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Ender’s Game Or, Sounds like Good Military Strategy

January 19, 2013

Now this is an odd sensation…I’ve been away from WordPress, and all of the sudden writing a review looks more like Tumblring. I almost fell into the temptation of posting a cute unattributed review. Then I remembered where I was. That’s in my desk, writing a review for the first time in eons. Literal eons. In the past few days I’ve finished two books, but I’d like to focus attention on Ender’s Game.

Yep, you guessed why: because they’re working on a film adaption, and I’m always curious to see how these things translate. (Though I also had interest in this novel via word-of-mouth, unlike my Watchmen experience.) My friends constantly recommended, so I had no reason to not pick it up.

This novel (the first of a series) focuses on Andrew Wiggins, a.k.a. Ender, a young child being monitored for potential use as a government weapon. In this future America, families are limited to two children, and a third requires a government waiver. Ender is allowed to be born because his two older siblings came come close, but didn’t cut it, as fighters. The G-men thought Ender Ma and Ender Pa did such a good job on the first two that The Third may be the Earth’s savior.

At age six, Ender reaches the end of observation and gets taken from his family to be militarily trained. He could give or take Mom and Dad; his older brother, Peter, holds resentment towards Ender because he himself failed as “the one.” Ender sees more than just resentment, though: he also sees the ability to kill in Peter, dangerous and angry. It’s a relief to be away from Peter, but the same can’t be said for Ender’s sister, Valentine. Valentine’s intellect was enough to make her the one, but she was too empathetic. There is pure love between these siblings, and it’s hard to see them part.

(Hmm, you say to yourself: children being trained to kill sure have good sibling relationships, if this and The Hunger Games are any suggestions.)

Ender’s start at school, to be part of the International Fleet, isn’t easy. He’s young, little, and teased. His intellect and quick-wittedness, not to mention freak physical strength, become the key to his survival (and ultimate success). In his training his leaders subject him to unfair trials to mold him into the commander they need: one with natural aptitude plus a nonchalant attitude about killing when necessary. So that’s our protagonist. Aside from the human antagonists—bullies, platoon leaders, teachers, brother—the main antagonist is The Buggers. This enemy is one humans haven’t directly communicated with but have engaged in two crushing wars with. In ways kids once played cowboys vs. Indians (ugh) or cops vs. robbers, kids in the future play “buggers and astronauts” (11):

Peter opened his bottom drawer and took out the bugger mask. Mother had got upset at him when Peter bought it, but Dad pointed out that the war wouldn’t go away just because you hid bugger masks and wouldn’t let your kids play with make-believe laser guns. The better to play the war games, and have a better chance of surviving when the buggers came again.

If I survive the games, thought Ender. He put on the mask. It closed him in like a hand pressed tight against his face. But this isn’t how it feels to be a bugger, thought Ender. They don’t wear this face like a mask, it is their face. On their home worlds, do the buggers put on human masks, and play? And what do they call us? Slimies, because we’re so soft and oily compared to them?

The third war is on the way, and the Earth needs a savior, which is where Ender comes in. What is the stuff of childish play will soon be the focus of Ender’s life, every day. Did I mention this kid is six years old when he first starts his training?

I enjoyed reading this novel. It was a little tough for me to believe Ender was six. Most six-year-olds I’ve interacted with projectile vomit in class and cry if you don’t acknowledge they’ve had their hand raised for five seconds. Anyway, this leads me to some questions about the film adaptation.

They’ve aged Ender by five years or so. Is this so he’ll be more relatable (which I can get behind), is it so they can introduce a love interest (boooo), or is it because the thought of kids going to war will slim down the audience? I suppose the success of The Hunger Games proves audiences can handle murderous children. On the other hand, Ender is subject to years of mental anguish by his teachers, and he isn’t told when he does kill. Maybe that’s the trick to succeeding militarily and defending our corner of the universe? I dunno.

A fabulous point made in this story is our (Americans’, humanity’s…) urgency to defeat an enemy we know little about. Some extremist dudes in ghutras arranged the destruction of a symbolic American building, killing about three thousand, so now we have to wage war on every brown person wearing a turban who might read the Quran…

I buy that we, humanity, would try to destroy an alien race. The buggers’ motivation for starting a war are unclear, given we cannot communicate with each other. (The buggers appear to communicate amongst themselves in a sort of ESP-way, thinking as one, following a Queen Bee’s directives.) But, hey, this universe is ours, dammit. Let’s blow them away!

I would definitely recommend reading this. It is a classic sci-fi novel that digs deep into our willingness to wage war; our willingness to absorb collateral damage; our willingness to use genius for bad. I won’t give anything away by parsing for you what the title means, but “gaaahhh” came out of my mouth many times while reading this. Gaaaaahhh. This book never made me tear up, but it did make me say, “I believe this could happen. We have children fighting in wars across the globe. Why wouldn’t we start them young, monitoring their potential, in such a ‘civilized’ country like ours?” Then I got mad.

