Sunday, November 14, 2010

The Red Tent

I've heard a lot of women praise The Red Tent, and I have to admit that the cover picture had me wondering why the woman was posing in this manner. After reading the book, one can only speculate. Historical fiction fans would enjoy this book, but the plot didn't really grab me on this one. I know it's a book club favorite, but I wouldn't want to read this for a book club.

What I did appreciate in the book, however, was the personal narrative piece. I like how women are portrayed as the story tellers, the keepers of memory who pass on the memories of their families, and especially their mothers. Such this the case with our protagonist Dinah (pronounced Dee-na) who opens the novel with a retelling of her mothers' lives--Leah (pronounced Lay-uh), Rachel, Zilpah, and Bilhah. All four sisters are married to her father Jacob in the order of their birth.

Through Dinah's storytelling, she recounts her family history. She explains the strained history between Leah and Rachel--their rivalry. Leah is wed first, which angers Rachel, yet Rachel has more beauty and draws a stronger reaction from Jacob. However, Leah is very fortunate in child birth. She gives Jacob many, many sons while it takes Rachel over ten years to conceive one son. Ziplah and Bilhah also conceive, but they are considered more as lesser servants than equals to the other two wives. Among the four women, Jacob has many, many sons.

Dinah, born much later, is the only girl born to Jacob. It is a blessing when she is born since now the story of the family and the women can be carried on. Dinah discusses the relationships she has with her brothers and her mothers. She is given privileges earlier than most girls because her mothers love her so much and are so eager to turn her to womanhood.

The title of the book, the red tent, reveals to a special tent in their camps dedicated to menstruating women or women in child birth (hence the tent being "red" with blood). Men were not allowed in this tent. It is in this tent where the women bond the strongest and Dinah is told many of these family secrets that she passes onto the reader.

Certain scenes in the novel (or within the red tent) were quite graphic. Dinah tells harrowing details of child birth, animal fornication, first sexual encounters, and a first-menstruation ritual to turn a girl into a woman. I don't consider myself a prude by any means, but I felt borderline awkward reading those scenes and envisioning them actually occurring in the past.

Anyway, moving on to more adventurous and engaging scenes, the reader moves to Dinah's maturation. She enters the city (which is told to be cruel and bad), yet Dinah is curious. While in the city, she meets a young man who turns out to be the prince. He asks for her to move in with him, and she does. Before marriage, they have sex, and now Dinah cannot become a good bride with a good bride price for any other man. The positive thing is that Dinah and the prince are in love. The king goes to Jacob with a fair bride price, yet Jacob and his sons believe that Dinah has been stolen and raped. When the king returns a second time with more money, Jacob insults him by refusing the money and instead offering that all of the men within the palace become circumcised. The prince agrees, for he will do anything to be with Dinah.

The dark or "red" scene within the novel (SPOILER COMING...) is when Dinah discovers her soon-to-be-husband slashed to death in their bed at the hand of her two brothers. Everyone else in their path was murdered. They take Dinah back to their tents where she is too angry to live there and returns to the city. The prince's mother is kind enough to let her stay with them, despite the havoc caused by her brothers, and she bears the prince's son. The prince's mother raises the son as her own and names him despite Dinah's wishes. Dinah is more like a servant to her son than a mother, though the son does know that Dinah is his birth mother and that his father is deceased.

As Dinah ages in the city, she becomes a well-respected midwife who helps women deliver babies. Women from all around call to her to help them give birth. This gains Dinah respect in the city. Her son ages and travels which makes Dinah sad. Later on in her life, she is approached by a man who eventually seeks her as his bride after two years. Dinah, feeling that she could never love again after the prince, discovers that she can. Years later, she discovers that her younger brother Joseph is now the prime minister of Egypt. Dinah, her husband, and Joseph return to Jacob's tents to see their father die. The story of Dinah is known throughout the tents among the women, but the brothers have soon forgotten her, and they do not recognize her upon her arrival. It is at these tents that the reader learns what happens to the other characters in the family to give closure to their stories.

As a reader, I was very angry at the part where Dinah's happiness is stripped from her by her family. I don't know if I can fully blame the men for destroying and ruining parts of Dinah's life. Perhaps they truly felt that she was stolen and raped and needed to do what they did in order to restore power and honor to the family name. Maybe they were truly protecting her. It also seemed that they were aware of Dinah's happiness (since Bilhah came to visit Dinah in the city and spread the news throughout the tents), so why would they deny her that happiness? It was very frustrating, and it made me angry to see such violence for terrible reasons. To ruin someone's life over manly pride is disgusting, and it was hard to read through.

End of spoiler...

What I did not know, because I am not an avidly religious person, is that this novel is a retelling of a minor character in the Bible. Anita Diamant, the author, wrote this on her website on this very point:

"The Red Tent retells the story of Dinah, which is found in the Biblical book of Genesis, Chapter 34. This episode, usually known as the 'Rape of Dinah' has been a difficult passage for bible readers for centuries because of the murderous behavior of Jacob's sons. In Genesis, Dinah does not say a single word; what happens to her is recounted and characterized as rape by her brothers. In my retelling of the story, Dinah finds her voice. The Red Tent is told entirely from her perspective and the point of view of the women around her."

I think it's a pretty interesting idea to take a very small story and blow it up into something bigger in order to promote more understanding or closure. Who knows how far or close this story comes to the truth with its embellishment, but it brings up conversation between those who truly care about the Bible and its teachings.

Was it the most intriguing and exciting book I've ever read? No. Was it thought-provoking? Yes. I often found myself comparing rituals and customs from the past to now, and it's interesting to see which customs have stuck and which ones are considered silly. I would make faces at rituals or customs that seem odd to me, but I bet there are a lot of things that my culture does that would seem odd to other cultures. It's just interesting to see how people lived a long time ago and think if you could handle such a life. It's interesting to see the transformation.

In any event, those interested in historical fiction and religion would be deeply invested in this novel. I find it would connect more with a female audience, but it certainly is not only for women. The strong bonds of women are certainly a strong thread that is woven throughout this novel, yet I don't see why men couldn't be fascinated with these tellings, thoughts, and feelings the same way that a woman would.

To me, it was a mediocre read, yet here I am blogging about it. So, that must say something.

What do you think of The Red Tent?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

House Rules

I've heard a lot of talk about Jodi Picoult's newest novel, House Rules. I found myself to be particularly interested in this novel because of its subject matter: Aspberger's Syndrome. I was interested to see how she presented the characters and what conflicts they would encounter (besides the obvious conflict of living with the disability). However, like many of her novels, I found myself hooked to the story and connected to the characters. This, among others of hers, is another good title to recommend.

Picoult, one again, writes from multiple character perspectives. I thought this would be considerably challenging since one of the characters has Aspberger's Syndrome, a milder form of Autism. Picoult must have done much research to not only understand the disoder but to accurately speak from their point of view. I would find this to be very challenging. It's one thing to understand what Aspberger's is, know the behaviors, and interact with those with it, but I couldn't imagine writing from their perspective. I'm not saying this in a negative way at all. I'm simply presenting the idea that she is very talented to convey something that is so mysterious, cryptic, and misunderstood by so many in this country.

Like most of her novels do, Picoult brings about controversial or misunderstood topics to the forefront and makes people aware of it. She makes people take a stance on the issue and/or discuss it with a larger group of people. Autism has growing awareness, yet it's not something that everybody is very familiar with. It's something that people are aware of if it directly effects them. Otherwise, it can be some distant term that isn't generally understood. Autism itself comes with its controversy as well. Many people speculate as to its causes, be it from mercury poisoning in shots or a general biological disorder. Mothers swear it comes from shots and that gluten-free diets are a sure way to stave off the side effects. But, the medical world is slow to jump on this bandwagon. This, I am sure, is one reason that Picoult wrote about this subject. Her novel is causing more discussion and perhaps is bringing more people and communities to become cognizant of Autism and discuss the disorder and its controversies.

But, I digress. Back to the novel itself.

I liked that the novel included a character with Aspberger's Syndrome, but that wasn't what the entire book was about. A common trait among those with Aspberger's is an obsession with a specific topic. The character in House Rules, Jacob, has a fixation with crime and forensics. He sees crime scenes almost as a puzzle that he must solve. He studies old cases, detectives, and crime shows to become an "expert" on the subject. Like many with Aspberger's, Jacob is brilliant, and he is like a savant in his abilities to fit the pieces together.

The central conflict of the novel revolves around Jacob's fascination. It will eventually lead him to trouble. He shows up at crime scenes, hoping to help solve them. His mother gave him a police radio which helps him arrive at these scenes. But, Jacob does not have social graces granted to your average person. He does not understand that this may come off as creepy or suspicious. He has a lot of characteristics that a guilty criminal might have as well: he can't look in people's eyes, he has nervous twitches, he can't hold a normal conversation, he focuses the conversation solely around himself, etc. The police department becomes aware of who he is once he starts "crashing in" on crime scenes.

