"review" · Children's · comics/graphic novels · fiction · mystery · Picture book · recommend · Tales

{picture/book} rules of summer

Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan. Arthur A. Levine (Scholastic) 2013.

 “Never break the rules. Especially, if you don’t understand them.”–back cover copy.

Rules of Summer, in its most simplified description, is about two brothers’ summer adventures. The story is told by Shaun Tan so there is the surreal and the incredible wordless impact of his imagery. Fans of Tan’s work should already have the book read or on their radar. If you don’t know Tan (for whatever reason), you may begin here.

“This is what I learned last summer” is how the story begins. And it is fair to assume the voice is that of the younger brother, but as the story progresses there are moments where the elder might have inspired a new rule as well. As it is, each of the double-page spreads “tells of an event and the lesson learned*.” And as the publisher also observes, “By turns, these events become darker and more sinister.”

Like the past tense framing of the story alludes, some rules aren’t realized until after they are broken. We understand how much is left unknown and unspoken and the genius of the book is how much it reflects these notions. There is a very very clever brain behind all the beauty on the page.

I mentioned surreal, and indeed there is a strangeness to the realist settings, but there is also a surreality to the story itself. The dark and the whimsical coincide, the summery tones in the color also have texture, and it opens with a more ominous tone than it closes.

Rules of Summer also opens on the title page with the younger running; you can practically hear him calling out to his elder brother not to leave him behind. His older brother doesn’t leave him behind—which is terribly important to the narrative. The summer ends and the sun is setting outside the darkening room where the boys watch television together and the walls hold drawings that commemorate their adventures.

The books dedication reads “for the little and the big,” which is precisely who it is for. Also, a good book for brothers and for people who have a folkloric imagination.

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*Would be amusing to take a double-page spread and try to write a story that would inspire that image.

{images belong to Shaun Tan; read more about the book via Tan’s site, here}

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read in participation w/ #Diversiverseamdu150

"review" · concenter · fiction · Lit · mystery · philosophy/criticism · recommend · wondermous

{book} once begun

silence-once-begunSilence Once Begun by Jesse Ball

Pantheon Books, 2014. 232 pages

“The following work of fiction is partially based on fact.”

Over the course of several months, eight people vanish from their homes in the same Japanese town, a single playing card found on each door. Known as the “Narito Disappearances,” the crime has authorities baffled—until a confession appears on the police’s doorstep, signed by Oda Sotatsu, a thread salesman. Sotatsu is arrested, jailed, and interrogated—but he refuses to speak. Even as his parents, brother, and sister come to visit him, even as his execution looms, and even as a young woman named Jito Joo enters his cell, he maintains his vow of silence. Our narrator, a journalist named Jesse Ball, is grappling with mysteries of his own when he becomes fascinated by the case. Why did Sotatsu confess? Why won’t he speak? Who is Jito Joo? As Ball interviews Sotatsu’s family, friends, and jailers, he uncovers a complex story of heartbreak, deceit, honor, and chance.–publisher’s comments

Errol Morris brought more than justice to the wrongly accused when he brought The Thin Blue Line (1988) to the screen. He demonstrated how fiction lies within the justice system and how reality reveals itself in the imaginations of human perception. Both institutions and human beings can be corrupted; the question is whether doubt can lead to a liberating or confining truth. I thought of Errol Morris as I sank into Silence Once Begun, Jesse Ball’s latest novel.

“One has the impression one can know life, actual life, from its simulacrums by the fact that actual life constantly deceives and reveals, and is consistent in doing so” (4).

Jesse Ball, self-proclaimed professor of “lucid dreaming and lying,” exercises his particular gifts with the latter. We have a want to forget that as a gifted storyteller, he is a practiced liar. The heartbreak of increasing solitude and silence experienced in the narrator’s own life is raw enough to cite the provenance of a genuine artifact. “The following work of fiction is partially based on fact,” but what in the work is partial, or impartial? Silence Once Begun invites suspicion. What becomes awkward for the reader is when the suspicion is found directed not toward Ball or a character, but inwardly. Readers who favor romance and/or political activism will find themselves the easiest targets, among other professional prevaricators.