So, please read. If you have read, let’s talk about this. The back cover includes a snippet from a NYT review, in which the reviewer describes the novel as one would an action-adventure game: “Aliens have attacked Earth twice and almost destroyed the human species…He is smart enough to know that time is running out. But is he smart enough to save the planet?” But I assure you there is much more depth to this novel than discovering if a child is capable of defeating a grotesque enemy.

KK

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

July 8, 2012

And here, I spit on one of the most beloved classics in American Literature. I read this book a few months ago and wrote a review on the back of some kid’s assignment I plucked out of a recycling bin. (Substitute teaching is quite glam, remember.) I got insanely busy between jobs and never came here to publish the review. I figure now is a great time, that way I can stick this book in the Free box sitting in our driveway. (But will it go as fast as the Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Burger King crowns?)

Of Mice and Men starts in Depression-era California. Steinbeck sets quite a scene: desperation, heat, and frustation surround and swallow our main characters. You can’t help but love Lennie and George. Lennie, the huge oaf, who can crush another man’s fist in his paw without even trying. George, who takes his unofficial ward with him to every job. George is a fast talker and a big dreamer, but for some reason he remains committed to keeping Lennie around. You pity Lennie as you might those people you know with developmental disabilities: does he realize how different he is, and how hard he has it? So you thank George for giving him a semblance of a normal life. They travel the California country doing odd jobs. Moving from place to place, for $50 a month, they labor for a bit before Lennie inadvertently gets them in trouble, forcing them to flee to another ranch.

When we become acquainted with them, they are getting hired onto a ranch that seems to be a good prospect: decent owner, decent cabinmates, and a co-worker Candy who has some money saved. The three of them plan to head out and buy some land after a month’s wages are saved. George is the brains, Lennie’s the brawn, and the one-handed Candy is capable of menial tasks such as sweeping. It’s the idea of having their own space—and of having rabbits, for Lennie. That’s all he really wants, are some small cuddly creatures to love. He just loves to pet soft things. (Often to a disasterous degree, sadly.)

The love story between George and Lennie is something to applaud; it seems to be a realistic look at what it’s like to look after, and be frustrated with, a developmentally-disabled adult. And by “love,” I don’t mean romance; the two men are like brothers, although they aren’t. George resents Lennie at times, but he also brings him into his big dreams.

However, I have some issues with  this book that make it hard for me to recommend as relevant. In 1935 when it was written, it may have been commonplace to call every black guy the n-word for no reason. Every woman who wore makeup was a tart. Developmentally disabled folk all had massive amounts of retard strength*. If it were written and published today, we’d trash it for being rife with caricature. The fact that it has beautiful imagery, a few realistic [male] characters, and a sweet core doesn’t make this a must-read.

Don’t get me started on female characters. (Is it a Steinbeck thing? When I read East of Eden that was my biggest issue. His women’s personalities are paper-thin. His creation Cathy/Kate couldn’t reach evil greatness because her sons were her weakness. C’mon. If you’re going to write an evil bitch, give us a break and make her evil through-and-through, not subject to maternal Kryptonite.) Anyway, Of Mice and Men contains two female characters: Aunt Clara and Curley’s wife. We don’t see much of the former, and the latter, you get the feeling she got all she had coming to her because she wore makeup and was a flirt. I suppose my 1955 printing of the book followed that thought, as the cover states it’s a “strong, beautiful novel of the love between two lonely men, and the wanton girl who destroyed them both.” If you read it, you’ll say, “Curley’s wife, the wanton girl, is really responsible for all this carnage? Even her own death, merely for wearing makeup and talking suggestively behind her jackass-of-a-husband’s back? Give me a break.”

Maybe recent pressings let that description go. But I can’t. The novel is so bent on blaming female sexuality for every problem that I can’t take it seriously, classic or not. Some people read classics and defend them with, “Well, that’s just how it was at the time,” to which I have to answer, “but not every woman in classic literature is written like that. Why did this author take such an easy way out? Frakking Shakespeare didn’t write his female characters like that.” Then I doff my English-major hat and come back down to reality, and remember it doesn’t matter. It’s just a book, KK.

Recommend: Not as a course of study. It’s a quick read with some tear-jerking scenes, but I can’t get over how vivid the main characters are at the expense of women and racial minorities. I would recommend one read it to fulfill canonical requirements, though.

KK

*the idea perpetrated by many that developmentally disabled persons make up for brawn what they lack in intelligence. Google it if you haven’t heard of this, and you’ll be shocked/ashamed at how people subscribe to this idea and then denigrate others. There may be some truth to it, but that’s more likely related to impulse control or something. I can’t say I’ve studied it, nor am I a medical doctor. However, there is a hilarious Strangers With Candy episode that addresses it. That show, guys.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn

April 22, 2012

My boyfriend pressed Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn into my hand seven months ago, and I finally found some time to read it (the darned book club I belong to always reads long books), and I am happy I did. If I were to block quote a line from my review, I’d use “A dessert for language lovers,” because that’s what this book is.