Meanwhile, Jacob is taking social skills lessons with a college student named Jess. Jess has a boyfriend named Mark who Jacob completely despises. Jacob, even though he is disgusted by most sexual encounters, finds himself attracted to Jess and asks her on a date in front of Mark at a pizza shop, at one of their sessions. Jacob does not understand how offensive this is (part of his lack of social understanding). Mark gets very angry, yells, and storms out of the pizza shop. Jess is so angry at Jacob, especially since he continues to ask her out once this has occurred, she tells him to "get lost," and she storms out. Jacob knows that he can't "get lost," since he takes language very literally, and decides that he will still go to their next session.

Jacob lives at home with his mother, Emma, and his younger brother, Theo. Their father ran off, understanding that his life would be significantly different with a child with Aspberger's. The interesting thing is that he is somewhere on the spectrum himself.

The main conflict truly arrives when Jess goes missing. It is later discovered that she is murdered. When they discover her body, Jess is wrapped in Jacob's childhood quilt. Emma calls the police station with this information, and Jacob is questioned by Rich Matson, lead detective. Jacob does not lie. He admits that he was there and moved her body, so he becomes the leading suspect in the case. Throughout the novel, the reader wonders if he did in fact commit the crime. Evidence goes both ways, and Jacob's cryptic language makes the reader question whether he is capable to commit such a crime. The reader does not find out until the very end what the truth is.

Once Jacob is put into jail as a suspect, Emma finds a local attorney, Oliver Bond, who has just passed his BAR exam. He is very young and inexperienced. He is not really sure how to be a lawyer, but tries to pretend that he knows. Emma does not have a lot of money to pay him anyway, so they are both kind of winging the experience. Oliver calls for a suppression hearing since Jacob was not truly granted his Miranda Rights. They have to prove that he truly did not understand that what he said could incriminate him. The court decides that evidence used during that crucial interview with Rich could not be used. Jacob (since he was deteriorating in jail) can stay at home under house arrest.

The rest, or most, of the novel takes place in court during the trial. I am finding that many of Picoult's novels take place in court as they use a legal means to sort out these controversial topics she brings up. As the trial unfolds, Emma and Oliver get closer and closer, eventually developing a sexual and romantic relationship.

Theo, the younger brother, takes all of this very hard. In his perspective, we learn how troubling it is for him to deal with having a brother who others call "retarded." He is a loner because of his association with his brother. He knows that he will eventually have to take care of his brother, and this scares him. He feels that his life has always been controlled by his brother and his needs. Jacob always comes first, and Theo always comes second because his needs are less.

Because Theo is dealing with this hard material, he lashes out in other ways. He breaks into local homes and hangs out in their houses, trying to see what it feels like to be normal and live in a "normal" house. He steals materials to see if people will notice. He takes games and iPods and other expensive gifts that his family cannot afford. During the trial, Theo hops a plane to California to go see his father who abandoned the family when Theo was an infant. Emma is forced to fly out there, even with the little money they have, and this is when their father discovers Jacob's murder trial. He eventually comes out there with them to be there during the trial.

The end was intense... SPOILER ALERT...

It is finally revealed that Jacob did not commit the murder. Even though Jacob takes the stand, he never tells what really happened. He never says that he didn't do it. This makes no sense to me, but I will move on. When the jury is deliberating, the truth comes out when Theo is opening his birthday presents. Jacob never gives presents, but he gives Theo a stuffed animal with something tucked inside. An iPod is inside, and Jess's name is etched into the back. Jacob says something like, "Didn't you want this? Isn't that why you were there?" It is then revealed that Theo was at Jess's house the day of her murder. He was spying on her in the shower. She saw him, panicked, slipped and fell. She knocked her head on the sink's edge and bled to death. Scared shitless, Theo runs away. Jacob arrives at the scene, realizes a house rule (always protect and care for your brother), so he cleans up the mess, moves the body, and creates a fake crime scene. Jacob did not kill her. The death was accidental.

The ending isn't 100% clear. Throughout the novel, Jacob describes past crime cases that were solved, like Ted Bundy's story for example. I thought it was clever to end the novel with this new case, Jacob's case. Jacob tells it from the future and how people saw the case after its conclusion. Apparently this new evidence was brought to the court, and I am assuming that Jacob was aquitted of the charges. This case makes forensic history along with the other stories that Jacob told all along. Hm.

Even though I kept reading to find out what happened, I was very frustrated that the truth didn't come out sooner. There were so many instances where the truth should have come out, but it never did. If I was in the story, I don't see why I wouldn't sit down with him and ask him every detail that I possibly could, even if I didn't want to hear the answer. Maybe you don't want to believe that your son, brother, or friend committed murder, but wouldn't it kill you to know the truth? Why would you want to believe a lie? Don't be selfish. I wouldn't want to be naive. It bothered me that no one ever asked him these crucial questions, and it only came about after the fact in a random situation. Very frustrating!!


However, this novel was a great way to learn about Aspberger's and Autism if you don't know too much about it. I think it's better than reading a nonfiction piece that reads like a textbook. Not only do you get to hear Jacob's perspective and see his behaviors, you get to hear how it's like to live with someone with this disorder, from the family members, but you also hear from experts during the trial to provide more thorough, "scientific" information. Overall, it was well-rounded in that respect.

The story was engaging, and the characters were dynamic, as always. Especially if you are intested in forensics, this novel would hook you. I enjoyed reading about random forensic facts and crime cases. Some were eerie, but they were a nice break from the trial at times.

Picoult writes another good one again. I would put this as one of her best, along with The Pact and Nineteen Minutes (and maybe The Tenth Circle). So far, those are my favorites of hers.

So, what do you think of House Rules?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Good Earth

In the near future, I am going to have my honor students focus on reading highly praised novels (like the "classics" and Pulitzer Prize novels), so in my research, I am trying to read some of my own. I happened upon The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck, and I was tempted to read it.

It looks like a dry book. It really does. But I was hooked and I wanted to keep finding out what would happen to Wang Lang and his family. This book is very old, as it was published in 1931, and used to be taught throughout schools when my mom was younger. My mother actually read the book in 6th grade. She remembers reading it because she sliced her finger open while making a project for the book--a diorama. Remember those? In any event, it's an older book.

Wikipedia's description is very, very brief. So much more happens that makes the plot and the character's circumstances very complicated. Essentially, the book follows the protagonist Wang Lang who lives in rural China. He is a very poor farmer but has a connection with his land (hence the name of the book). He wants to make a man of himself, so he goes to the main courts to get himself a bride from a slave. It is there that he receives his wife O-Lan. She soon bears him many children, as they are fortunate to have two boys first. However, economic times become extremely harsh in the land, as the land dries up, and China experiences a drought, thus a famine. Finding food is extremely difficult, and people resort to stealing. Wang Lung has a difficult time feeding his family since he has to feed his wife, two sons, and his older father.

To Wang Lung's misfortunte, his uncle (a mischievous, nefarious, malicious man) joins a notoriously bad group of felons who steal and hurt for their own personal gain. They are the equivalent of a gang. They take most of Wang Lung's food (which is hardly anything), but O-Lan pleads that they leave the furniture, which most of them do. Wang Lung is faced with a hard decision: does he sell his land to make some money for food or does he move away? Wang Lung decides not to sell the land and move to the city to keep his family alive.

However, before they leave, O-Lan faces two misfortunes. First, she gives birth to a daughter who is the victim of malnutrition during the pregnancy. This girl is born with some type of mental retardation as a result, and is thus called the Poor Fool throughout the novel. O-Lan's second pregnancy at this point of time births another baby girl. O-Lan knows that they cannot provide for this baby and kills it. Wang Lung takes it outside to be eaten by a nearby dog who keeps digging up the dead bodies of his relatives to satiate its hunger. Horrid. Nasty. Horrifying.

Wang Lung's family migrates to the city where Wang Lung pulls a plow for silver. His family begs in the street, but at least they have little money and rice to eat. One day, a mob breaks out as people are starving. They raid the nearby house of the rich. Wang Lung comes face to face with a rich man. In an act of desperation, Wang Lung tells the man he will kill him if he does not hand him over some silver. Wang Lung receives many gold coins, enough to keep his family satisfied for a long time. O-Lan picks up some jewels that also will help. Thus, they return back to their land to start anew.

Wang Lung decides to really build up his house and his land. He buys land from the rich house and staffs farmers to increase his intake from his land. He becomes rich from all of the products coming from his land. The money starts to get to Wang Lung's head. He starts to dress very nice and partake in luxuries. He has twins as well, a boy and a girl. They buy servants and build a new, nicer house. The servants move into the old house.

Wang Lung grows bored and wants to become known as a great man. He goes into the town and stumbles upon a whorehouse. He contemplates the decision, feeling guilty, but eventually he begins to sleep with a girl named Lotus. He will do everything for Lotus and pines for her day and night. O-Lan suspects this, and their distance grows. He even asks O-Lan for her jewels to give to Lotus, and O-Lan knows this. However, O-Lan is a silent, obedient woman. It's sad to watch how much terrible treatment she takes and how hard her life is.

Eventually, Wang Lung decides that he wants to buy Lotus for good. His uncle and his wife have now taken residence in his home, seeing that he is so prosperous, and he must house them, for he must respect his family and his elders. He hates having them live there, for they are greedy and constantly ask for silver, but his uncle provides protection from his gang. The uncle's wife makes a deal for Lotus to move to the house, so Wang Lung builds her her own wing off of the house which is very nice. She will reside there. Of course, tension between the women erupts as she lives there.