That smooth teller of tales that drew his reader in a single sitting through door after door and haunted them long after the curfew ended, confines the whimsy of his silvery tongue to his own “prefatory material” and Jito Joo. Joo takes on the silkiness of Milton’s Satan and I remain unconvinced that Kakuzo is able to vindicate her. Questions of love’s selfishness and sacrifice deepen the mystery Ball would document. As it is, the fans of Ball’s novels since Samedi the Deafness will be jolted awake by the halting language of concrete explication. Even the stories spun by relatives as a means to explain one another, find sentences short and constantly revisited. The language Ball adopts is not only one familiar to reportage, but translation—and the earnestness of finding the correct expression.

Oda Sotatsu’s mother is fond of telling stories by means of clarification: When talking with the mother, the interviewer notes how “the impression of exactitude remains” (18). He experiences a feeling that what she is saying is true; he sees what she sees before the evidence presents itself, before what she has seen appears (e.g. butterflies). Whether the mother is telling the truth about butterflies is negligent without a strong enough moral imperative. In Silence Once Begun, lives are hanging in the balance.

The interview is seeking someone to speak where Oda Sotatsu would not and now cannot. Once a silence had begun, can the silence ever be broken? The novel ponders how reputations are powerful constructs (29): how we are represented, expressed, speaks for us; it can certainly lie for us. Jito says of role-playing: “Each person chooses his life from all the roles in all the theaters. We are a prisoner and his love. For I am sometimes one and sometimes the other. You are one and then the other” (187). The liberated speak from a place of privilege and the imprisoned the limitation of choice. In a mystery based on mistaken identification, conversations on love and identity are the discourse that bind, and often blind the character and reader both.

“You don’t know me at all, I said, but I have a feeling that you know about something that I know” (Interviewer 163).

How can we truly know the other? We understand that different kinds of knowing exist. As one character after another jockeys for supremacy of knowledge, we test their validity. Jiro claims, “He hadn’t done it, because I believe he hadn’t done it” (45). The sister is an educated one yet distanced; Kakuzo is the architect of the crime and vain; Jito Joo, the most intimate of actresses.

Jesse Ball, the interviewer, is consciously aware of influence. How his ability to capture an image through a lens is affected, is made literal and then figurative when he takes photographs of the prison and other locations. He questions his ability to be objective, and the state of his relationship with an interviewee can be temperamental at best. He finds amusement and delight without anticipation by the reader. Even as it could be argued that “everything is contextual” (41), there is still the phenomena of surprise. Few could demonstrate the art of startling the reader into remembering that not everything can be anticipated nor traced back to an origin like Ball; which is key in a story where explanations are not just obscured, but elusive.

The attempt of the novel reads like Joo’s own: “I believe in discovering the love that exists and then trying to understand it. Not to invent a love and try to make it exist, but to find what does exist, and then to see what it is” (180). A sacrifice exists at the heart of this novel, more than one; and a person, more than one. Interpreting it and their meaning, to see what it is is a marvelous experiment, and a convicting one. At what point in the time-line is the act of invention initiated, because it would be dangerous to mistake Joo for not inventing a love into existence, wouldn’t it? Maybe your reading will disagree. Silence Once Begun interrogates human impulses: what we would remember, and what we would choose to conveniently forget.

If your cups of tea always require coherence in the mystery to be opaque in the end, to invite an explanatory flashback with solid connecting lines rather than perforated, any of Ball’s work will be uncomfortable, but none more than Silence Once Begun. This is not to suggest Ball leaves lazy gaping holes. His work is impressively spare. No, coherence needn’t have a clear answer everything, and Ball’s coherence artfully alludes to the corrupted nature to the human, the memory, the fictions we tell to make sense of things. The mystery is how we can ever pretend to be so very certain—so certain that we can carry through the life-threatening convictions that we do.

Jesse Ball’s provocation can be both frustrating and an absolute delight; which is how I could describe the conclusion. Ball makes the narrative personal and familiar, investing the reader in a summation that is as tidy as the novel will allow while yet demanding its lingering effect. He does not employ Errol Morris’ chilling play button on a tape recording at the end, but he does compel the reader to ask what it is we wanted to believe happened when the world turned upside down, when the expanding silence entered the room and asked us to wonder why.

