Sunday, August 21, 2011

Paper Towns by John Green

This book was sooo great! It started out as just another high school romance. A guy gets girl kind of book (this time from the boys perspective). And then from one page to the next it became a mystery; totally suspenseful, I couldn't put it down. Along with the suspense were moments with the quirky teen characters that literally made me laugh out loud. And then again, somewhere around half-way through the book, it develops into something else. The protagonist, Quentin, has these enlightening moments, that are insightful for both him and the reader. And the ending was just so fantastic.

Reviewers have said, "Printz Medalist John Green returns with the trademark brilliant wit and heart-stopping emotional honesty that have inspired a new generation of readers"..."[He] taps into the cadence of teenage life with sharp and funny writing, but transcends age with deeper insights."

So here's what it's about, Quentin, or Q, has a massive crush on his neighbor of 16 years, Margo Roth Spiegelman. When she drops by his window in the dead of night, asking to borrow his car for a revenge campaign, he takes her, and things finally start looking up for their relationship. But the next day, Margo doesn't come back. She doesn't come back the day after that. And the day after that. Everyone decides that she's gone forever, and that she'll never come back, but Q finds clues that seem to be specifically for him, and he becomes determined to get her back. As he follows the clues, Q realizes he has loved the idea of Margo Roth Speigelman, but doesn't really know who Margo actually is at all. As he is getting to know Margo more and coming closer to finding her, he also realizes just kind of simple things about how we all view other people. For example, do we look at them through windows or mirrors? I can't even remember all of the little Aha! moments I had, but like the reviewers I found it to be surprisingly thought-provoking and insightful.

Another blogger listed her favorite things about the book so I'm going to steal some of her ideas because I completely agree:

Q's narration is one of the funniest and wittiest I've read. Here's a ridiculous quote as example: "I always felt like you had to be important to have enemies. Example: Historically, Germany has had more enemies than Luxembourg. Margo Roth Spielgelman was Germany. And Great Britain. And the United States. And czarist Russia. Me, I'm Luxembourg. Just sitting around, tending sheep, and yodeling." Green's writing is full of goofiness like this :)

The characters were actually very believable. I can imagine them walking down the halls in my high school.

The writing was...lovely. It wasn't choppy, or anything. It flowed. And the dialogue was incredible. Maybe it's because he worked for radio stations, but John Green knows how to write dialogue that sort of seeps in naturally. It didn't seem fake or contrived. Like I said, it flowed.

The ending! The road trip, the climax, the last few pages-I absolutely adored everything. I admire how John Green ended the story, and I especially liked how he resolved the Q/Margo thing. It wasn't cheesy. It wasn't utterly romantic. It was...perfect and fit the novel nicely.

This quote from the last page is one of my favorites: "It is saying these things that keeps us from falling apart. And maybe by imagining these futures we can make them real, and maybe not, but either way we must imagine them."

So there you go. I think even you older ladies could enjoy this because it really is true to people and things that happen and feelings you have when you're a teenager. Next to Sherman Alexie, John Green is now one of my favorite young adult authors.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Lonely Polygamist

This is a dang good read, hilarious and heart wrenching (clichés , I know, but these two words do sum up the gripping charm of this book). It’s the best book I’ve read in recent years. Put away all your stereotypes about polygamy and jump in and start loving these unexpected characters.

The book is written from three alternating perspectives: Golden, the “sweet, bewildered, and thoroughly overwhelmed” patriarch and protagonist who wrestles with grief and temptation (thanks for those perfect adjectives, David J. Loftus, Amazon reviewer); Trish, his youngest and prettiest wife, smart, spunky, grieving, seeking refuge; and Rusty, almost twelve and utterly misunderstood as he vies for attention with outrageously boyish and ultimately tragic antics.

I don’t know how Udall so fully comprehends these three completely different individuals, but somehow he gets their voices just right. You can’t help loving them, no matter how crazy, ridiculous, pathetic, or damaging they are. They are each so good, trying so hard to make a good place for themselves in this world. These characters and their intertwining stories make you laugh and cringe and cry.

Udall also gifts you with a huge cast of other memorable characters, from the kind, wise sheriff to the happy, practical Mexicans to the other three sister wives: the unbending rock, the clown, and the delicate petal.

Most incredible of all, he makes all these people and their plights feel familiar.

That's the real gift of this story and this family-- it's us. No, we might not be fundamentalists sharing a husband with sister-wives. But we do grieve, shut down, try to escape, long to be included, stray from the straight and narrow, make cataclysmic mistakes, and fiercely love our kids. What a great author to plop us down in the craziness, and then make it human for us. (thanks again, this time to Rebecca on Goodreads)

Oh, and he does all this in pitch-perfect prose. So do yourself a favor and pick up this funny, tragic, hopeful, big-hearted book. Fall into the couch and plan on staying there til it’s over.