At this point, Wang Lung's sons are now older, and Wang Lung wonders what he will do about wedding his first son. His first son is lusting so bad that he goes into the town for women. He even has a brief fling with Lotus, and when Wang Lung finds them, he beats his son with a stick. He sends him to the city to get out of his sight until he can find him a bride. A bride is eventually found, and they move into the house together with the family.

Meanwhile, O-Lan has grown terribly sick, and it now becomes apparent how much she meant to the family and how much she did for them around the house. Wang Lung calls a doctor to the house who informs them that a dead baby is living within O-Lan and will eventually kill her. He could either give them medicine to quell the pain, but it wouldn't solve anything, or he could perform surgery to ensure her survival. When Wang Lung says that he will pay it, the doctor suddenly becomes greedy and asks for ten times the amount, which he could not afford. He would have to sell his land for that kind of money, so it comes down to the land or O-Lan. O-Lan begs for him to keep the land, for her life is not worth that much. Wang Lung agrees with her.

During O-Lan's slow decent towards death, Wang Lung is so saddened inside. He is disgusted with how ugly his wife is and has a hard time holding her hand as she dies in her bed, but he hates himself for thinking this. O-Lan, while in a half-daze, half-sleep, constantly cries out phrases like, "But I have beared your children!" Comments that show how torn up she was over her husband's new love and infidelity. O-Lan finally dies once her son is wed. The old man soon dies as well.

Wang Lung-s first son bears children, and the son's wife is a pain. The eldest son often quarrels with the cousin (uncle's son) who is lustful and devious. He wishes to move away into the great house to escape them. Their first idea to make peace in the house is to hook the uncle and uncle's wife on opium. This works. They are now drug-addicted and want nothing else but opium. Lotus grows fatter and fatter but is happy to live in such luxury with servants. The cousin constantly tries to make sexual advances onto Wang Lung's pretty daughter, so Wang Lung weds her off quickly while she is still a young virgin. To their fortune, the cousin eventually decides to go off to war, so that makes things easier in Wang Lung's house.

After making his second son an apprentice in the grain market and looking after their finances, Wang Lung and his family rent out parts of the great house and move into the city. Wang Lung still returns to the land and even rents parts out, as his servants are now growing older. Wang Lung also grows older. He weds his second, smarter son to a rural woman who won't be as picky as the first wife, and lives in happiness with his wealth. He now has many servants to wait on his growing family.

During one bad period of time, the army (as a war in going on, the Revolution) comes into his home, led by the cousin. They stay there for a long time which causes unrest in the house. They have to put all of the women in one wing and guard it, as the men might rape the women. The cousin takes to a slave, and she has babies by him. The army eventually leaves, and peace comes to the house.

Now, if things couldn't get any stranger, they really get odd now. Wang Lung is now an old man. His youngest son does not want to work on the land, which was Wang Lung's plan, so he asks to be educated like his older brothers and to have a wife. He asks for a servant to be his wife, a very beautiful young girl named Pear Blossom. However, Wang Lung fancies her, and wants her for himself. He is conflicted with what he should do, and one night, he makes an advance on her, and she tells him that she likes older men because they are nicer and gentler. They have their own romance. When the son finds out, he is livid and leaves the house to join the army. Wang Lung approaches his death with acceptance. Before he dies, Wang Lung overhears his sons discussing selling his land once he dies. Wang Lung cries out in horror, and the sons lie to him, telling him that they won't. They smile at each other as they say this, and this is how the book ends.

Now, I did not know that there were two other books to follow this one. This is a cliffhanger, and I wonder if Buck meant for it to be this way. In any event, I am drawn to read more. If anyone has read them, are they worth reading??

The book is so rich with material to discuss. How low will people go when they are starving? What happens when people go from rags to riches? How do people become so greedy? Is infidelity justifiable? What is the role of family and filial piety? What happens when parental expectations don't fit into what we want for ourselves? What is loyalty? How do you maintain wealth when money is hard to come by? How do you become a respectable, honorable person? Is arranged marriage a good thing? Why title the book, The Good Earth?

I wish I could discuss the book with someone else. There is so much to talk about!

Is the movie worth watching?? I am aware that there is one, but I am not sure if I should check it out or not.

So what do you think about The Good Earth?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Book of Eli

This movie is long overdue for me. I meant to see it when it came out because it seemed so interesting--different than movies out lately. I got the opportunity to watch it last night, and it was extremely thought-provoking. I will flesh out my thoughts here.

Eli, played by Denzel Washington, exists in a post-apocolyptic world that has experienced "the flash," something that destroyed most of the human population and its surroundings. Eli encounters savages who kill for small tokens in a desolate countryside. He seems to be somewhere in the American west. He carries around a desirable book that all want to covet. At first, we just watch Eli get around a countryside just trying to survive, but we soon learn that Eli can outfight large groups of people and is a strong presence.

Eli makes his way to a nearby town where he soon encounters a small faction who watch him murder a man who tries to rob him while in a bar. Eli proves his fighting skills by taking down many men within this bar, and he is brought to the attention of the man in charge of this faction or townspeople. He tries to persuade Eli to work for him since he seems to be a talented, smart, and aged man. Older people are assets during this time because they knew what life was like before the flash, almost an unimaginable time.

Our antagonist here locks Eli in a room but tries to seduce him to stay with a warm bed, a lot of food and water, and a lady to entertain him. This lady, Solara, happens to be Carnegie's, the antagonist's, lover's daughter. This causes tension between the two. Solara and Eli talk but he will not take her. They end up talking a lot and Solara develops respect for Eli. Eli then tells Solara that he heard a voice that told him just to go west. He needed to deliver the words of the book to a deserving people. He would be protected until he arrived there, but this was his life's mission.

Eli escapes in the morning before his secret of his "book" gets out to Carnegie who then desperately wants to find him. Carnegie comes head to head with Eli in the center of the town and a shoot-out ensues when Eli refuses to give up his book. Eli shoots a lot of people, including Carnegie who gets shot in the leg. Eli escapes and Solara follows into the desert.

Eli tries to abandon Solara, as he thinks she will only get herself harmed when she joins him. Eli has to save Solara as she is assaulted by ongoers, who he kills. They run into an old couple who tries to trick them into coming into the home, only for them to kill and eat them, until Carnegie and his men find them in the house. A massive shoot-out occurs, and the old couple is killed. Solara and Eli survive but are dragged outside. They put Solara at gunpoint until Eli will hand over the book. He does. Once it's done, Eli is shot in the stomach and abandoned.

In their SUVs, Solara strangles the driver and stabs the other man there, a man who wanted to have her as his trophy wife. She throws a grenade at the second SUV and takes off. Carnegie lets her go; he has what he needs--his beloved book. Carnegie believes that he can gain ultimate power with this book. All will follow him when he has it and can deliver its word. So, he wants it for something negative.

Solara finds Eli and drives him to the Golden Gate Bridge. They abandon the car on the bridge and proceed to take a boat over to Alcatraz, where a small civilization lives and is trying to restore the world to goodness. Eli and Solara pass in, and Eli can deliver the message of the book because he has it memorized. Eli spends his last days alive reciting the book from memory as it is copied. Eli dies, and the world finally has the written word of the Bible.

Meanwhile, Carnegie discovers that the book is locked. It takes him some time to get someone to open it for him, but once he does, he discovers that the book is written in braille.

SPOILER: The shock is that Eli is, thus, blind. This is why he wears the sunglasses that he does. Everything then seems almost impossible for a blind man to do. Travel across the country. Kill many people, especially when attacked by multiple people and snipers on rooftops. Kill for food, birds and cats. Escape. Etc. This was a HUGE surprise to me! This didn't even click to me until after I saw the movie. Being blind almost enhances the meaning because it really drives home the point that he was fulfilling God's will, and with faith, he fulfilled his assignment. It gives hope in a supreme being. Very, very powerful stuff.

Solara takes off from Alcatraz to go back home. They make her look, walk, and talk like Eli as she leaves, almost like she is the one to take his place. Carnegie is slowly dying as his leg wound becomes infected, becoming smelly from gangrene. The whole town has gone to hell and his lover (who is also blind and will not read the book to him) becomes overcomed with joy as she knows he will meet his end.

End of Spoiler.

So much to talk about! The biblical references and ideas are overwhelming. He communicates with God and has a purpose. He needs to deliver the word of the Lord in order to save the world. Without knowing the word, people go literally mad, killing one another and losing all respect for themselves and others. It's interesting to ponder why all books were destroyed before the flash.

What was the flash? Was it human-created or natural phenomenon? Why or how did some survive?

It's crazy to see what happens when there are no authority figures, resources, or organized society. People can kill at whim. There are no consequences. You need to find everything you need, and if you're sick, you might not have ways to treat yourself. You can't travel very far because there isn't transportation. It makes you wonder how some people come to power because they really don't have anything to hold them up to that authority. Very, very bizarre. Not something I'd want to deal with.