"review" · concenter · fiction · recommend · young adult lit

{book} a not-so-new orleans

orleans coverOrleans by Sherri L. Smith

G.P. Putnam’s Sons (Penguin), 2013

Hardcover, 324 pages.

After a string of devastating hurricanes and a severe outbreak of Delta Fever, the Gulf Coast has been quarantined. Years later, residents of the Outer States are under the assumption that life in the Delta is all but extinct… but in reality, a new primitive society has been born.
Fen de la Guerre is living with the O-Positive blood tribe in the Delta when they are ambushed. Left with her tribe leader’s newborn, Fen is determined to get the baby to a better life over the wall before her blood becomes tainted. Fen meets Daniel, a scientist from the Outer States who has snuck into the Delta illegally. Brought together by chance, kept together by danger, Fen and Daniel navigate the wasteland of Orleans. In the end, they are each other’s last hope for survival.–Publisher’s copy.

A new category was needed for Hurricane Jesus in 2019, a declaration of quarantine for the Gulf Coast region issued in 2020, and by 2025 a declaration of separation was signed withdrawing the United States from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. Not the sort of secessionist argument Texas thinks about I’m sure. But we are only offered the point of view of a young woman raised in the aftermath of devastating hurricanes, Delta Fever, and quarantine from the Outer States of America in Orleans.

We are introduced to 16 year old Fen as she negotiates what has been her normal the past few years—seeing to her tribe’s chieftain. The opening’s day anticipates some big changes on the horizon. The novel continues in this vein, the glimpses of how everyday life works in the Delta while keeping the reader in that perpetual state of an unknown outcome to a life in constant threat of violence. Immersing the reader into Fen’s world—an indelicate Fen’s world—is a way in which the author achieves this tension. The novel moves between Fen’s and Daniel’s first person narrating (once he arrives), but hers is in “tribe.” She has a very strong voice and none of her observations come out of nowhere—like his sometimes does. Of course, Daniel’s scattering is unavoidable, nothing is as he expected.

Daniel was a bit of a problem for me; that bit being his age: 24; more than even those thoughts that “he really is just a device, isn’t he?” As the novel went on, I felt like his age was originally older in earlier drafts and someone thought anything greater was too old to be hanging around a 16 year old girl. Even if he were a genius, I still had a problem with his resume. Maybe this is why no one over 30 should read YA? If Daniel were to play roles in romantic/sexual tension—I’m still not sure—but nevertheless, he doesn’t. There is zero romance in this novel!! hurray!! Well, and maybe, too bad, because we do learn why Fen is not a starry-eyed teenage girl or sexually-liberated young woman. In the market place, teenage boys are boys and we think little at first as to why there might be a reason for Fen’s disinterest. She just seems to be a focused young woman.

I kept picturing Fen as a young Zoe (Gina Torres) of Joss Whedon’s Firefly series and Serenity, so strong was her resemblance: intelligent, resourceful, powerful, tough yet capable of vulnerability and loyal. {She is Orleans} Her loyalty to Lydia, her chieftain, is one rooted in love. She makes a promise and sticks to it, even when it isn’t just inconvenient, but life-threatening. Smith minds the reality of a baby, and she works hard to make the premise of the story convincing. How is it Orleans persists physically. What is this Delta Fever and what are its physical and social consequences. The science of it shapes the social landscape. The different groups (institutions) Smith imagines is fascinating. I was especially taken with the lack of an apparent overarching government (considering the population) and how any unspoken agreements seem to be upheld—not that all of them were… That Smith wrote and kept to such an intimate portrait was the most appealing. Her Fen was able to believably cross a variety of people and circumstances so as to show us how Orlean’s situation worked. The use of flashbacks helped and were nicely done.

The consistent characterization of both the human and the landscape really sets the tone and gives the plot structure. For there to be such an underlying menace riding this ticking-clock action-adventure story, you had to have some very chilling figures. The very capable heroine has to have some vulnerability without questioning that core competence to see the baby, Daniel, and the Reader through. Daniel has to be properly suited to show us the Outer States and the external threat they’ve been to Orleans. Smith manages it all beautifully, by the way—although I’m not sure this would read “character driven plot” the way many anticipate; which is the added bonus.