That being said, it isn’t a fulfilling meal. It’s a quick, clever read, but it lacks depth. Characters are stenciled in the pages to fulfill the tricks Dunn pulls, and I didn’t connect with any of them. Nevertheless, I still recommend it. It’s a light-hearted work of fiction that manages to make some important points.

Here’s the run-down: Ella Minnow Pea (if you don’t get the significance, say that name aloud) is a young woman living in Nollop, a tiny autonomous island off the coast of South Carolina. It is named after Nevin Nollop, the guy who invented the pangram “the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” The citizens of Nollop practically worship the guy; a statue with the fabled sentence stands in his honor in the town’s center. One night, “z” falls off, and the Council takes that as a sign that Nollop wants its people to eradicate the letter from speech and writing. This means stiff penalties leading to banishment if it is spoken or written. All literature and signage with the offending letter must be removed from all private and public spaces as well. (Eeek!)

The premise is clever; Dunn creates the story in a series of letters between Ella, her cousin, their mothers, and other family and neighbors. As you can guess, the novel progresses with more oppression as letters continue to fall off the statue. We readers are immersed in this ridiculousness, as the notes written betwixt characters cannot contain the fallen letters. We watch the English language die and see the characters struggle to save it—and their island.

I recommend reading this “novel in letters” (not only is it epistolary, but its about alphabetic letters, see?) because it is so darn clever. Its literary theme is palpable and something we need to remind ourselves: we think English is difficult (what, which all the non-phonetic spellings and borrowed words), but that is what makes it beautiful. If we stripped it to only the practical, we would no longer be capable of properly expressing ourselves. We would have a sad. Dunn shows this as the characters’ communiqué decomposes, and it is impressively effective. Lacking the ability to use e, q, u, c, k, b, f, j, v, z, d, and g, expression is stilted. And it gets worse. Poor people of Nollop! (157):

It is important that we say something to one another—any little thing. We are not low-tier animals. We are higher entities, am I right? Say something. A greeting. Anything.

It is important, as well, that we stay in nearness to one another—not only in the proximital sense—in the sense also as persisters—inheritors. We are all that remains—the ones who maintain the remnants—the Nollop that earlier was.

Retreat is not an option.

My gripe is that the characters never got beyond functional; a few love stories develop, but that seems like an afterthought (one needs that in order to hook the reader). If Dunn did this on purpose (how can you properly express love with only five letters?), then that’s OK, I get it. However, it comes at the expense of real connection, and I can see that turning readers off.

Overall, though, I definitely recommend this read, as it was a swift, cute reminder of how wonderful our language really is. Dunn’s tricks are definitely worth reading.

-KK

Island by Aldous Huxley

September 21, 2011

So my good friend Peter says to me, he says, “I’m reading Island right now. You have to read it.” He thought it was amazing, and being part of the My Favorite Book is Brave New World Club, I took his advice seriously. I told my book club partner about it, and we read recently read it—and discussed it to near-death.

The thing with Island is, it’s sold as a novel—but it’s a half-assed novel, if you want the truth. The plot and character development are super-thin. But the ideas? Oh, they’re grand. Many of our book club members hate-hate-hated the book, because they just couldn’t get into the narrative. However, once we talked about it, they realized it wasn’t “a bunch of hippie bullshit”—it is incredibly thought-provoking and amazing for discussion. But as a summer read? Not that hot. I had an enjoyable experience with it because I read it as a philosophical treatise: I used a ton of Post-It flags and wrote notes on the back flap to provoke my thought. (Confession: I’m a nerd, so I do that any time a read a book, regardless of genre or topic. Shhh.) Knowing that I would be discussing this book with a group of smart people made the reading easier.

It’s not horribly written, mind you. Yes, Huxley’s ideas are far more grand that his writing, but he isn’t horrible at it. This book just disappointed a lot of people who were expecting a story. Another reason I enjoyed it immensely is it fits in my liberal world view. I agreed with much of what Huxley posited. So what, exactly, is it about?

Plot: this guy, Will Farnaby, is a journalist hoping to facilitate a dirty deal between his rich boss and a small island, Pala, over oil. His boss is hoping for exploitation, whereas Will is just thinking about the paycheck. It was serendipity when he found himself crashed on the island and taken care of by its inhabitants. This island is the namesake of the book. It is also Huxley’s idea of a utopia. As Will’s health improves he becomes more interested in how Pala works. He is the Skeptical Outsider finding it tough that things really work here; he just wants to find out who is in charge and exploit them. By the end, however, he’s bonded with the residents and drank their semi-Buddhist/Tantric Kool-Aid.