This film would be very interesting to compare to The Road. They are both apocolyptic recent films (even though The Road was a novel first), and both touch on similar ideas or resorts that humans go to once faced with "the end of human society." Yes, it's sci fi, but it sure is damn interesting and rich to discuss.

So what do you think of The Book of Eli?

Friday, October 1, 2010

How I Live Now

I always mean to read more YA titles to recommend them to some of my students, so recently I finished How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff. I really didn't know what to expect, and there wasn't too much description on the back, and I felt like there were so many unexpected twists and turns. But, I can see that this book would cause a lot to talk about.

Daisy is a teenage girl living in Manhanttan. Her mother died when she was young, and her father remarries to the stereotypical evil stepmother. They don't get along to the point where Daisy is sent to live with her mother's sister Pen in England. Daisy gets to start a new life over there. She struggles a little bit to feel at home, but she soon feels that life is so much more exciting in this lovely countryside rather than the busy city.

Daisy soon falls for her cousin Edmond, a fourteen-year-old smoker. They hide their relationship from the rest of the family, although it must be clear to most of them. Daisy is also hiding her anorexia, which becomes even more complicated as the novel progresses.

And here's the weird twist. A fictional war breaks out in Europe, and life on the farm seems to be normal. They are self-sufficient, so they don't really interact with the outside world. First, a doctor comes to the house looking for medications to help the wounded. He is suspicious that he does not find any adults at home. There is no uncle, and aunt Pen has left. She soon becomes stranded in Oslo and is not heard from again for a long while.

Soon enough, soldiers come to the house and split up the family. Isaac and Edmond (the boys) are sent one way, and Piper and Daisy are sent another way (the girls). Daisy longs for Edmond, but soon takes to saving Daisy as she is younger. There is little food where they are taken, which really makes Daisy look at her anorexia as she grows thinner and thinner and weaker and weaker. Piper and Daisy eventually escape to go back home and must walk home a long distance. Along the way, they encounter a field of dead bodies, a place where Edmond was supposed to be, and Daisy checks every body to make sure that one isn't Edmond. She does not find him, but they seem to be completely scarred from their experience.

Once they finally return home, Daisy intercepts a call from her father who sends her back home. She stays in a New York City hospital until she is nursed back to health. A while later, Daisy returns to England to discover that Aunt Pen was killed in Oslo and Edmond has been found. However, Edmond is so scarred from what he saw in the war that he's only a shell of himself. His arms are physically scarred from self-inflicted wounds. While everyone projected the hurt and harm and anger onto something else, Edmond turned it onto himself. The book concludes with Daisy nursing Edmond back to sanity as she believes she will stay on the farm because that is where she feels the most at home.

Issues to talk about with this book:

-The effects of war
-Eating disorders
-Inflicting self harm
-Underage smoking
-Cruel parenting
-Absent parents
-Future wars

The reading level was easy for a young adult. The novel centers around a fictional war, so you could spend some time speculating why this could have happened. Readers didn't have a lot of information about the war, which is probably quite realistic. We know a lot about wars because we study them after the fact. However, how much do civilians know during the war, especially when they are cut off from contact? I think that's an interesting idea to ponder.

Blood cousins dating? I guess that one's up for you to speculate about...

Simple text, but a few things to talk about with it.

So what do you think about How I Live Now?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Songs of the Humpback Whale

I'm still on my quest to read all of Jodi Picoult's novels. So, a couple of months ago when I was in my days of not blogging, I finished Songs of the Humpback Whale, Picoult's first novel. I wasn't as hooked into this one as a I have been to others, but it was still pretty interesting. I kept tuning in because I wanted to see what would happen, but I was not impressed with the ending (which I'm sure she hears a lot).

Songs of the Humpback Whale involves a woman named Jane who is unhappy with her marriage to her husband Oliver. Oliver is a renound scientist who specializes in whale studies, but he is obsessed with his work and travels a lot. He misses out on his life with his wife and teenage daughter, Rebecca. One day, after a fight escalates in their San Diego home, Rebecca slaps Oliver. She then flees with her daughter Rebecca with no place to go.

In the car, Rebecca (the seemingly stronger of the two) convinces her mom to run if she isn't happy. Why stay in a mediocre situation? They travel across the country, stopping here and there, as Oliver tries to follow them to track them down. Jane calls her brother Jolie who lives in Massachusetts and works on an apple orchard, and they decide that they will stay with him there until they figure out what to do. One of the stops that Jane and Rebecca take is to the site where Rebecca experienced a plane crash. This incident is referenced often. During this crash, Jane was also thinking of leaving Oliver, but the crash brought them together. However, Jane still wants to leave him years later.

Most of the novel is told from the orchard. Love blooms (not to use a ridiculous pun, but I'm already guilty). Jolie's boss Sam and Jane do not hit it off right away. They have that middle-school relationship where they are always bickering, but you can tell that they're flirting. They seem to pre-judge each other--Sam as the redneck idiot farm boy and Jane as the uptight California high class girl. As they spend more time together, these images slowly fade, and they fall in love.

On the other hand, Rebecca falls in love with an older boy on the farm named Hadley. Hadley respects Rebecca's innocence and does not push her into love. It just naturally unfolds, but they try to hide it for a little while. The odd thing about all of this is that Hadley, Sam, and Jolie are all roughly the same age. So when Hadley and Rebecca's interest comes out, fights ensue because Jane thinks Rebecca is too young to know what love is and Hadley is taking advantage of her daughter. Then Rebecca argues about her infidelity from her father, and they aren't on the best of terms.

Meanwhile, Oliver is in his quest of finding his family as he travels across the country. While in New England, as he tracks down Jolie's location, he saves a humpback whale which lands him a spot on the local news channel. He confesses his love to his wife on television, which they watch in the house, and this stirs up emotions among Jane and Sam. The next day, Oliver shows up at the house in the middle of the night. He finds Jane and Sam in bed and goes crazy, demanding that they leave for San Diego immediately. Jane tries to resist. When they try to locate Rebecca, they notice that she and Hadley are missing.

Sam and Oliver leave in Sam's pickup to find her, as they believe that they have run away to Hadley's mother's house. This upcoming scene is foreshadowed in earlier chapters. Hadley and Rebecca are found camping near a cliffside, and a fight escalates as Oliver is sort of insane at the idea of his daughter sleeping with this older man. He demands that they leave him immediately and end this now. As the fight escalates, Hadley accidentally slips and falls over the cliffside to his death. Rebecca is beside herself with grief and has caught pnemonia, so she must return back to the farm.

Because of these terrible circumstances, Jane decides to return to San Diego with her family to ail her wounded daughter. As the car pulls away, she looks at Sam and discusses that she feels that she will see him again. The novel ends on their travel back home.

I was so pissed off that Jane went back to Oliver. She wasn't happy with him, and she found new love, a person who would treat her well, and she ran back to her unhappy marriage. She loved life on that New England orchard, what a different new chapter to her life! However, I can see why it DID end this way because it seems what women might typically do, which gives it that realistic twist. However, I wanted Picoult to give Jane's character more, to make her dynamic and special. But, she is just like her name, a plain Jane. Nothing memorable.

I guess we're left to believe that someday, their love will reconnect. But I just feel bad for Sam. Now he knows what a wonderful love could have been, and it drove away. Now he goes back to his old life with tons of time to think about what he's missing. And, he has her brother around to help him think of it. Lame, lame, lame!

But, I did like how Picoult challenged couples that are far different in age. She showed both sides of the argument, as she normally does, and they both made sense. She showed the intricacies of a broken marriage. She showed the difficulties of understanding people from different backgrounds. When you break it down into these simplicities, the book covers some good topics for discussion. I just wasn't as on-the-edge-of-my-seat as I normally am with her stories.

As her first novel, I can see how it is her first as her other ones get stronger and stronger. I like how she continues to use the dual point of view system to see everyone's perspective. This novel jumped in time a little bit which made it a little more interesting. A lot of information was provided about whales which was kind of interesting extra information to get tied into. She also painted the person who connects more with animals than humans, and we do see that a lot in daily life.

The parallels and deeper connections with the whales can further be made within the actual story. Oliver spent his life listening to love songs of whales, and he had a hard time keeping his own love in tact. In the end, he sings his own love song to Jane (metaphorically) on the air for all to hear (similar to a whale broadcasting his love). It's funny that Oliver seems to be this expert, yet he's really not one at all in his own life.

This time of year would be a good one to read this novel, as it does connect with apple orchards, New England, and fall. If you enjoy Picoult's novels, then this one would be a good one to pick up as well. It's always good and interesting to check out that first, breakthrough novel and see progress or where it all began. At least I find that interesting.

So what do you think of Songs of the Humpback Whale?

The Stationary Bike

For whatever reason, I tend to read obscure Stephen King novellas, short stories, and novels instead of his more well-known choices like The Stand, It, Christine, The Shining, etc. The list goes on and on. However, I did get my hands on a novella of his called "Stationary Bike." The back of the book drew me in because it just seemed so different, so mysterious, so bizarre. I hand to find out what this was about.