In a lot of ways, the people of [New] Orleans are almost mythic in their ability to survive, the Delta (nature) most certainly is portrayed as nearly-miraculous resilience. As Daniel provides us in his ever present surprise that the city is not dead, but alive, organized, and dare we believe thriving?—we see where the “almost” and “near” come from. I mentioned earlier that Fen was Orleans—she not only characterizes her city and people in the present, but she, in a way, tells their story in her life, past into future—which makes that ending of particular interest. What of that ending other than sudden and unexpected—I was very much impressed. And by unexpected, I do not mean that it does not make sense in the keeping of the novel. But what to do with that ending if Fen is Orleans…

The novel favored Fen’s pragmatism over any sense of optimism. Any optimism present is shown to be snatched away, “The City takes… What does it give?” Neither is it pessimistic. You find beauty where you will, sneaking up on you or waiting in the compassion of others.

I feel awkward saying that Orleans is a really entertaining read, like the way I say Children of Men (2006) is entertaining. It is in that heart-pounding spinning of events and the ever present dread that goal of the novel may not be reached. But humans do not come off as lovely creatures and the violence is not just present but bleeding all over you. The end of the above “Publisher’s copy” reads: Sherri L. Smith delivers an expertly crafted story about a fierce heroine whose powerful voice and firm determination will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page.” Fen is the investment you make in the book; the baby while I’m sure has some implications to thematic study, works like the Alfred Hitchcock’s “McGuffin”—it motivates Fen, but it is Fen that the story is really interested in. And this is by no means a complaint. Orleans is an exhilarating read, and Fen should be unforgettable.

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recommendations: Teen, though Smith is as delicate as possible w/ the violence; she employs some poetics in her handling of a rape scene of a child, but the image she draws from is a rape in its own significance (of a child) so… Smith is stunning with her use of language and metaphor; really good writing. Orleans would be good friends with Shipbreaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, and play nice with most other post-apocalyptic and dystopian young-adult fictions. for those who love and/or are familiar with the city of New Orleans.

of note: I saw an article referencing the status of the film adaptation of Veronica Roth’s Divergent, which didn’t read it because I didn’t care for the novel, but I did care that Orleans would be the better story. It is much closer in caliber to The Hunger Games than Roth’s. Bonus that cinema would have to employ brown-skinned actors as the primary cast. What kind of sales do we need to see for Orleans to make this a possibility?

"review" · concenter · fiction · Lit · recommend

{book} norwegian wood

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakaminorwegian wood cover

translated from Japanese by Jay Rubin

Vintage Books (Random House), 2000 (orig. 1987)

tradepaper, 296 pages.

Toru, a quiet and preternaturally serious young college student in Tokyo, is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. As she retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman.

A poignant story of one college student’s romantic coming-of-age, Norwegian Wood takes us to that distant place of a young man’s first, hopeless, and heroic love.–publisher’s comments.

Norwegian Wood is considered to be the more accessible of Haruki Murakami’s work. People refer to it as his “straight” novel. Turns out, nothing Murakami does is “straight,” thus the quotation marks are not merely for quoting another.

The story begins with a first person narrator remembering when he was 37 years old, on an airplane to Germany and an orchestra-cover of “Norwegian Wood” comes on the overhead as they are taxiing. The Beatles’ song takes him back to a meadow in 1969, when he would soon be 20. He remembers the meadow in incredible detail but the young woman he was with at the time would take longer to visualize. This is a problem for him because he promised to never forget her. And he doesn’t, it’s just that he doesn’t quite remember her, and even in the pages that follow, there are moments where Naoko remains elusive in more than a few senses of the word.

That particular memory of the meadow has served as a “symbolic scene […] it delivers a kick to some part of my mind. “Wake up,” it says. “I’m still here. Wake up and think about it. Think about why I’m still here” (5). At first I thought “I” meant Toru Watanabe (our unnamed for pages narrator), but it may be the “I” is Naoko. The older Toru decides to respond to the particularly hard kick at the airport by writing “this book. To think. To understand.” And perhaps to fulfill that promise of remembrance.