That’s the gist of the plot. Not too much more intrigue than that—there is some political intrigue, but it, altogether, adds up to about ten pages. Most of the character development results from explaining how people handle emotions—mostly pain—in this utopia. It boils down to “mind over matter,” if you must know. Psychology, education, population (control), consumerism, religion and drug policy are all Huxley’s targets. I don’t want to spoil it all should you read it. But here’s your warning: if you aren’t too socially liberal you will have a hard time with this. As a fawning fangirl I agreed with a lot. Not all. Having discussed it in book club, I don’t have it in me to say much now. I will leave you with some choice quotes, however.

On sex (89):

Maithuna,” she answered gravely, “is the yoga of love.”
“Sacred or profane?”
“There’s no difference.”
“That’s the whole point,” Ranga put in. “When you do maithuna, profane love is sacred love.”
Buddhatvan yoshidyonisansritan,” the girl quoted.
None of your Sanskirt! What does it mean?”
“How would you translate Buddhatvan, Ranga?”
“Buddhaness, Buddheity, the quality of being enlightened.”
Radha nodded and turned back to Will. It means that Buddhaness is in the yoni.”

On Family; everyone belongs to a Mutual Adoption Club where you become family with more than your blood relatives (107):

“Take one sexually inept wage slave,” she went on, “one dissatisfied female, two or (if preferred) three small television addicts; marinate in a mixture of Freudism and dilute Christianity; then bottle up tightly in a four-room flat and stew for fifteen years in their own juice. Our recipe is rather different: Take twenty sexually satisfied couples and their offspring; add science, intuition and humor in equal quantities; steep in Tantrik Buddhism and simmer indefinitely in an open pan in the open air over a brisk flame of affection.”
“And what comes out of your open pan?” he asked.
“An entirely different kind of family. Not exclusive, like your families, and not predestined, not compulsory. An inclusive, unpredestined and voluntary family. Twenty pairs of fathers and mothers, eight or nine ex-fathers and ex-mothers, and forty or fifty children of all ages.”

Fulfillment, from the Notes on What’s What (160):

“‘Patriotism is not enough.’ But neither is anything else. Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do.”

This book is great for debate—I didn’t quote any of the anti-capitalism, anti-Catholicism, anti-sit-in-your-desk-education passages. There’s also a bunch of words about enlightenment through drugs. (This is Huxley we’re talking about.) If you’re into reading an interesting mix of Eastern spirituality, Western criticism and humanism, hey, you might like this. If you’re looking for a breezy summer read, stay away. It’s not a beach read.

KK

Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

June 24, 2011

This is a fine little book about punctuation. Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation was an amusing read for me, but I’m not certain it’s for everyone.
If you cringe, or at least laugh, at mispunctuated signs I’d recommend this for you. If you’re curious about how to really use a semicolon, you’d be better off asking your friendly neighborhood English teacher (or Googling it); this book explains how to do it, yes, but there’s a lot of banter that prevents this from being efficient instruction.

This book is 204 pages of example, history and how-to. Why does this matter? According to author Lynne Truss (201):

We have a language full of ambiguities; we have a way of expressing ourselves that is often complex and allusive, poetic and modulated; all our thoughts can be rendered with absolute clarity if we bother to put the right dots and squiggles between the words in the right places. Proper punctuation is both the sign and the cause of clear thinking.

Therefore, we can’t go the way of those rotten teenagers and SPK TXT, nor can we go the way of dead Futurist F.T. Marinetti and communicate “with unhampered words and with no connecting strings of syntax and no punctuation” (184). No, no, all that ambiguity would cause mayhem, you know? This book didn’t need to convince me of such, however; I’m already a fan of correct punctuation. What I found helpful was the clearing-up of certain ambiguities (the differences in American and British usage of terminal punctuation with quotation marks, for example).

It was a very enjoyable read, but I wouldn’t recommend it to the average civilian. If you aren’t already anal retentive about punctuation, I don’t think this book will turn you into the type who corrects apostrophes on signs.

KK

P.S. Thank you, Lynne Truss, for introducing me to my new 15th Century hero, Aldus Manutius the Elder. This scholarly printer invented italics and established firm rules for using a semicolon. LOVE HIM.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler

May 25, 2011

I like to imagine the Apocalypse begins with a big ball of fire and continues with a small badass population fighting over resources. Everyone has big awesome hair and wears a lot of leather and metal. The good guys are attractive, and the bad guys all look like that inbred uncle of yours (making us all, yes, inbred, too). However, this is a product of watching The Road Warrior and Mötley Crüe music videos; the real Apocalypse isn’t going to be as fast or as stylin’.

For just this reason I really appreciate The Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler. The Apocalypse didn’t happen as one wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am Judgment Day, but a crumbling of civilization. We sold ourselves and starved ourselves until we were all against each other. No big event revealed the truth—that humanity is depraved. It just happened. Not the explosions you were hoping for, but the results are the same: how could you argue this isn’t the end times?

