View were separated by a century, during which many things inevitably changed.  Maybe musical ability wasn't so ubiquitous in Forster's time - I'm not sure, though the country life he describes really isn't so different from that of Austen, except maybe the fact that his female characters play tennis.  Either way, Lucy is always playing other people's music - not her own - which reinforces my point that her talent at the piano says nothing about the complexity of her being.  That a woman can tolerably play the music of men is not evidence of the depth of her own soul, nor evidence of the complexity and independence of women in general, a point which Forster sometimes seems to be making.

The book must have been compelling on some level, as I tore through it but I can’t tell exactly how it struck me.  Maybe it was just the simple prose that sped me through?  Maybe it was just that I couldn’t wait for Lucy to get on with it and finally marry George instead of lying to everybody, including herself?  Who knows.  Maybe I’ll give it a reread at some future date to try and understand it better.  Or maybe not.

There is apparently some appendix that’s only in some editions (not in mine) in which Forster discusses Lucy and George’s life together later on.  Isn’t that so annoying?  That’s like what J.K. Rowling did after finishing Harry Potter – “oh, and Dumbledore’s gay and Luna marries this guy and Harry’s head of this department and blah blah blah.”  If you’re going to do that, write another book.  It’s not true if you just blab on about it like that – it’s true when you make it true and until then you’re just irritating your readers.  Yes, there is truth in fiction.  And yes, I am still talking about A Room With a View.

I’d still like to read some of Forster’s other novels – namely, A Passage to India (partially because I love India and partially because I love abusing Brits for abusing India) and Howard’s End (Forster’s supposed masterpiece).

PS. Why can’t I always just sit down like this after finishing a book and write my review/thoughts?  I’ve been finished with the last two Harry Potters and The Year of the Flood for weeks now and still haven’t managed to convince myself to write about them, but I just finished A Room With a View last night and here I am, already posting about it.

PPS. How did I manage to mention Harry Potter three times throughout the course of this?  Make that four.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Oryx and Crake Discussion

Disturbing prophecies of the future of our world have riddled literature for years.  1984 and Brave New World are perhaps the two most well-known dystopias but they are certainly not the only ones.  Others include the Anthem, the Uglies series, and Fahrenheit 451, yet perhaps the most disturbing is Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood’s second work of dystopia, which seems to be the next step of the world in which we currently live.

Oryx and Crake is set in a world obsessed with technology, scientific progress, and a general lack of concern for the planet on which we live.  Does this sound familiar?  Because it’s the world I see every time I walk out the door.

The novel is told from the perspective of a man named Snowman as he tries to make his way through a world ravaged by mankind and remembers a time when he was a boy named Jimmy and wasn’t the last man alive.  Jimmy grew up in a compound built for scientific geniuses that spliced genes, cured all human illness, created new diseases (and thus new cures), and strove for immortality.  He grew up surfing the net where he could watch anything he could imagine – international kiddie porn, executions, a woman who taped her entire life a la The Truman Show, a naked news show, and much more; he grew up playing games with names like Kwiktime Osama and Barbarian Stomp (See If You Can Change History!); he grew up eating imitation foods like SoyOBoyburgers and ChickieNobs.  When he was a teenager, he made friends with a boy named Glenn who became a man named Crake and fell in love with a girl that he would only ever know as Oryx.  One day, a plague hit, wiping out the entire human population, except for Snowman and a group of immune human genetic splices – the Crakers.

Oryx and Crake poses some important questions.  The most obvious is whether a man can become a god.  This future world is riddled with new animals – glowing green rabbits, the gider/spoat, rakunks (raccoon-skunk splice), pigoons (enormous pigs that grown human organs), and more.  Ultimately, the focus is on immortality.  But is immortality acceptable?  Should man be populating the already ravaged Earth with these new creations?

Be warned: spoilers ahead!

The most morally-charged question of the novel revolves around what Crake did.  Crake designed and orchestrated a world-wide plague that literally melted nearly all of civilization.  In their place he left an improved version, man 2.0 if you will – a genetically modified human race that is immune to everything including the plague, peaceful, herbivorous, content, and untroubled by thoughts of religion, art, and war.  Is it morally acceptable to destroy a corrupt civilization that is destroying the planet itself, thus “fixing” the world?  As I reader, I could not help but say yes; as a human, I could not help but ask Are they really so different from us?