That is the frame, one would assume. And with the older narrator surfacing at rare moments, with outcomes, brief notes on what had happened since. But what he doesn’t do is close the novel with any summarizing thought or understanding. Whatever comes to light or was necessary for the older Toru must rise out of the exploration in memory and story and be enough for himself and the Reader. And was it?

Whatever it is that is troubling Naoko is not stated in clear medical terms. Her mystery is ours as we are to continue in the first person with Toru who has become tied to her through the life and death of a mutual friend, and cemented on the night of Naoko’s 20th birthday; a night that brings the lyrics to “Norwegian Wood” to mind unstrangely enough*.

There is a lot of death in this novel, most of it suicide, many depictions of mental illnesses, and a lot of frank talk about sex and sexuality. (If you are uncomfortable with uninhibited sexual interaction or talk, Norwegian Wood is not Victorian about things.)

Toru appears drawn to and to attract unusual and complicated people of the tormented sort. Naoko would write in a letter about a person’s deformities that everyone has them and that their idiosyncrasies are way of accustoming themselves to said deformities (87). It is more painful for some than others. So, while the “unusual and complicated” should mean everyone, Murakami implements his gift for drawing strange and compelling characters and selects a handful to enter a quiet Toru’s little world. Toru who is unaffected, concerned only with living a genuine life and often struggles with loneliness, the most earnest yet nonchalant person.

The book reads most like an accounting of Toru’s life. He’ll walk us through his day, which may or may not intersect any one of a small number of people who have impacted his life back then. Yet, even when we depart to spend time with Nagasawa or Midori, the two do not exist separately from the effects of Naoko. Naoko, whom we know going into the recounting had never loved Toru. It has strongly marked Toru and Naoko’s and they are hardly alone. Time and again within Norwegian Wood we see relationships of varying fashion in which one does not return the other’s affections to the same degree (if any). And for all the effort for transparency and speaking openly on a number of taboo matters, there are still the unsaid: the lies for self protection, the confusion that memory and emotion brings. These mark their relationship and those without as well.

It is of interest to see a level of meanness and forcefulness to the friends Toru makes since coming to Tokyo. Naoko is too fragile to be implicated, Kizuki always too young and too beloved. No one else is exempt. Nagasawa can be a horribly insensitive human, and Midori flat-out annoying in her determination to be the most sexually and gender liberated of young women who still struggle with the desire for fidelity and a male’s appreciation of her cute haircut. She can also be long-winded. Importantly, neither Nagasawa or Midori or Reiko want to live a life drug down by the past or propriety. They want to live in their bodies, in the present, but with a future in mind somewhere, and this becomes especially necessary to a young man who feels like his life was taken when Kizuki took his own (25).

One can make the leap to social commentary from there. In cultures where so much is shushed, repressed, unaided, the contemplation that death resides with us as we live becomes all too relevant. It is not just the ghosts, but how they became ghosts that kicks the living into waking. And there is social commentary, by the way.

Did I like Norwegian Wood? I admit to counting pages upon occasion. I started to notice the chapters had a tendency to run the length of a sequence with a character. So when Midori would get going, I found myself skimming, would stop, and start again. She was fine for me at the beginning of her but became too much by the time she begged Toru to take her to an S&M flick because she likes p*rn. Her sulking for a space was the nail in the coffin. It was hard to share Toru’s patience with Naoko, which is very likely a personal flaw of mine. I adored Toru more and more and I appreciated the building and disintegration of his story with Naoko. I even like that ending—as much as I was cursing Murakami with Sean (whose read a few others of his work). Good writing can carry me through the dullest, most tedious work and I think Murakami would be fully capable of doing so. That said, it wasn’t always dull or tedious, just thick with portent housed in a character who has a lot of drama no matter how much he wished it opposite. There are so many tragic aspects to the read I feel nothing but a deepening sigh, sharing Reiko’s sentiment about never wanting to be younger again. I love Reiko. Many would go to melancholy as a descriptor. It is an excellent coming-of-age that I think not only males will identify with, as Murakami has a way with strong female characters, even his most delicate in Naoko. Murakami is an author of works everyone should attempt reading just once, and I think the accessibility of Norwegian Wood is in the likelihood that any reader should find something(s) within it that resonates within them.

recommendation and of note: young adult upward. familiarity with the 60’s not just here but abroad is good; familiarity with the understanding of cultural revolutions is of significant aid. A reader of Literature tend to geek on the references and their implications. Pair this reading with Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, for instance. and do read the “Translator’s Note”–after.