The novel starts in 2024, with precocious fifteen-year-old Lauren narrating and journaling the events that happen to her family and neighbors in their walled California compound. Don’t get the wrong idea; they’re not walled-in as a sign of wealth, but walled-in to protect themselves from robbers, looters, rapists, et. al. Some places are worse than others, yes, but all of the U.S. is in shambles, it seems (47):

“There’s cholera spreading in Southern Mississippi and Louisiana,” I said. “I heard about it on the radio yesterday. There are too many poor people—illiterate, jobless, homeless, without decent sanitation or clean water. They have plenty of water down there, but a lot of it is polluted…Tornadoes are smashing hell out of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and two or three other states. Three hundred people dead so far. And there’s a blizzard freezing the northern midwest, killing even more people. In New York and New Jersey, a measles epidemic is killing people. Measles!”

I imagine if our characters traveled outside the U.S. they’d be seeing the same things, if not worse. Unsurprisingly, there is a huge disparity of wealth: people have literally nothing or they have a lot. Lauren’s situation is out of the ordinary; her family has some income as her dad works at a college (can you imagine school sticking around at a time like this? I honestly can’t). The neighbors take care of each other, even sharing communal citrus trees. This is the best situation one could be in as a character in this novel, for they have something—and have souls. However, that’s all shattered one day as their compound is finally broken into. Most everyone dies—many murdered brutally—and the houses are burned to the ground.

Our heroine, a survivor, Lauren heads north, maybe to Oregon, maybe to Canada. Like the sea of refugees she passes on I-5 and 101, she just wants to get somewhere that has housing and employment. At this point we’re about halfway through the book, ready to get to the whole point: The Parable. Given the title of the book, how could you not expect a spiritual side?

All I’ve mentioned of our heroine is that she is young and precocious. She is also black, strong, and the daughter of a minister. This is all important: life, like today, is easier if you are white and male. But she is determined to survive, and her world falling apart forces her to take her ideas seriously and begin to implement them. The past several years haven’t been inventing this religion, but “stumbling across the truth [which] isn’t the same as making things up” (233). She forms Earthseed, a religion that maintains that God is Change—but the only lasting truth is Change. Earthseed’s destiny is among the stars, as there certainly isn’t anything left on Earth. Lauren isn’t being hopelessly metaphorical. She literally means that Earthseed’s followers, no matter how removed they are from her generation, will take root off-world. This is quite a goal for a teenaged girl. However, her commitment is unwavering, and you can’t help but side with her.

Butler’s character Lauren is the sort of strong female I am always excited to read about. It’s definitely sad when one is pleasantly surprised to read a strong, smart, candid female, but I am. (It is really good for me to be reading less canonical literature and more sci-fi!) In this novel Lauren is 15-18 and all sorts of kickass. She leads a group of survivors, picking up more along the way, to ultimately form the Earthseed community (see, she’s a Sower, eh?) And if I want to see how her character and community progress, I can, for there is a sequel.

I won’t bore you with what I didn’t care for in the novel (it isn’t much; I just didn’t feel affected by it). What I liked:
1. Realistic depiction of the world going to hell (I hesitate to say dystopia, for while it seems dystopian, it’s not a unified society we are dealing with).
2. Lauren is the kind of character a girl can look up to (although I’m a 27-year-old woman, I still find this very important)
3. There are so many moments that caused me to proclaim, “Ah! That just happened!” or “That is totally going to happen!” or “That should be shocking, but it isn’t.” You know I’m a sucker for all that’s relevant.

I recommend this book if you’re into strong female leads; if you want to trace a religion’s inception (yep, this seems how one would start); if you are into survivalist/post-apocalyptic literature (though it didn’t make me cry like The Road did); or if you like an engaging story.

KK

P.S. I learned that the end is nigh.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

April 27, 2011

I am late to the party, having just read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I wonder if it is my age (a really old 27) that caused me to be more irritated than enthralled by this book, or that my student loan payments force me to stay responsible. There’s no dropping everything and running away for this girl.

On the Road is a landmark American novel, as it helped define the “Beat generation” and explored this diverse country of ours. It is written in a palatable sort of stream-of-consciousness; it is much easier to follow than, say, Mrs. Dalloway. It has that “THIS IS HAPPENING NOW” vibe, which is remarkable given it’s fifty years old. Check this out: “As the cabby drove us up the infinitely dark Alameda Boulevard along which I had walked many and many a lost night the previous months of the summer, singing and moaning and eating the stars and dropping the juices of my heart drop by drop on the hot tar…” (222). Obviously, Keruoac did an amazing job writing the thing: why does it irritate me?

The back cover (Fifteenth printing 1971) reads “The book is ultimately a celebration of life itself…” I believe that to be true, if you are a selfish jerkwad. This novel chronicles the cross-country adventures of our narrator Sal Paradise, a writer, and his many friends. The primary influence on his life is Dean Moriarty, who falls into jerkwad territory. In the aughts we call guys like this “douchebag,” but that may be too soft a term for ol’ Dean. So, Kristina, what is so irritating about this?
Dean is based on real life Beat groupie Neal Cassaday. Jack writes=Sal writes. Neal clowns around=Dean clowns around.