Ultimately, in this, my second reading of Oryx and Crake, I found the most significant question to be of art and war.  Another game that Jimmy played as a child was Blood and Roses – the Blood team attacked with human atrocities and the Roses team had to sacrifice human achievements to prevent them (i.e. “one Armenian genocide equaled the Ninth Symphony plus thre Great Pyramid); whoever had the most pieces of art by the end of the game won.  This suggests a link between the two categories – one is not possible without the other.  Human achievement is directly linked to the emotions that beget war and violence.  The Crakers, who lack the capacity for violence, are also without the ability to create art.  Is a life without aesthetics, without beauty and love and art, worth a life of blind contentment?  Are the Crakers truly human without these capacities – what is to differentiate them from the wolvogs and rakunks?

Crake’s ultimate failure comes as a triumph.  Not only do a few humans (the first version) like Snowman survive, but the Crakers are not what he wanted them to be:
Watch out for art, Crake used to say.  As soon as they start doing art we’re in trouble.  Symbolic thinking of any kind would signal downfall, in Crake’s view.  Next they’d be inventing idols, and funerals, and grave goods, and the afterlife, and sin, and Linear B, and kings, and then slavery and war. (361)
Like children, the Crakers ask questions, searching for explanations for how the world works – the first steps to creating a religion that provides answers (a process that Snowman helps to speed up).  In Snowman’s absence, they create a likeness of him and create rudimentary percussion instruments – their first attempts at art.  They still lack the apparent capacity for violence, but I can’t help but think that it’s coming, to inspire their art and defend their religion.  It is inevitable.

Atwood manages to ask these questions and many more while sustaining an excellent narrative.  Snowman is captivating not just for the image of the world that he depicts but as an individual.  I feel the pain of his love for Oryx and his confused wanderings through a world that doesn’t love him.  I care about him as much as the larger narrative, which is the mark of success in any novel; if you don’t have any investment in the characters, then the rest of it is moot.  Atwood’s writing is unusually but wonderfully stark – people shit, people fuck, people ooze blood out of their pores.  Atwood doesn’t prettify or waste words; she tells things as they are.  Her novel is honest, in language and in content.  I just reread it and found aspects to it that I didn’t notice before; I am confident that this would be true in every rereading.  It is definitely won of my favorite novels and I recommend it to anybody who likes to think.

Oh and for those who like series, after Oryx and Crake was published, it became the first in a series.  The Year of the Flood, which came out last year, is the second novel in the MaddAdam trilogy (to be discussed soon), and the third is yet to come, meaning more to love!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Falling for Fall

The last couple of days have made me want to sing.  Summer is gone and the rain has stopped.  Walking down the street today - wearing a light sweater and admiring the blue skies with two stuffed bag of farmers' market goodies over my arms - I caught myself asking, Does life get any better?  I'm still unemployed (for the most part) with all the anxiety that comes with that situation, but suddenly I'm finding it possible to be happy.  The future is still so uncertain but the present is, at least momentarily, perfect, and it's infectious.

For some reason, this year, I haven't been able to find much joy at the farmers' market.  They don't have quite what I want, or it's a hassle, or my delicious and seasonal honey crisp apples are spotty, or I just don't want the hassle of washing my greens, but today was just perfect.  They had exactly what I wanted (minus the red kuri squash but I received an enthusiastic recommendation for an alternative) and everyone was friendly and I didn't need apples and the green chard was beautiful.  So perfect that I had to take a picture: 
Swiss chard, red-skinned potatoes, sweet potatoes, the husband's mozzarella and garlic stuffed bread, apple cider doughnuts, and that dirty green lump at the top, a kabocha squash, a substitute for the red kuri gnocchi from Eat, Drink, & Be Vegan.  Squash are funny things.  The uglier they are, the more I love them.  Gourds too.  I love a big perfect pumpkin, but squash and gourds?  The uglier they are, the more mysterious the seem and the more I want them.  I had to stop myself from buying a bagful of the ugly, bumpy miniature gourds that people decorate with.  I figure that I can go pumpkin picking and find even better ones.

Oh, autumn.  I don't think I've ever truly appreciated you before.  Please forgive me, my friend.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Top Ten Tuesday: My Favorite Authors

So as a means of putting off for yet another day any one of the three book reviews that I have lined up, I've decided to participate in my first book meme!  Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish and it's exactly what it sounds like: a literary-themed top ten list appearing every Tuesday.  I discovered it this morning and ever since have been trying to line up my ten contendors and after several literary battles, including at least three eyes gouged out by wands and several smushed cupcakes, I have my list.  You'll notice that I've put them in alphabetical order because I'm compulsive and don't want to play favorites.  Er - don't want to play favorites among my favorites.  Or something.