"review" · fiction · sci-fi/fantasy · series · Uncategorized · young adult lit

{book} divergent

Too bad the title does not necessary imply divergence from present popular Young Adult formulations. Work-shopped from an outline and a list of ingredients came to mind as I grit my way through this one. Is the imaginative twist on post-apocalyptic dystopian construction of society enough to forgive the seams? Likely. More, its saving grace may be in the way it does actually diverge from present YA expectations. That and the understanding that Veronica Roth does have an aptitude for writing.
   There is a degree of pleasure in reading with an expectation of formula. We even seek it out. Our comfort zones, they are sometimes called. Still, while I know I am reading something along familiar lines, I don’t want it brought to conscious attention. This was my experience with Veronica Roth’s Divergent. It was as if its own self-consciousness had alerted mine.
  In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue — Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is — she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.
  During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are — and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves…or it might destroy her. ~
   Debut author Veronica Roth bursts onto the literary scene with the first book in the Divergent series — dystopian thrillers filled with electrifying decisions, heartbreaking betrayals, stunning consequences, and unexpected romance. ~publisher’s synopsis

publisher’s synopsis

  The forming of 5 factions based on personality was imaginative and is well-executed. Within the emergence of dystopic themes, the only thing lacking is that haunting quality a good dystopian story has–possibility. Still, said ingredient isn’t necessary to the resulting enjoyment of the read. Roth shows her excellent writing talent in her world-building which unfolds beautifully and clearly as we follow her unusual protagonist via 1st person.
   Hero and Narrator: Beatrice/Tris, though blonde, is unusual in that she is petite. An odd observance, but I couldn’t help but note it. Part of being short and thin is that she is often underestimated. Another “divergence” is that she is somewhat denied her sexuality (even at 16) which I think should be noted: “You sure you’re sixteen, Stiff? Doesn’t feel like you’re more than twelve”(279).  “Can he tell that I’m still built like a child?” (324). Still, someone finds her attractive (2 actually do)–is it for her quick wit, her bravery, her aptitude for adjusting to perilous situations? “I like how you look. You’re deadly smart. You’re brave.” (337-8). And the young man who says this is the one to swoon over well before page 337. “Unexpected romance,” really synopsis?
  Even if Tris is slow on the uptake, the Reader should guess pretty quickly who Four actually is. They will also likely wonder why his being two years older is such a scandal (337). “Isn’t he a little old for you, Tris?” (364). Nowadays, sure, but this is future and we are sending our 16 year olds off to become adults with hard life-decisions and jobs.
I also didn’t get Four as ever being tough or unkind. I kind of figured he was supposed to be (you know, somewhat Heathcliff-like*), but Tris just looks stupid in her oblivion to Four’s reactions to her. I wish the 1st person was more limited than it was, because the observances Tris makes for the benefit of the Reader (as a 3rd person narrator might) only serve to make her exasperating. She reads the observation one way, but we all know it as an other way. Misinterpretation is real, and so is a false modesty; which is Tris for the last 3/4ths of the story. Of course, a novel with tight reins on its sexuality, can’t allow things to go too fast. After all, the innocence of both Tris and Four are part of its appeal and its difference, isn’t it? Additionally, the novel isn’t all about the romance. Tris is coming of age,** coming into her Self. And then there is that nefarious plot by the bad guys. duh duh duhhh.
   Divergent is a book one of a trilogy. Crumbs are left as we are carried through Tris’ initiation process and we collect them into an action-packed ending. This ending puts some things into play in order to sustain the storyline into the next book. I think it would have done well readjusted into a singular tome. Could be I am exhausted by sagas. Roth creates a fun world to play in, dangerous and full of potential story. Fan-fiction writers will have a lot of fun. If book two reads more like a companion than a direct sequel, I could get behind that. Roth’s development as a writer is worth catching book 2 as well.
   What I did find interesting in the read was the question of : what it means to be Brave and Selfless, which is a large preoccupation within the book. Christian readers will appreciate the positive way a life of service can be viewed, and that the protagonist comes from a home that believes in God and isn’t self-righteous about it.  Roth’s restraint with depicting violence, to the possible detriment of one scene should be a draw for those tired of the gritty nature of many an action/adventure dystopian. As far as current YA fiction is concerned, Divergent is rated G.
   Roth is fair in showing up- and down-sides to each of the factions, though perhaps least with Candor and Erudite. Regardless the perspectives she present are intriguing enough, very age appropriate, light yet thought-provoking. The book isn’t so intense as to be inaccessible. She knows her audience.   In the end, I find that I am just too old for this book–and its antics–let’s just call me a curmudgeon and get on with it, eh?