I am not going to belittle the accomplishments of the Beats. That’s not why I am here. The Beats helped America get less prude and do away with stupid obscenity laws. They were a necessary movement for both literature and society as a whole. They inspired the hippies, man. Can you dig? Yes!

No, instead, I am going to say that I give this book three point five out of five stars because Dean Moriarty is such a jackass. It’s a damn shame he’s based on a real person; it reminds me that far too many people like this exist. Sure, Dean could be a sweet guy and care about his friends…but he is also a low-life who couldn’t support his brood of children by several baby-mamas. I’m sorry you had a tough life, Dean, but please, use a condom. Hedonism=yay! Not taking responsibility for things=boooo. Dean is Chaotic Evil.

Dean is a necessity to this book because he inspires so much of Sal’s action. He’s a deadbeat muse. Sal, on the other hand, seems pretty tame. It’s never his idea to steal cars or destroy things. But he goes along with it, because, hey, it’s fun. So how, exactly, are we celebrating life? By behaving like complete jackasses with utter disregard for others! YAY FUN CELEBRATE GOOD TIMES COME ON. Obviously I am embittered by this.

Aside from the characters’ moral shortcomings (which doesn’t make a book bad; it’s just hard to swallow when this book is sold as a “celebration of life”), this book is pretty great. Keruoac’s prose makes you feel there. It’s not just because they are based on real people, but because he finds those minute details that make a character feel real. Check out this description of the hyperkinetic Dean (114):

Furiously he hustled into the railroad station; we followed sheepishly. He bought cigarettes. He had become absolutely mad in his movements; he seemed to be doing everything at the same time. It was a shaking of the head, up and down, sideways; jerky, vigorous hands; quick walking, sitting, crossing the legs, uncrossing, getting up, rubbing the hands, rubbing his fly, hitching his pants, looking up and saying, “Am,” and sudden slitting of the eyes to see everywhere; and all the time he was grabbing me by the ribs and talking, talking.

I felt there: Colorado, Texas, Mexico, New York, et al. Keruoac does wonders for the reader. But is imagery enough? No, it’s not. Luckily, we get a lil’ bit of philosophizing in, too. At times this is just pretentious conversations dropping Schopenhauer‘s name, but at others, it gets good—sweeter, even.

In driving past indigenous Mexicans, Dean was bewildered by the simple lives they lead and their isolation from modernity (197):

Notice the beads of sweat on her brow,” Dean pointed out with a grimace of pain. “It’s not the kind of seat we have, it’s oily and it’s always there because it’s always hot the year round and she knows nothing of non-sweat, she was born with sweat and dies with sweat.” The sweat on her brow was heavy, sluggish; it didn’t run; it just stood there and gleamed like a fine olive oil. “What that must do to their souls! How different they must be in their private concerns and evaluations and wishes!” Dean drove on with with mouth hanging in awe, ten miles an hour, desirous to see every possible human being on the road.

So I guess I don’t hate Dean completely, given his hunger for new experiences and appreciation for the little things. Everyone should definitely read this book, but keep in mind that it’s not all romantic as we tend to think of the Beat generation. It’s often sad.

KK

Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

February 18, 2011

With Mockingjay, I finished the trilogy! I am so joyous because I feel like I’ve overcome something major. Once I started Hunger Games, this series was constantly on my brain. It’s so addicting; well-written young adult lit is like high-fructose corn syrup. You know there are things better for you, but it is just so sweet and immediately satisfying.

Mockingjay begins with Katniss visiting the ruins of her former home in District 12, struggling to determine reality. In Catching Fire she was sent into the Hunger Games again, and as this is the third book, you know she survived. But it wasn’t due to her ingenuity or the assistance of a loved one; she was set up to win—or at least escape—and has now become a cog in a much-larger machine, the rebellion. Now, this is something the reader has been cheering for all along, as the Capitol’s oppression was disheartening, to say the least. (Routine starvation, strict discipline, torture, meaninglessness.) However, now that the rebels have banded and are seizing control of the districts en route to the President’s manse, we readers hope for a brighter future for everyone. Katniss has accepted her role as the symbol of the rebellion: the Mockingjay did its job to ignite.

But it would be too easy to end the book with such a swift happily-ever-after. (Yay, Katniss is out of the Games and the Capitol is going down! The end.) Katniss has never taken direction well, and even though her team shares her intentions, she isn’t going to be used. Even though she suffers from PTSD like the rest of the Games alumni, Soldier Everdeen still manages to train in anticipation of seeing battle. She is disappointed to find, however, that her training was only to create more believable “propos,” or propaganda pieces. She’s still a pawn.