"Stationary Bike" is about a man named Richard Sifkitz who goes to the doctor to check out his cholesterol levels. He discovers that they are too high, and his doctor tries to describe his high cholesterol levels with a metaphorical scenario of workmen clearing off junk foods on the roads of his arteries. Richard becomes obsessed with this idea, and it will be brought up later on.

So, Richard, an artist, buys a stationary bike in order to lose weight. He sets it up in his basement, and he actually uses it all the time. On the blank wall in front of him, Richard puts a map of the United States, imagining where he travels with every mile he pedals. As he continues to daydream on his bike, he decides to paint a mural of these metaphorical workmen that his doctor described to him. He pains four workmen clearing fat off of a road. However, the mural starts to come to life.

When he rides, he enters a trance where he actually enters his mural. When he sleeps, he dreams of the workmen. One of the workmen enters his dream which inspires him to paint his garage. However, when he paints the garage, he discovers that this workman has hung himself. Richard realizes how serious this is all getting, so he decides to dismantle the stationary bike.

Richard parallels drug addiction to his addiction to this stationary bike. He tries to make his addiction to riding it to be less than that of someone addicted to drugs. He ponders the idea of doing the drug or the addiction that "one last time," thinking that drug addicts say it all the time and don't mean it, but he is somehow stronger and really can do it one last time. In any event, his one last time is the most intense and really does become the last time.

He interacts with the workmen in the mural who are angry that Richard has led to the death of their friend. Since they've cleaned up all the fat in the streets, they no longer have work. Their lives are ruined. Richard tries to tell them that they are all imaginary, but their comebacks seem to make him think otherwise. He tries to take one of their hats with him almost as a test. He wonders if it was all a dream.

How it ends: Richard receives a hat in the mail that says LIPIDS on it, affirming that the mural, perhaps, was real.

Interesting huh? It read very quickly, and was very interesting as you wondered what was real and what wasn't. It was interesting to hear him parallel what constitutes addiction, and it may even coincide with King's own thoughts of addiction. I liked that the story was about such a solitary guy in his home and how even though it seemed so mundane, it became so outrageous. You can tell that King spends a lot of time at home to concoct such a story. It's not a bad thing--I spend a lot of time at home as well, and because of that, I could see where he could concoct a story like this. It's like he had a crazy daydream, or dream, and then put it down on paper. Who doesn't have odd daydreams like this one? It almost sounds inspired by some sort of drug or drink anyway. I wonder if the wall started to come to life man... Crazy.

People write about what they know, right? King knows about the darker side. He knows about life at home (it's the life of the writer). He knows about addiction. He must know about daydreams or imagination from the intense stories and novels he has concocted. And, he knows how it is to be an artist, even if it is a different kind of artist, he paints even more elaborate paintings with his words.

As always, I am impressed with King. He is definitely one of our great writers alive today and should be consistantly commended for his incredible imagination. I feel like more and more people try to repress the imagination, but I admire those who connect with it. This is one reason that I really respect this man. He continues to come up with stories that are so engaging to a wide audience. Now THAT is talent.

So what do you think of "Stationary Bike?"

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Men at Work

Recently, I've been getting into some old-school 80s music, and it's surprising the hell out of me. I used to loathe the 80s even though I am a byproduct of it. But, I am coming to terms with the decade. Why not embrace it?

Well, Men at Work has caught my attention. There's just something about them that really makes me want to dance. And I hate dancing. But, on a similar parallel, the New Yorker published a poem called "Men at Work." Weird coincidence. So, here it is!

Men at Work

by Julie Bruck

I said, "Do you speak-a my language?"
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich.
-"Down Under"

We middle-aged sense them immediately:
four brittle pop stars sprawled across
the rigid fiberglass chairs at the airport gate.
It's not just that they're Australian, that gorgeous
thunk of English, the stacked electric-guitar cases
draped with black leather jackets, on their deep
tans on this Sunday night in midwinter Toronto
that holds everyone's attention, drawn as we are,
pale filings into their pull. Even their rail-thin
lassitude attracts us, as it must Doug, the portly
Air Canada gate manager in his personalized jacket,
who arrives to greet the band, cranking hands
and cracking jokes. Doug, who must live in
Mississauga with the wife and a couple of kids,
and who insists the boys come back to play Toronto
next year, when we clutchers of boarding passes
will have abandoned our carry-ons for tickets
to a midsized arena and a ressurrected band
whose lyrics never did make sense but
which are laced to a beat that won't let go--
propelling us down the carpeted ramps
of late-night flights on feeder airlines, hips
back in charge of our strange young bodies,
now shaking down runways in rows.

I wonder if this was inspired by a true story that occurred to her in an airport or whether it was inspired by the song itself in which she invented this fictional story to paint the picture of how she sees this old band today. Yes, the lyrics aren't really memorable (more funny than deep), but the beat is killer! It does make me want to dance. I love how she constructs the sentences of her poem, carrying on for line after line--the emphasis drawn on the final word in each line. Excellent word choice. A story to hook you. Allusions to connect with. I love it!

What do you think of "Men at Work?"


Chuck Palahniuk, I believe, is one of the best writers alive today. Would I recommend to all people? No. Would I recommend him to most people? No. He has such a specific audience that it's hard to peg who would enjoy him. However, I think I fall under that small category that would.

Does a good writer have to appeal to a lot of people?

Not a bad question to ponder.

In terms of Palahniuk, he is just SO out there. He writes about content that might make you embarassed to be reading in public (as I feel). Certain scenes or subjects are either too extreme or gory or explicit, so it's borderline embarassing to give it the stamp of approval. He's certainly not someone to recommend to a high school student (for fear of parents getting angry). However, he is someone to recommend to another adult.

His writing, I find, is so intelligent. Rant is one example that shows how diverse and intelligent he is. The ending became so complicated that I had to reread sections to make sure I was understanding it. After completing research during my post-reading exercise that I do, I discovered that Rant is the first book in a trilogy. Imagine my excitement!

Rant has scenes that made me cringe as I read it. He is so descriptive that it's hard not to physically contort your face and continuously mold your countenance into ways that people near you might start to question what you're reading. But, I think this makes him both memorable and effective. His description of the rotten, dirty, poverty-stricken town just makes you uncomfortable when you read it. Normally, when people read, they like to be taken to a nice place to escape the one they currently live in. When you read this setting, you are transported to a place where you just feel downright icky. It's not something you want to escape to. It's somewhere you want to flee from. But, that really encapsulates what he's trying to get across. This is why Rant wants to leave.

What makes this book unique is that it's told by everyone that Rant encounters except for Rant (if you've read this, you know that this is slightly untrue, but I will not go into further detail as not to spoil it just yet). Rant is the main character. The first scene introduces Rant's father on an airplane. Rant is known throughout the country as this horrible, horrible person for starting a nationwide rabies epidemic, and he has just died. The interviewer asks Rant's father questions about him, and then we flash back in time to see who he was through everyone he knew.

The true title of the story is Rant: An Oral Biography of Buster Casey, Rant's true name being Buster Casey. I thought it was so interesting to read a story through people's interpretations. You have to pick through what people say to see what is real instead of taking everyone's word for truth on face value. You read a range of people's interviews from friends to enemies, from teachers to parents. It's very cool to watch it all unfold while still following a plot.

Rant is such a deep, diverse character. Even though he seems to be portrayed as a villain (seemingly killing family members with spider bites and spreading rabies), he is very intelligent. He discovers valuable coins and spreads the wealth in his poor town. I think it's interesting to see how the town manipulates one another and how they spend the money. Rant also graduates early from high school because he brings up an adolescent male issue that the town just wants to get rid of. I don't want to tell more details; it could be inappropriate for some viewers. He makes deep comments where it shows that he's trying to live this life differently than others and experience all that he can (not a bad human trait). The reader is constantly conflicted with his villainous side and his admirable side.

He seems to have some superhuman qualities as well, which brings in the fantasy/sci fi twist towards the end. I will not give away the end. If you would like to see it, view Wikipedia's explanation of it. Rant has hightened senses--he can smell or taste something and tell much more than an average person could tell about it. When he kisses girls (and more) he can taste what they've eaten for days past. He leaves messages on eggs for his friends when he passes; he writes in wax on the eggs and in order to read the message, viewers must dunk the egg in some kind of ink to read the message. Interesting.

Throughout the novel, we travel all throughout Rant's life. We see his childhood. We see his adolescence. We see his transition from the small town to the big city where he becomes a Party Crasher. Once Rant arrives in the city, we see that it is a dystopian future where the world is divided into Daytimers and Nighttimers, two different classes. Daytimers, as it appears, are classier individuals who play by the rules, and Nighttimers are oppressed individuals looking for a wild, good time.

Of course, Rant is a Nighttimer. He is involved in a group called the Party Crashers who drive cars late at night with the purpose to crash them. Each night has a different theme. For example, one night may be Christmas, and cars well decorate themselves with trees on the top of them, lights around the sides, and someone dressed as Santa driving the car and elves as passengers. It is when Rant becomes a Party Crasher that he meets the woman he loves, Echo Lawrence, a physically deformed girl.

I will not spoil the ending in this entry, so read elsewhere for more!