(Fair warning: There’s a generous dose of sex and swearing. But, in its fundamental morals, the book holds to a pretty conservative standard.)

Friday, July 15, 2011

Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose, by Flannery O'Conner, ed. by Sally and Robert Fitzgerald

(This is longer than usual but really helped me clarify and remember what I got out of this remarkable little book.)

One of the most startling things about this posthumous collection of lectures and essays is to realize just how young Flannery O'Conner was when she died. Before age 39 she possessed more brazen confidence and piercing understanding of literary craft than I ever hope to achieve. Plus, her writing is so full of style and personality that (you'll see) I can't resist quoting her.

The editors open unexpectedly with O'Conner's personal account of raising peacocks that is both delightful and puzzling. Why this, in a book about writing? Maybe as an example of, an experience with, one of O'Conner's own mantras:
As a novelist, the major part of my task is to make everything, even an ultimate concern, as solid, as concrete, as specific as possible. The novelist begins his work where human knowledge begins--with the senses. (155)
The peacock writings illustrate not only O'Conner's preference for the concrete, but also her wry wit and no-nonsense attitude.

There follows four sections on writing: the connection between the fiction writer and his homeland, the nature and purpose of fiction in general, the teaching of literature, and writing as a believer (O'Conner holds an unusual place as a devoted Catholic living in the middle of the Bible Belt).

Besides insisting on writers sticking with the concrete, O'Conner speaks in section two on being a Southern writer. I’m not well-read enough to entirely follow how she places herself within that genre, but I did resonate to the notion that all writers should write from the culture and the language that they know:
Unless a novelist has gone utterly out of his mind, his aim is still communication, and communication suggests talking inside a community. . . . The isolated imagination is easily corrupted by theory, but the writer insides his community seldom has such a problem. (53)
This is at least partly where “manners” comes into the title: soak yourself in the manners, the daily actions, customs, gestures, and conversation of your own people. Then write from there. Find the "mystery"--the deep, eternal meaning--in the manners, in the concrete.

In section three (on the nature and purpose of fiction), she urges writers to capture their own region’s language. In one lecture, critiquing submissions to a southern writers' conference, she notes:
I made another observation that startled me considerably. With the exception of one story, there was practically no use made of the local idiom. Now this is a Southern Writers’ Conference . . . [yet] the characters spoke as if they had never heard any kind of language except what came out of a television set. (103)
This is the kind of unapologetic, call-it-as-you-see-it language she uses throughout. She does it again when someone asks, “Why do you write?”: “Because I’m good at it.” She goes on to explain, “I had not been asked why I write the way I do, but why I write at all; and to that there’s only one legitimate answer.” (81)

Here’s another zinger, from section four, on teaching:
Ours is the first age in history which has asked the child what he would tolerate learning. . . . No one asks the student if algebra pleases him or if he finds it satisfactory that some French verbs are irregular, but if he prefers Hersey to Hawthorne, his taste must prevail. . . .

The high school English teacher will be fulfilling his responsibility if he . . . will teach literature, not social studies or little lessons in democracy or the customs of many lands.

And if the student finds that this is not to his taste? Well, that is regrettable. Most regrettable. His taste should not be consulted; it is being formed. (137, 140)
And another, back in section three:
You ought to be able to discover something from your stories. If you don’t, probably nobody else will. (106)
A few pages previously, she shares a fun example of how one of her own stories surprised her with a wooden leg she didn’t know would be there and didn’t know it would get stolen. (100)

These insights into her own writing were my favorite gleanings from the book. I’d never before been assigned anything by Flannery O’Conner, and I’d never sought it out because I understood her work to be pretty grim and gruesome, “grotesque,” as O’Conner puts it. After reading the chapter titled “On Her Own Work,” I delved into and found profound and satisfying insight in her short stories “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “Revelation.”

I’d recommend especially pages 111-114 to everyone before reading “A Good Man.” O’Conner says the key to the story is the Grandmother’s gesture near the end, when she recognizes that “she is responsible for the man before her” (111-112). To understand the heart of the story, we must pay close attention to the Grandmother’s gesture at that moment, to how it differs from all her other actions and how that gesture reveals the true mysteries behind her otherwise meaningless prattle.
Our age . . . does not have a very sharp eye for the almost imperceptible intrusions of grace. . . . be on the lookout for such things as the action of grace in the Grandmother’s soul, and not for their dead bodies. (112-113)
We must also understand the purpose of violence in her fiction:
I have found that violence is strangely capable of returning my characters to reality and preparing them to accept their moment of grace. . . .