Katniss & crew end up in the midst of battle, though. Collins continues the motif of having a Game in each novel, as the Capitol is laid out with traps (pods) much like the arena. Luck, wit, and selflessness combine so that Katniss survives the trip through the city (unlike most of her platoon). But right as she sets sight on the President’s mansion, tragedy strikes: the worst thing that could happen, does. (I’m not spoiling it!)

However, this übertragedy, as predictable as it may have been, is necessary. As a result of it Katniss fully realizes her role as pawn for the rebellion, and that they use tactics common with the evil Capitol. It’s all very disheartening and disillusioning. But is anything ever positive in war? I was taken back to an essay question I had to answer on the AP US History test in 11th grade. It was something like: “Why did the U.S. drop atomic bombs on Japan? Was this the right decision?” I recall writing in my essay that, yes, it was the correct decision, because although we nuked 200k Japanese innocents, we prevented deaths of potentially millions of people. Now, of course, I recognize I was brainwashed by my history books—the ones written by the victors. Katniss faces this struggle in Mockingjay: she is currently on the winning side, but is it right?

The themes are more subtle in Mockingjay than the first two books in the trilogy, but I move just as valuable, but perhaps as not easily relatable. Therefore, I recommend Mockingjay and will recommend you read the trilogy as a whole. Each novel is a quick read, and although it’s young adult fiction, there are themes everyone can relate too. You lie if you say you are immune to romance, kicking ass, and heart-wrenching tragedy.

KK

PS I don’t have any earth-shaking quotes to share from this book…I returned it to the owner, thinking, “meh, there’s nothing that really stands out as a blindingly amazing tidbit worth drop-quoting.” But on my notecard, I wrote “[page]377—being human.” I wonder what that means. If you read it, try to figure it out.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

February 7, 2011

I just finished the follow-up to The Hunger Games, and it took all of my willpower to not start the final installment of the trilogy, Mockingjay. This series is more addicting than All My Children! Catching Fire begins with our beloved badass Katniss hunting in the woods outside of District 12, the bleak city-state she calls home. She’s recently returned from winning The Hunger Games and is trying to find some normalcy. Although she’s set for life as all victors are, her BFF/crush/pretend cousin Gale’s family still relies on illegal hunting to fill their bellies—plus, it’s a great comfort for Katniss. She recounts to the reader, briefly, the events from the last book and what we should expect now: a “victory tour” where she will travel to all of the districts, rubbing her victory in their wounds. These districts, after all, each lost two tributes as she survived.

But Katniss won the Games with a move that subtly defied the district. For this, she’s turned into a symbol. Katniss, the Girl on Fire, is now the symbol of a revolution. (If you don’t pick up on this at first, Collins hammers it in your head by the end of the book.) The creepy long-reigning President Snow, who always smells of roses and blood, knows this. Because she’s a victor, he can’t make her disappear like he can other rabble-rousers, but he can put her into an uncomfortable position. One of the things I like most about Katniss is that she’s an atypical girl, and she constantly reminds the reader of this. For an adult it may be repetitive, but I think the target audience—teens—needs to be reminded. If you are a badass, be a badass. Katniss has never wanted children, marriage, or that fairy tale life. If you want that for your life, then take it. Just don’t conform to others’ expectations. Snow knows Katniss doesn’t want to marry, so he uses that to try to break her: if she doesn’t marry (who, I won’t say—I’m being purposefully vague here, in case you read the trilogy), he will have her loved ones done away with.

So that’s where we’re at as Katniss departs for the victory tour. She and her mockingjay become the symbol the starving, haggard people in the districts have been waiting for, and they greet her accordingly. When she visits her deceased once-ally Rue’s district, the crowd shows their appreciation (61):

Then, from somewhere in the crowd, someone whistles Rue’s four-note mockingjay tune. The one that signaled the end of the workday in the orchards. The one that meant safety in the arena. By the end of the tune, I have found the whistler, a wizened old man in a faded shirt and overalls. His eyes meet mine.

What happens next is not an accident. It is too well executed to be spontaneous, because it happens in complete unison. Every person in the crowd presses the three middle fingers of their left hand against their lips and extends them to me. It’s our sign from District 2, the last good-bye I gave Rue in the arena.

This bit of spitting in the Capitol’s eye didn’t go unnoticed, though, as Katniss sees the old man killed by government “Peacekeepers.” Needless to say, I cried here, for I am a sap and Collins sure can manipulate her readers. This is perfect, though. We want to side with the rebels, and we want to see the rebels side with Katniss for a good reason. She can’t be an empty symbol, after all.

Katniss returns to District 12 to her home in the Victor’s Village, where she continues hunting, working out her feelings. At this point, she thinks it’s best to take her loved ones and run, to try to eke out a living on the land, avoiding whatever punishment Snow means for her—until Gale gets caught poaching. He is whipped to an inch of his life, which makes Katniss realize that there is no running from the Capitol. They’ve already hurt her and her loved ones, and running away is the result of fear, not rational thinking—”Gale is right. If people have the courage, this could be an opportunity. He’s also right that, since I have set it in motion, I could so much. Although I have no idea what exactly that would be. But deciding not to run away is a crucial first step” (123).