1. Margaret AtwoodAs I recently discussed, Atwood has written so many books that I love and look forward to loving that there was no question about her joining this list.  She's a genius, extraordinarily talented, and just has an overall great mind.  My two favorites thus far are probably Oryx and Crake (review to come) and The Handmaid's Tale, though I still have much more to read by her.
2. Jane Austen- Romance, drama, happy endings, and a wicked pen.  I love it.  Need I say more?
3. The Bronte Sisters- Yes, I know that these are three different people but I've read a book by each and I love them all and really, none of them wrote that much, and by grouping them all together I get two more spots on the lists.  Deal.  Also, they are where I go when I want love and darkness and Austen just won't do.
4. Jhumpa Lahiri- Lahiri taught me that it is possible to salivate over a meal that you're merely reading about and for a secret fat kid like me, that's a big deal.  Plus she writes about India some of the time and I love reading about India.  I met her once though and she was rather unpleasant so she is staying off of my Top Ten list of people I generally like, if it's all the same to you.
5. Gabriel Garcia Marquez- I've only successfully read One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera but I love love LOVED them so much.  They're an investment in terms of time and effort but you won't be disappointed.
6. Isa Chandra Moscowitz and Terry Hope Romero- Who says I can't choose cookbook authors?!  My life would not be the same as I know it today if it wasn't for Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World and for that I shall be eternally grateful.
7. J.K. Rowling- For some reason, Rowling never jumps to mind as a favorite author which is absolutely ridiculous because I have been creepily obsessed with Harry Potter for the last eleven years and I don't see an end to that anytime soon.  Maybe my inner literary snob has a block on Harry but he (my inner literary snob is a he? weird!) is just going have to deal.  I love Harry and I don't care who knows it!  Oh, and ditto the comment about Lahiri, though I've never actually met Rowling.  I just have a feeling.
8. Dr. Seuss- If I can choose cookbook authors, then I can choose kids' book authors too!  As an environmentally-conscious vegetarian, I am obsessed with The Lorax and think that every kid ever should read it.  Seriously, required reading people.  And that from somebody who first picked it up at age fifteen.  Plus Dr. Seuss in general is fun for parents and kids alike, creating a crush on literature in young'uns that is just so important. 
9. Kurt Vonnegut- It's been a while since I read Vonnegut, but he's always a good time - imaginative, hilarious, and thought-provoking.  I particularly love Galapagos and Breakfast of Champions, though I don't recommend the latter to a Vonnegut-newbie.
10. Virginia Woolf- Woolf is another author that I haven't visited in a while and whose work I haven't read enough of but the love I have for everything I've read of hers and the amount of inspiration she's given me as a writer make her more than perfect for this list.  Plus, in my freshman year of college I wrote a paper about August Carmichael from To the Lighthouse that knocked my own socks off.  

What authors are on your top ten?  Or top five?  Or top two, if you haven't read anything since the second grade?  I want to know!

Friday, October 1, 2010

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Book Review

If you haven’t read my review of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire yet, take a look before reading on!  Also, just to warn you: the Harry Potter books have been out for anywhere from 3-13 years and have been made into movies, games, fanfiction, et cetera, as well as being a hot topic in the news and just about everywhere else; therefore I will be making absolutely no effort to avoid spoilers in these reviews discussions of the books so for the uninitiated, read at your own risk.

Let me start off by saying that this blog post has been a long time coming.  A long time.  I finished the book weeks ago and, ideally, would like to have finished my post about it the next day, but just couldn’t bring myself to write it and when I finally did it came out discouragingly negative.  It’s not that I don’t like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  I do.  I just don’t love it.  My feelings about it in general are pretty mixed, which seems to be the consensus with this installment of the series.  Some people seem to love it while some were turned off to either Harry Potter in general or Harry Potter in character.  I am caught somewhere in between – I like it because, well, it’s still Harry Potter but I see it’s many flaws.

I guess the most irritating and off-putting aspect of the novel is Harry’s repeated tantrums and unwarranted outbursts, most of which are directed at his two best friends.  Every time I turned a page and saw sentence in all caps or, worse yet, all caps and italics, my reaction would be Ugh.  Really Harry?  Again?  It’s obnoxious and immature but, to be fair, also very real.  Who didn’t sometimes shout as a kid?  Who doesn’t still sometimes shout, often without real provocation?  It happens.  And Harry has his reasons.  He’s not just experiencing stereotypical teenage angst; at the end of the fourth novel, he had to watch a fellow student die and what happened after that?  He was sent away to live with people he hates and forced to be kept in the dark, without any sort of explanation or anybody to talk to about what he was feeling.  The understandable fear, confusion, and sadness he felt at Cedric’s death understandably transmute into anger at the person or people who he feels is forcing him to continue to suffer these emotions alone.  As Dumbledore says at one point, “Indifference and neglect often do much more damage than outright dislike” (834).  Though he speaks these words in regards to the treatment of house elves, they apply here as well.  His own apparent neglect of Harry over the school year turned Harry’s pain to anger, his tears to bile.  Harry’s behavior is not wholly unjustified; in fact, it’s often identifiable and reasonable.