[T]he man in the violent situation reveals those qualities least dispensable in his personality, those qualities which are all he will have to take into eternity with him; and since the characters in this story are all on the verge of eternity, it is appropriate to think of what they can take with them. (112, 114)

I have found, in short, from reading my own writing, that my subject in fiction is the action of grace in territory held largely by the devil. (118)
This notion that evil is just as real as grace is central to section five, on writing as a believer. She discusses the struggle to find an audience, since fellow believers often expect happy writing, while non-believers are often unable to perceive and appreciate the moments of grace. O’Conner says she uses the “grotesque” to highlight those moments, to make them more noticeable to unbelieving, untrained eyes.

This juxtaposition of the grotesque and grace seems to be, in part, what is meant by "mystery" in the title. It remains the theme of the final section. An introduction to a memoir about an extraordinary child, it is another sample of O’Conner’s own non-fiction writing, forming, along with the peacocks’ opening chapter, bookends for this collection. We see in the child’s face—one half deformed by tumors and the other lively and gracious—a mirror of ourselves and of this entire mortal life, as well as a final distillation of O'Conner's literary aims.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011


I had hopes for this series. Hunger Games' premise was fascinating, the writing and characterizations superb, and the theme--Katniss learning to accept and offer love--compelling. Catching Fire stalled a bit for me, with almost no character development, but still I turned every page eagerly.

But with Mockingjay I had to keep forcing myself forward, just to see how it ends. When I got to the end, it wasn't really worth it. I’ve been trying to pin down why. My friend, Angela Hallstrom, nailed it in her Goodreads review. I think, ultimately, the novel’s failures all come down to Collins being more driven by her message than by her characters or story.

Angela writes that "Katniss is acted upon instead of acting of her own free will during much of the narrative." For me, Katniss in the first two books
wasn't always likable, but she was always compelling and always a free agent. In fact, her independence was her defining trait. I wanted her to grow into her role as Mockingjay, to finally become the strong leader the previous stories seemed to be cultivating.

Instead, I think Collins' message forced her to make Katniss a helpless pawn. No doubt her message--that war is hell and no one wins and both sides can be equally evil--is important. But people read novels for character and story, and Collins, unfortunately, puts her agenda first, leaving her main character limping on the sidelines.

Allowing the agenda to drive the novel also probably explains the final problem Angela identifies: the sense that we’re slogging through irredeemable violence. Collins primarily wants to show that war isn’t worth it. So we slog. And then her attempt to wrap up, heal, and redeem feels hasty and tacked on.

Perhaps worst of all, Collins resolves the three-books-long love triangle so quickly and
dismissively that it's an insult to both character and reader. It shows disregard for Katniss' deep, enduring friendships and disrespect for the complex individuals involved, reducing them all to allegory.

I give the book two stars because it offers some interesting things to think about--the parallels between the Capitol and District 13, the various manifestations of power-lust, the way both sides use Peeta and how he recovers.

Overall, though, I was sorry I'd bought the book and got rid of it as soon as possible. Still, the first book was great and might make it worth reading the series. From the library.

The Hunger Games

If I could've I would've read this book all in one sitting. It's that engrossing. I loved the Gregor books, and again Suzanne Collins doesn't disappoint. As in The Underland Chronicles, she's the master of capturing a scene or a character with very few words.

There's nothing lyrical or poetic about Collins' language; rather the few words and images she picks area always dead on. It's the epitome of science-fiction/fantasy writing--clean, clear, and straightforward. That, of course, does make the violence a bit gruesome since you have no trouble picturing it exactly.

But, actually, for me it wasn't as bad as it had been built up to be (though I wouldn't recommend it for anyone younger than 14). And, really, for being a violent, action-packed dystopia novel, it's loaded with humanity. In fact, I sometimes found myself feeling the author was letting her characters off too easily. In a world designed to force even the most humane to act inhumanly, her characters never had to completely face the monster within.

I think that's because the story Collins really wanted to tell was the slow, even frustrating at times, transformation of her main character, Katniss. For me, this seemed primarily a story of Katniss learning how receive love, how to trust in it, and how to return it.

What an unexpected setting for such a story: an enclosed, highly controlled and manipulated world of futuristic reality television, where you win when all the other players are dead. Add to this an obsession with unreal physical beauty, and the Hunger Games look almost too much like what often passes for modern entertainment.

But it's not social commentary that makes this book, it's the characters. Katniss especially is intriguingly complex, a very real mix of selfish and selfless. Though she has the survivor's instinct, and she doesn't think of herself as someone who loves people, she naturally reaches out and takes care of others. In this book, she is just beginning the journey to understand herself and how she connects with the people around her. I look forward to watching the rest of the journey. I'm not very patient with series and often don't finish them. But this one, I'm sure I'll finish.

p.s. Since writing this review, I did finish the series and wasn't crazy about how Collins ended it. (hmmm . . . I didn't like how she wrapped up The Underland Chronicles either.) Still, I'm glad I read Hunger Games.