The symbol has realized her importance. (Oh my Science, that must weigh on one’s shoulders!) She must now determine how best to subtly stoke the revolution, while still serving as a mentor for the Games (as that’s what victors do; Katniss’ mentor, Haymitch, won the games 25 years prior). However, every 25 years the Capitol does something special for the “Quarter Quell” games: one year, each district had to double the number of tributes. This year, the Tributes are picking from each district’s pool of victors…Katniss is going back to the arena. What happens in the arena isn’t important here. Read the book. What’s important is Katniss has to realize, that as the symbol, she provides hope but she doesn’t make all the plans. This will be the hardest part for her: trusting others.

After reading The Hunger Games I said I wanted to teach it. After reading Catching Fire, I still do. I look forward to Mockingjay continuing this feeling. There are so many invaluable themes: the importance of trust, of family, of friends; how government control backfires; that it is ok to live life on your own terms, even if that means being alone; running away is not a solution; et cetera. Discussions would be so fruitful and passionate.

Hopefully the economy will recover and I’ll find a teaching job within the next ten years. If I don’t, I’ll probably be too bitter to teach a book that focuses on finding yourself & revolution: “It doesn’t matter what you do, kids. I did everything—within reason, while being a good person—to get what I wanted. It didn’t work. All I have are some crows’ feet, an alcohol dependency, and student loans I’ll never pay off. You kiddos can take your hope and optimism and shove it.”

KK

Next up is Mockingjay, the final book. This trilogy is like crack. (If it were actually crack, I’d tell you not to do it.)

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

January 30, 2011

OMG WOW would be my 6-letter review of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, if I were so limited. However, I don’t practice word economy, so I get to blather on for a while.

The Hunger Games is the first book of an immensely popular young adult trilogy. Being a teacher it seemed appropriate to read it; being a lover of all things post-apocalyptic, it seemed necessary. Now, this novel isn’t like watchingSteel Dawn, Mad Max or A Boy and His Dog; it’s like reading an incredibly riveting short-and-sweet book. Why? Well, it is an incredibly riveting short-and sweet-book. Sure, it’s 374 pages of large type and ample white space, but the prose and plot are also just that damn swift. I never once got bored; in fact, I read it over two weekdays, which is atypical given my work/beer consumption schedule.

The Hunger Games features a badass teenaged protagonist, Katniss, who, as a poacher, literally puts the food on her family’s table. She’s lucky enough to live in the 12th District, the poorest sector in the nation of Panem. Panem is the former North America, ravaged by civil war and who-knows-what-else. (Who knows what else lies beyond Panem, either.) Each year, in order to assert their dominance over the twelve outlying sectors, The Capitol requires the districts to send a male and female Tribute to The Hunger Games, a televised fight-to-the-death. (Someone’s been watching reality TV!) Because the book hinges on this, I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say Katniss goes to the Hunger Games. Her name isn’t drawn as Tributes usually are; she volunteers to go, which is the first reason readers fall in love with her.

This plot may seem ordinary, given the flavors of Running Man and Survivor. However, it is enhanced given the Hunger Games’ competitors’ ages: 12-18. The Tributes aren’t hardened criminals, but unlucky saps. A few of them are Careers, having prepared their whole lives for the Games and volunteered, but most of them are just kids. This shit is brutal.

A few weeks ago I was thinking about how much I’d like to read a book and cry; I often cry while watching movies and TV, but as much as I love literature, it rarely moves me to tears (did I even cry while reading The Road?). So, peoploids, it is my duty to admit I hella cried while reading this book. (See pages 22, 38, 234, 273, 343, at least.) Collins really knows how to pull on those heartstrings. Think about the first person in the world that you would die for: imagine them being sent to a certain death that you, along with everyone you know, will watch on TV. (If you say there’s no one you would die for, you have no soul.) That death will be likely be agonizing and probably humiliating; if that person is your younger sibling, could you let it happen? I know I couldn’t (So, uh, lucky you, Sam. I’ll take your place).

Collins doesn’t stop there with the tear-bait, though. Reading about selflessness is tear-inducing, yeah, but there’s so much more. And because it’s a YA novel, there’s enough romance to keep you interested (you know you were wondering). I think I’ve said enough. This book is in an incredibly entertaining read, but it also forces you to think about who you love and how far you would go to as a result (and Katniss isn’t the only character to prove her love in the book, either). There are also other themes you could pick up on too, concerning government oppression and society’s obsession with watching others bleed. Man, I want to teach this book so bad. It would make an amazing freshman read, I think.

KK

P.S. In case you didn’t pick up on it, the protagonist Katniss is female. A complicated, confused, kickass female. Thank you, Suzanne Collins.

P.P.S. Next up is Catching Fire, the second of the trilogy. I think I’ll be staying up late tonight.