Overall, I really enjoyed the book. If you like sci fi twists or dystopias, then you will like where the book goes. If you can stomach some hard core descriptions, then you can make it through the book. But seriously, it's really interesting and it's really entertaining. Give it a try, but if you don't like it, don't blame me!

So what do you think of Rant?

Monday, July 19, 2010

Shutter Island

Scorsese hits it big with Shutter Island. A lot of current movies are so shallow and don't allow for in-depth conversation to follow afterward. I know a good movie when I feel like I have to go back and rewatch it or when I need to converse with someone about how they viewed the film. Shutter Island is one of those movies.

I would call it a psychological thriller. Essentially, Leonardo DiCaprio's character Ted comes to a remote island, Shutter Island, which houses the country's worst psychological inmates. They apparently perform kinds of tests to help them "get better," but we see that some of these tests might be pretty intense.

Ted is a federal marshall who comes to the island to investigate an escaped inmate, a woman who drowned her three children and has run away on the island. Him and his partner must locate her, as she is a threat to those around her. But, as the movie goes on, the environment seems to get stranger and stranger, and it seems that Ted will never be able to leave the island. He is becoming a patient there himself!

SPOILER: Brilliant twist. I never saw it coming. I also thought that they did a tremendous job explaining what was going on. Apparently, Ted is a patient on Shutter Island, the worst of all, and they created a giant role play scenario that involved the entire island. They all "pretend" that he is a federal marshal in hopes of connecting with his true self and discovering who he is and why he's there.

Ted's wife is really the one who murdered their children. After he discovers this, Ted kills his wife and creates a fake world for himself because he doesn't want to believe his real one. Apparently Ted has been on the island for two years and suffers tremendous hallucinations. They have him on extreme medication. They have been trying different methods to get him to understand what has happened and moved past it (the role play scenario being their biggest attempt), but he normally relapses and loops back to his made-up persona.

Unfortunately, the role play idea only works for one day. In the last scene, Ted goes back into character, and they take him to the lighthouse (or so it is assumed) for him to be tested/fixed.

I thought the film really made you think. You saw the movie from DiCaprio's perspective (not reality), so at first you think that the island is the bad guy, the antagonist. You think, How can he escape? Can he tell teh world of their monstrosities? You root for DiCaprio. But, as the movie goes on, as the hallucinations get more intense, this all starts to reverse. Instead of the antagonist, the island becomes more of a support, a help. DiCaprio really becomes more delusional and violent as the pieces of reality start to unlock.

What really made me understand the overall idea of the film was when he spoke with a friend of his in a basement jail in Ward C. He said, "You're a mouse in a maze," which he truly was. They were all playing around him, and you can truly see that on a second watch of the film.


Scorsese really does create some of the best films out there. I was engrossed in the film and had to rewatch it again the second day to piece things together and have a full understanding of all of its parts. It is so interesting to watch all of the characters and dissect their dialogue and behaviors on the second time around. You'll see why.

DiCaprio creates some pretty good films as well. He's grown on me over the years. As other child actors fizzle out, he seems to get stronger. I really do think he is talented. I sympathized with his character throughout it and felt so bad for him. He conveys so much emotion that seems heartfelt. I think he was perfect for the role.

I also didn't know that this movie was first a book. I would definitely check it out. It's probably much better than the movie as it must really get into more psychological frameworks inside the minds of these patients.

So what do you think of Shutter Island?

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Talk about a breakthrough novel.

I haven't read such a good book in a long time. I was COMPLETELY hooked on this book, and I would put it at the top of your reading list if you haven't read it yet. The book I am talking about is The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski. I never made the connection while I was reading it, but I discovered that this novel is a retelling of Hamlet. This adds even more interest to the novel in terms of discussing and dissecting it.

Quick Synopsis: Edgar Sawtelle is a mute, and only child, living with his parents on a farm in Wisconsin. His parents raise dogs, Sawtelle dogs, for a living. These dogs are special and have been meticulously breeded for two generations to create the perfect dog. Enter Edgar's uncle, his father's brother, Claude. Claude has just got out of prison and is staying with the family. Fights between the brothers ensue, and mysteriously, one day Edgar's father Gar dies in the barn. Edgar strongly believes that Claude is the perpetrator as he flees the scene.

More synopsis but it might spoil... While coping with the death, Edgar's mother Trudy asks for Claude's help one night when the dogs get in a brutal fight. Claude ends up staying at the house, soon becoming Trudy's lover. Edgar stages a scene between the dogs where they reenact the murder, and Claude turns ghost white, confirming his suspicions. Edgar's fury rises, and he raises a pitchfork to kill Claude. Unfortunately, he has struck the wrong man, and their vet dies instead. Scared half to death, Edgar flees the scene, running away on the spot with three of his dogs. Edgar survives in the woods for months, stealing food from anyone he can. He finally seeks refuge with a man named Henry who doesn't ask many questions. Edgar regains his health there and eventually makes it back home to see his mother and confront Claude.

The ending: Edgar leaves a note at his home that he will return the next day. Claude hides this note from Trudy, hoping to eliminate Edgar since he knows his dirty secret. Claude conspires with the vet's son Glen (who is a police officer) to find Edgar and question him, since he is the one responsible for his father's death. Glen corners Edgar in the barn and tries to knock him out with ether. Edgar throws a noxious substance into Glen's eyes as a defense mechanism, and Glen is instantly blinded. With the ether knocked to the floor, it hits a lamp which lights the entire barn on fire. Edgar frantically tries to save his father's documents (which is everything his father and grandfather lived for to create the Sawtelle dogs). Claude enters to appear that he is helping Edgar, but in reality, he fills a syringe with poison and stabs it into Edgar's neck, just like his father. While waiting for the poison to kick in, Claude waits, but he waits too long. The barn fills with smoke and they both die. The dogs escape the barn and run into the wild.

End of spoilers!

The novel had me curious the entire time. I wanted to see what would happen to Edgar. Wroblewski had me invested in the character. The character is extremely different from traditional characters in literature as well because he literally can't speak (which makes his last name even more ironic--SawTELLe). He sees something and can't find ways to communicate this to others. He never really does share it either.

I love that the novel is broken down into parts or sections, each charting a significant event that occurs that will change the fate of the characters. The chapters are Forte's Children (background information and dog history), Three Griefs (Gar's death, death of his family as Claude replaces father, and discovery of dead father's ghost/secret), What Hands Do (Edgar accidentally kills vet), Chequamegon (Edgar flees and lives with Henry), and Poison (Edgar returns and is killed, along with Claude). Very fitting titles.

I really enjoyed seeing the relationship build between Edgar and his dog Almondine. They were raised together, like siblings, and they could communicate even though they really had no means to. Edgar would sign to the dogs, and they seemed to understand what he wanted. I thought that that would be hard--as a dog trainer, Edgar can't even yell or speak to the dogs, but they seemed to understand his demands (even through signing). Almondine and Edgar separate, however, when Edgar runs away. SPOILER: Edgar discovers Almondine's grave when he returns. I wanted to cry. That, to me, was the saddest part of the novel, aside from the obvious sad parts, deaths of major characters. END OF SPOILER.

Especially now since I have a new puppy, I really started to connect with dog owners and relationships that humans have with dogs. To say the least, it was a timely novel for me. I understand how connected you can be to a dog and the difficulties in communication (and he had more than I do!). I understand how crucial it is to breed a wonderful, obedient dog, and I appreciate the means that the Sawtelles went to in order to create that. I was very interested to read and learn about HOW to breed. That fascinated me.

The setting also made me feel connected to the novel. I felt calm and at peace, as the setting lies on a rural farm in Wisconsin. The slow way of life, the old country farm house was inviting. It was a nice place to escape to and an easy one to visualize.

This is a book that stayed with me. I thought about it when I wasn't reading it. When I see book covers and pictures of boys with dogs, I feel a sense of melancholy. I feel Edgar's character and feel his ultimate love and loss. When someone mentions the book, I feel passion and excitement. I want to discuss this with others, but I don't know anyone who's read it! Someone connect! Someone read it! Someone discuss!

This would be a GREAT film to make into a movie. I truly hope that they do. The story is classic (connecting with Shakespeare but putting a modern twist on it), and it's extremely engaging. Overall, I can't stress how impressed I am with the novel. It is definitely a MUST READ.

So what do you think of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle?

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Harvesting the Heart

I am still on my Jodi Picoult rampage, and I am destined to finish all of her books by the end of the year. (I'm making some decent head-way...) Anyway, my newest accomplishment is her second novel, Harvesting the Heart. This novel, I found, was a little bit different from her other novels. Instead of creating multiple characters and getting insde their heads, it focused mainly on two characters and their romantic relationship (and struggles) together.

Her other novels seem to focus around a central, controversial issue. A trial is usually involved. Multiple characters give their side of the story through their point of view. Families are split in this crucial issue.

But, Harvesting the Heart is slightly different from her normal formula. This could either draw or repel readers, but I think most readers like to find out for themselves.

The controversial issue in this novel, even though it's not the BIGGEST focus, is abortion. The protagonist, Paige, has an abortion during her senior year of high school. She has many good reasons to do so. She doesn't want to be tied down to the small town outside of Chicago that she was raised in. She's not sure that her boyfriend is really the one who is best for her, and she knows that she will marry him if she has the baby. She wants to go to college to pursue her budding artistic talent, which she wouldn't be able to if she had the baby. She wants to travel. She is not mature enough or financially stable to raise this baby. She still lives with her father too.