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recommendations: is enough that it was on most “best of 2011” lists by avid readers of young adult fiction? likely. The action is exciting, there’s tattoos, and sweet sweet romance.

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*Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte.
** Or is female coming-of-age stories about the initiation into relationship with their “destined” mate”? I’m beginning to wonder. Roth seems to be trying to avoid it here, if it is, which I appreciate. The realization of sexuality/sensuality, I can see as coming-of-age.
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Divergent by Veronica Roth
Katherine Tegen Books, 2011; Hardcover, 487 pages.
"review" · fiction · Lit · mystery · philosophy/criticism · recommend

the sense of an ending

Note: this post is quote heavy, as you can see. it can be (for the most part) read without them; i just chose not to restrain myself.

“This was another of our fears: that Life wouldn’t turn out to be like Literature. Look at our parents–were they the stuff of Literature? At best, they might aspire to the condition of onlookers and bystanders, part of a social backdrop against which real, true, important things could happen. Like what? The things Literature was all about: love, sex, morality, friendship, happiness, suffering, betrayal, adultery, good and evil, heroes and villains, guilt and innocence, ambition, power, justice, revolution, war, fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, the individual against society, success and failure, murder, suicide, death, God. […] Real literature was about psychological, emotional and social truth as demonstrated by the actions and reflections of its protagonists; the novel was about character developed over time.” (16)

What if that isn’t entirely true? Or what if it is; yet drawn in the most unexpected and subversive way? Julian Barnes upends many things in The Sense of an Ending. I feel like maybe he is giving Literature the finger and smirking while doing so, widening into a grin as he receives prestigious awards for doing it.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
Alfred A. Knopf, 2011
hardcover, 163 pages

This intense new novel follows a middle-aged man as he contends with a past he has never much thought about—until his closest childhood friends return with a vengeance, one of them from the grave, another maddeningly present. Tony Webster thought he’d left all this behind as he built a life for himself, and by now his marriage and family and career have fallen into an amicable divorce and retirement. But he is then presented with a mysterious legacy that obliges him to reconsider a variety of things he thought he’d understood all along, and to revise his estimation of his own nature and place in the world.

A novel so compelling that it begs to be read in a single sitting, with stunning psychological and emotional depth and sophistication, The Sense of an Ending is a brilliant new chapter in Julian Barnes’s oeuvre. ~publisher’s comments.

Have you read a book you felt you should read? And not for a class, for a grade. We all have those. The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes won the Man Booker prize this year. At 163 pages, I thought, “Why not?” I need to keep my literary self well nourished, don’t I? That must have been what I was thinking. Otherwise, I’m not sure what I was doing. The book was altogether a frustrating experience. And I hate that the more I think about it after, the more I admire the damn thing.

“We were book-hungry, sex-hungry, meritocratic, anarchistic. […] Yes, of course we were pretentious–what else is youth for?” (10-11)

The Sense of an Ending is about a middle-aged man revisiting his past and the beginning part, “1,” reads like a memoir.* Tony Webster has a story to tell, and one, you soon realize, with a particular focus, “Still, that’s all by the by. Annie was part of my story, but not of this story” (50). And as we continue in a shift to the present in 2 (the remainder of the book), it could be construed the story he was telling was to his then-wife Margaret. The shifting in an out of time and relationship and dialog is primary to the fabric of the novel. Barnes is flawless; his movement and what it illustrates is remarkably fluid.