Of course, considering that it’s Dumbledore’s neglect that leads to Harry poor behavior, it seems rather unfair that Harry should take out his angst on his friends.  I found an interview in which Rowling talks about this: “…kids were saying, ‘I don't understand why he's shouting at Ron and Hermione. I mean, I'd shout at my parents. I would never shout at my best friends.’ But he has no one else to shout at.”  Harry has no parents and his only family is clearly not an option, so he takes his pain out on his best friends.  Why?  Because they’re there, because they’ll listen, because they won’t hate him for it.  I think Rowling has hit on something here – the reasons adolescents rage at their parents is because of that link, that knowledge of a love that can never break their ties.  Without conscious realization, they know that their parents, like Lily Potter, would die for them, would not abandon them at their darkest hour.  We need to unload our pain and confusion and unhappiness on somebody and, sadly, it tends to be those people closest to us, because they are the ones who will forgive us for it.  I know that I, regretfully, do it to my husband.  Who do you do it to?

As much as this irritates me, Rowling does craft an important lesson here – our heroes and leaders aren’t infalliable.  They make mistakes, they yell at their friends, sometimes they even act a little cocky.  All very true, but I think that Rowling is a little heavy-handed with it.  How many times do we have to cringe at Harry’s behavior to get the point?  I guess what I’m really saying is that the novel is too long.  Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate long story lines.  That’s why I read thousands of pages of this series and why I prefer TV series to movies.  However, I also like to get to the point, which Rowling sometimes fails to do in this installment.  She often returns to the pre-Goblet of Fire style of narration that includes lots of whimsical descriptions of how awesome and silly and terrifying magic is, something that Harry and his readers are already used to.  Yeah, a word or a sentence here or there isn’t going to change much but over and over I was finding places where she could have trimmed a bit, which would result in an improvement.  The writing seems to be going backwards, which is rather disappointing after the recent improvements.

How about some things that I out-and-out like about Order of the Phoenix?  I love the side-plot of Harry’s relationship with Cho.  I think it’s just so apt.  He’s had a crush on the girl for years but when he finally manages to get her on the same page, it’s just disappointing.  She’s weepy and jealous, and her friend betrays him and all his friends, and Harry’s confused because he thinks he likes her, but it’s nothing like he thinks it should be, and he kind of hates her, and the whole relationship just fades away into nothingness.  I’ve had one noteworthy relationship like this and I felt the same confusion and unhappiness that Rowling portrays in Harry.  Rowling also does a really good job of keeping Harry’s relationship with Cho from dominating the narrative at any time.  Harry maintains perspective, something that people often assume kids don’t do in this kind of situation, and that’s very important.

I also really love the scene set in the Department of Mysteries.  It’s done so cleverly – there are all these different doors to choose from and behind each sits some new, heretofore unheard of form of magic to confuse and beguile.  It’s a really great setting for a battle – a labyrinth containing dangers and horrors and beauties that cannot be imagined, with consequences that are as involved in the outcome of the battle as the players themselves.  Also just the fact that Harry’s yearly battle is set somewhere other than Hogwarts is nice.  The graveyard in Goblet of Fire is also obviously set apart from Hogwarts, but being nonmagical it doesn’t have the same impact.  It’s nice to see the adult magical world on multiple occasions in Order of the Phoenix, as a reminder that magic isn’t just for children and that there’s more to magic than what Harry understands.
Don't you love that somebody made this?!
Overall, I’m not so sure that Order of the Phoenix  is really necessary to the series.  Nothing really happens or is accomplished.  Voldemort keeps to himself for the most part and the wizarding world goes on nearly the same as before.  Yeah, Harry finds out about the prophecy but I don’t think that’s enough to justify an 800+ page book.  Rowling doesn’t really move the story forward with this installment, which is disappointing.  Except for the prophecy and Sirius’s death, the story could skip from Goblet of Fire to Half-Blood Prince without us losing much, and those two elements could easily be fit in somewhere else.  And while we’re on the topic, does Sirius really have to die?  His death turns a generally gloomy novel into an utterly depressing one.  Come on, Rowling.  Smile a little.

I respect Order of the Phoenix for the fact that it manages to be captivating despite being irritating and depressing.  I enjoy it and don’t seem myself ever skipping it or anything in the future, but my overall feeling is very meh.  I appreciate it and understand it but I certainly don’t love it, on either an emotional or a literary level.  Of course, that’s only in terms of the other books – it’s much more readable than many books out there.  I give it a grudging I like it.  Just don’t get me started on the movie.*

*Okay, one thing about the movie – that’s not how the Room of Requirement works!