So, Paige has the abortion and runs. Paige has learned to literally "run" from her problems because that's what her mother did when she was younger. Her mother ran from her family and never spoke to them again.

Later on, once Paige becomes pregnant with her husband's, Nicholas's, child, she starts to remember small things about her mother which makes her want to find her now more than ever, especially since she is becoming a mother soon herself.

Paige relocates to Boston where she meets her future husband Nicholas, a prize of a husband who is going to school to be a doctor. He is from an affluent family, was on the crew team, is stunningly gorgeous, and has traveled the world. Even though he is much older, they still seem to hit it off. They are physically drawn to one another which a passion that excites them. When Nicholas takes Paige home to visit his parents, the Prescott's, they do not like her. Nicholas stops talking to them, they get married, and they live estranged.

A couple years after the marriage, Paige becomes pregnant and starts to fear that she will not be a good mother. She has still not pursued her art career (they had to put her career on hold while they paid for Nicholas to go to med school), and she feels too young to be a mother. She feels like she is destined to fail at motherhood because of her previous abortion AND because she never had a mother herself. Paige still has withheld her abortion secret from Nicholas.

Unlike other novels that express the glory of motherhood, Harvesting the Heart captures the opposite. Picoult shows the struggle that some mothers have. They don't feel like they know how to do these chores, they lose their independence and freedom, they feel worthless, etc. Paige truly makes you feel her struggle. Meanwhile, Nicholas is swept away in his job (being an amazing heart surgeon) and escapes to the hospital often so that he has little responsibility for the child. This creates arguments between the couple, and they grow farther and father apart.

One day, Paige accidentally drops the baby on his head, and she feels that she almost killed him. She feels like she is an unfit mother. When Nicholas comes home, they get in a huge argument about how Paige isn't a responsible mother, and she runs. She takes off in her car and doesn't know where she's heading.

Paige ends up running to Chicago where she visits her father and ex-boyfriend. She then figures out that she really wants to visit her mother, and tracks her down to live in North Carolina as she is a horse trainer.

Meanwhile, Nicholas is furious and cuts off Paige's credit cards. When Paige calls, Nicholas is violently mean and angry and refuses to get back together with her. He struggles with finding childcare and eventually must turn to his mother for help. His mother accepts with open arms.

Paige travels to North Carolina to visit her mother, and it's not what she expected. Her mother is nice and she stays there a while as Paige tries to figure her out. Her mother didn't want to be tied down (which is what Paige is wondering herself), but there is a major difference in them that makes Paige leave and return home: Paige cares too much about her child to leave him alone without her.

When Paige returns, Nicholas is a brooding maniac, allowing her to sleep on the porch and yelling obsene things at her. Not knowing what to do, Paige follows him around at work and eventually follows him to his parents' house to see her child. Surprisingly, Mrs. Prescott welcomes her in with open arms. She explains that she didn't like her at first because she seemed to be submissive and to have a weak spine, but this has proven her wrong. Paige moves in with them which makes Nicholas even more furious. Paige does anything she can to win him back. Her biggest move is getting a job at the hospital where she shadows patients and draws pictures of them which become an instant hit. They are displayed all around the hospital which surrounds Nicholas with his wife.

Nicholas struggles the most with Paige's abortion secret, which she reveals to him when she returns. Nicholas feels like he can't trust his wife. She is a stranger who abandons her family. Paige tries her hardest to show him that he is wrong, but that is an extremely difficult thing to prove.

The ending seemed very open as if we were to decide what would happen to the couple. I assume that they will be together because we have watched their struggle and slow acceptance of one another, but it's not crystal clear. Maybe all relationships aren't crystal clear, so this actually makes their situation more realistic. Who knows?

I thought the title was almost too cute. With Nicholas being a heart surgeon and relationship problems, it was accurate on many levels. Hearing about the politics of the hospital and the hierarchy was interesting (as they hosted dinner parties and Paige felt worthless). I liked hearing descriptions of open-heart surgeries and how it feels to literally hold a life in your hands. I'm so removed from the medical world that I find it interesting to read about because it's so foreign to me. (Knock on wood).

The novel alternates between the two in the couple. I really liked seeing both perspectives of the relationship because I felt like I could see each side of the problem. I feel like I sided more with Paige because, to me, Nicholas seemed irrational at times. Yes, that's a hard thing to deal with, but he just seemed to be too pouty about it. At least hear her out. I started to get really frustrated with his character towards the end. I just wanted to yell, "GET OVER IT!" at him, but I really couldn't. I could just keep reading.

Overall, I enjoyed it. I learned some things about horseback riding and open-heart surgeries. I learned about the struggles of being a young mother (or a mother in general) and about relationships in general. There is a lot to be learned here. It's a clear dissection of a relationship, and discussing it with friends would truly be an interesting conversation.

So what do you think of Harvesting the Heart?

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian

Sherman Alexie is an amazing writer. I was first captivated by a short story he wrote (which I highly recommend), "Because My Father Always Said He Was the Only Indian to See Jimi Hendrix Play 'The Star Spangled Banner' at Woodstock." Incredible story. Then I read a bunch of his poems, my favorite being "Buffalo Bill." Powerful poem.

Alexie is most noted for his writings on Native Americans. He has different mediums of conveying stories about them and identifying their current struggles. I am fascinated by how honest and revealing he is. He is truly an educator in this format.

Today, I read The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, a novel targeted at young adults. It is a novel that includes pictures, since the protagonist is an aspiring cartoonist, which help depict the plot as it unfolds. The pictures are another excellent way of conveying the progonist's feelings and describing (and literally picturing) new characters as they enter each scene.

For struggling readers, this is a great book. It has graphic novel features but is mostly text. The chapters are short and the narration isn't over-the-top. The narration is conversational and to-the-point. He actually has a pretty solid flow as he reads. He uses a lot of repetition to show how the protagonist is coping and what he observes in certain scenes. He'll vary longer paragraphs to quick, choppy ones. Longer text is broken apart by lists, pictures, dialogue, or sound effects. It's really easy to get through.

I would LOVE to teach this to an older middle school group (8th grade) or early high school group (9th or 10th grade). There is so much to discuss in this novel, and I think the students would REALLY connect with the plot. This novel would also really appeal to boys for many reasons. There is a male narrator. He plays sports, and there is a lot of description towards the end about his basketball team. He is involved with a girl and honestly (almost too honestly) describes his thoughts and feelings about it.

However, I would also be skeptical to teach it because of some content issues. There is a lot of talk about sex and maturation, using vulgar words. The book is almost too honest to the point where a school might have hesitations passing it. There are minor swear words (ass, fricking, fag, etc). The protagonist's father is an alcoholic, which could actually be a good thing to talk about in a mature classroom environment. But the group reading it would have to be mature enough to discuss these topics and not get too hung up on these small things.

The plot of the novel is interesting, I think anyway. The 9th grade narrator, Arnold, is confronted by a white teacher (since he lives and goes to school on his reservation) and is told that the only way for him to excel in this life is to leave the reservation. The reservation is depicted as having tons and tons of drunks that are poor and struggling. It's a vicious cycle. Arnold takes his advice and goes to a neighboring all-white school which introduces a plethora of issues and problems. He is basically outcasted from the reservation and is not understood by peers at first. He slowly makes friends, and even a girlfriend, through his wit and charm, and by being an incredible basketball player.

Along the way, Arnold struggles with getting rides to school, being accepted by white peers who tease him for being Indian, having other students accept his poverty, taking care of his drunk father, dealing with deaths in his family, losing his best friend Rowdy (who was angry that he abandoned him and the reservation), and then finally, playing his former school and best friend in basketball.

SPOILER: Arnold ends up beating Rowdy and his school, which was formerly undefeated, and soon rekindles his friendship with Rowdy after his sister passes, which Rowdy blames on Arnold. After Arnold left to go to his new school, his sister ran away with another Native American to live in a trailer in Montana. The trailer catches on fire during a party, and they are too drunk to awaken. The novel ends with Rowdy and Arnold playing basketball, finally understanding that Rowdy is meant to stay at the reservation but Arnold is meant to leave on go on to bigger things.


I find it so sad and disturbing to see what has become of reservations and Native Americans. Stereotypes are terrible. It seems like they're coping for a lot of crap that we have put them through over many, many years. To write about it, from experiencing it like Alexie has, is interesting for someone to read about who has not a full grasp of what it is like. And for this, I think it's even more imperative for teens to read. It's good for them to understand so much about cultures they don't fully know about, especially cultures that exist within our own country. Knowledge helps kill ignorance, and maybe this novel could bring that one step closer!

Personally, I loved the integration of pictures. It's different than most books. I also loved how brutally honest the narrator is. He swears, he talks about his sexuality, and he paints his culture accurately (or so I can only speculate). It's refreshing. It clearly sounds like a teenage boy, and I think a lot of high school students could appreciate that. And, he's funny. Very funny.

I recommend it, but I would think about who I was going to recommend it to. Some parents might not want their kids reading it, and I can see why. Some might not care. Some of the language and material may not be new to some, but it may be to others. Personally, I liked it and would recommend it, but I have to put that warning out there just in case.

Alexie is so strong in creative titles that make them sound so interesting that you just have to read them. Anything by Alexie is a joy to read. And this definitely makes the list.

What do you think of The Absolultey True Diary of a Part-Time Indian?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Nineteen Minutes

I continue swiftly along on my Jodi Picoult rampage (if one can call cruising through an author's set of books a rampage). Last week I finished Nineteen Minutes, a novel focusing on bullying and school shootings. I really seem to enjoy her stories that center around teenagers in tough situations. Maybe I can relate more to them because I work in a setting concerning teenagers. Anyway, this one really spoke to me (again, maybe it's because I work in a school).

I haven't seen a school shooting book come out yet. It's almost like it's too soon for someone to touch this subject after recent school shootings, but I think Picoult does a good job at understanding WHY shootings could happen. She really goes back into the past to anaylze the years it takes to build up to something this devastating. And normally, like she shows, it's something that builds, and it takes a bunch of people to contribute to the pain that festers inside to make someone commit such a heinous act.

Before I start, why would the first cover posted above be the best choice for a cover for this book? The focus is not about love. This makes it look like a teen romance book. If anything, it's anti-that. It shows bad teenage love. It's more about pain and suffering at the hands of bullying. Why have this one then? I say, BAD CHOICE!

Ninteen Minutes is a clever name for the novel. Nineteen students are killed, which alludes to the title right off the bat. However, I really like how Picoult opens the book. She lists off anything that can potentially happen in nineteen minutes:

"In nineteen minutes, you can mow the front lawn; color your hair; watch a third of a hockey game. In nineteen minutes, you can bake scones or get a tooth filled by a dentist; you can fold laundry for a family of five. Nineteen minutes is how long it took the Tennessee Titans to sell out of tickets to the playoffs. It’s the amount of time it takes to listen to the Yes song 'Close to the Edge.' It’s the length of a sitcom, minus the commercials. It’s the driving distance from the Vermont border to the town of Sterling, NH. In nineteen minutes, you can order a pizza and get it delivered. You can read a story to a child or have your oil changed. You can walk two miles. You can sew a hem. In nineteen minutes, you can stop the world; or you
can just jump off it. In nineteen minutes, you can get revenge."

In nineteen minutes, Peter Houghton invades the school and seeks revenge on those who bullied him.

The novel skips back and forth from the present to the past as the reader discovers why this shooting happened and discovers all of the pieces to the puzzle about the shooting itself. Like other Picoult novels, there is a mystery twist at the end (concerning the shooting) that changes EVERYTHING in the book. Honestly, I didn't see this coming in the slightest. She normally has a twist, but this one came from left field. In retrospect, I could've seen it. She was really building up to it. But afterwards, it makes a lot of sense.

Peter was a troubled kid, picked on by boys ever since his first day of kindergarten when his lunch box is tossed off the school bus. Throughout school, he had little support from administration who did not heavily punish the boys who tormented him. He even had an elementary school teacher who encouraged Peter to stand up for himself and did not force the bullies to stop picking on him.

A much better cover:

Peter's mother tried to make Peter fit in, but he just wasn't suited for it. She made him join the soccer team, which led to more embarassment and teasing from teammates, especially since he never played. He was picked on in the showers for being so small. And even worse for Peter was his older brother Joey, the perfect son who Peter could never live up to. He was an athlete, a smart guy, a popular guy--one who even picked on his little brother in school to save his own reputation. Unfortunately, Joey is killed by a drunk driver, making him almost become a saint. Part of this adds to Peter's pressure which leads up to the shooting.

In addition, the past connects Peter with Josie Cormier (daughter of the judge Alex Cormier) as good friends. Peter and Josie were childhood friends until Peter showed Josie his father's rifles (the ones he uses to shoot later on when he is a junior). Alex forbids Josie to play with Peter anymore even though they remain friends until they are in sixth grade. Josie starts to hang out with the popular crowd, and their friendship deteriorates.

Another level is added to the mix because of their dismantled friendship. Peter's mother, Lacy, was Alex's midwife and coached her into having Josie even though she was a single mother and aspiring judge. They became friends through this struggle. This paints the history of Alex's troubled relationship with Josie's father, her law professor, who she eventually beats out to receive the position of judge. Their friendship breaks apart when Peter's and Josie's does, but it sparks up a little bit at the end when Alex starts to smypathize with Peter during the trial.

Before the shooting, Josie was going out with Matt Royston, one of the victims. He severely teased Peter, even pulling his pants down in the cafeteria in front of everyone. On another occasion, his group of friends sent out Peter's love letter to Josie (since he had a crush on her) to the entire school. This made Peter look like a fool. This incident triggered some of the deaths on the day of the school shooting.

Some other percursors were linked to the possibility of him becoming a shooter as well: He created his own violent video games on the computer. They were about going into a school and shooting. He set fire to a dumpster at work and then wrote about it during school (Josie told on him which further severed their relationship--but they do make up in a jammed elevator where she lets him kiss her briefly). His father took him hunting which is where he developed his shooting skills. His father then feels tremendous guilt that he cannot shake for the duration of the novel.

In addition, the novel focuses on Josie's relationship with Matt and trying to fit into the popular crowd. She really sees these people for the shallow teens that they are. She hates how they pick on people, but she doesn't want to turn on them because then they would turn on her. She doesn't want to become a target. Matt is also abusive to her, physically harming her and then taking advantage of her sexually. He has moments where he sort of seems to care about her, but the relationship is really shallow and he is really selfish. He doesn't even care when she becomes pregnant and miscarriages. Josie's actions in the end have a purpose based on this information.

In terms of the shooting, Peter came into the school not really planned and killed students who bullied him and some random students as well. He killed a history teacher who was gay (perhaps to hide the fact that he caught Peter at a gay bar trying to figure out his own sexuality). If Peter WAS gay, which he wasn't, that would add another layer to the teasing and bullying. I think Peter must have been bisexual. Anyway, he sat down in the cafeteria to have a bowl of cereal and then continued to shoot victims. I think he stopped because it was the only time in school where he felt in control and where no one would bother or tease him (even though that sounds sick).

And as for the twist (SPOILER ALERT): Josie admits on the stand to killing Matt Royston. The way that the bullets were found in the locker room at the end of the novel make it impossible for Peter to take the blame for it. Josie is standing face to face with Peter and Matt when a gun slips out of Peter's backpack. Matt yells for Josie to shoot Peter, but she turns and shoots Matt in the chest. Matt is laying there dying, and Josie panicks and asks Peter to do something. Peter shoots him in the head, and they both faint before Peter could kill himself--what he wanted to do originally. It is hinted at the end of the novel that Peter does kill himself in prison. Josie is sentenced to five years in prison and her mother visits her.

Josie's mother Alex, during the novel, engages in a romance with Patrick, the lead police chief on the case. Alex eventually steps off the case, yet the two are still romantically intertwined. Apparently Patrick was a character in another novel of Picoult's, but he finally seeks his closure with Alex as they prepare to have a child at the end of the novel.


I thought the topic was a really good one to discuss with others. Picoult gets inside the mind of a troubled victim to make us see why something like this might occur. It also points a finger at the tormentors who never got in trouble for being extremely cruel. It explains WHY bullies pick on others and the effect it has on those bullied. I found that exploration to be very interesting.

Picoult also focuses on the life of a judge, which I enjoyed. I never thought of the judge's perspective before, and the female judge's perspective was interesting. Alex kept connecting back her role as a mother to that of a judge which made awesome connections throughout.

Picoult does a great job sequencing of time to keep you hooked. We keep switching perspectives of characters to make the plot well-rounded. Then we keep going forward and backward which adds more layers to the characters and their stories. Of all the Picoult novels I've read, this was definitely one of the best. I was hooked on this one and couldn't stop reading it for days on end until I finally finished it.

Teens have so much to deal with. That transition that teens have when they go from childhood to teenage-hood when friends shift around and people become popular is hard. It hurts feelings. It makes people feel inferior. Being bullied is even harder. It's even more pathetic on the end of the bully because they need to make someone feel smaller than them because they have their own issues and insecurities.

I can't stand bullying. I can't stand seeing it in my classroom and I try my best to stop it when I can. But, the sad thing is, there is only so much that administration and teachers can do. Bullies can be smart, and they do it in places where there is little supervision like the locker room, the cafeteria, the halls, or the bus. Those areas are terrible targets for poor victims, and I feel bad that bullying is still a terrible problem. I don't even think it's one that can be stopped. People always want to have a hierarchy, and even if you hold programs on anti-bullying, it will still happen. Bullies don't peg themselves as bullies; they do it for psychological reasons that they may not even recognize. It's a sad cycle that I don't think will stop no matter how much we try.

But, we can at least try to be aware of it. Reading about the topic and dissecting WHY it happens (i.e. reading a book like this) is at least one step. Maybe if there is more discussion generated, more awareness can help more preventing--not to stop it completely. That would be a dream.

So what do you think of Nineteen Minutes?