“That’s one of the central problems of history, isn’t it, sir? The question of subjective versus objective interpretation, the fact that we need to know the history of the historian in order to understand the version that is being put in front of us.” (13)

In the present, Tony is visited by ghosts of the past, the very past he’d just been speaking about. The reader is led to confront the persons and memories in the present as Tony would, as one privy to the events as Tony knew them. Considering the intimacy of the portraiture, we temporarily forgive the  reliability of the narrator. But as evidence and conversation and age come to light, Tony and Reader revisit what was thought to be known. And little surprise that a shift in perspective is necessary, reliability interrogated. We were warned all along with the contemplations on time, how history is recorded, on memory, and accumulation. But we are never warned how it might come together.

The Sense of an Ending has one of the best last sentences I have ever read.

“I remember a period in late adolescence when my mind would make itself drunk with images of adventurousness. This is how it will be when I grow up. I shall go there, do this, discover that, love her, and then her and her and her. I shall live as people in novels live and have lived. […] However…who said that thing about  “the littleness of life that art exaggerates”? There was a moment in my late twenties when I admitted that my adventurousness had long since petered out. I would never do those things adolescence had dreamt about. Instead, I mowed my lawn, I took holidays, I had my life.” (102)

Tony Webster’s life shouldn’t make for good Literature. He is perhaps the most boring protagonist ever. He is painfully normal, from a young man who masturbates frequently to a middle-aged man who still depends on his ex-wife for emotional well-being. He admits to wanting more for himself in his youth, but finds his peaceable existence not unsatisfactory. He is tepid. The most passionate and mysterious time of Tony’s life comes into focus, and to what avail? No, Tony Webster’s life should not make for good Literature, but Julian Barnes makes him so. It is disgusting how well he does this. I even found Tony’s dealings with the Insurance company riveting. [and hate myself a little for it.]

“I’ve been turning over in my mind the question of nostalgia, and whether I suffer from it. I certainly don’t get soggy at the memory of some childhood knickknack; nor do I want to deceive myself sentimentally about something that wasn’t even true at the time–love of the old school, and so on. But if nostalgia means the powerful recollection of strong emotions–and a regret that such feelings are no longer present in our lives–then I plead guilty. I’m nostalgic for my early time with Margaret, for Susie’s birth and first years, for that road trip with Annie. And if we’re talking about strong feelings that will never come again, I suppose it’s possible to be nostalgic about remembered pain as well as remembered pleasure. And that opens up the field, doesn’t it? It also leads straight to the matter of Miss Veronica Ford.” (89)

“You just don’t get…You never did, and you never will.” Veronica repeatedly tells Tony over and over (past and present). I wanted to punch her in the face. Why? because I didn’t get it either. And I was worried I never would. And I’ve yet to, by the way. Veronica is an elusive memory, an elusive relationship, and never easily deciphered. She is a painful figure of the past, who, in the present, continues in much the same vein.

“There were some women who aren’t at all mysterious, but are only made so by men’s inability to understand them” (86). Veronica illustrates this beautifully. Tony doesn’t understand Veronica, his first serious relationship. However, his ex-wife Margaret feels she understands Veronica well enough, “She’s a fruitcake.” And this hard to dispute, actually. Even without Tony’s vague speculation that Veronica was “damaged” (46). And we come to use Margaret the same way Tony does, as the one who knows Tony well enough to make good objective assessments of the situation at hand. He tells her something, she runs it through a filter based in experience and returns with good advice. Not that he is obligated to take it.

“How often do we tell our own life story? How often do we adjust, embellish, make sly cuts? And the longer life goes on, the fewer are those around to challenge our account, to remind us that our life is not our life, merely the story we have told about our life. Told to others, but–mainly–to ourselves.” (104)

The visit of his past intrigues Tony enough to pursue a sense of closure, to reconcile memory with actual event, and to finally make sense of an otherwise senseless act. The Reader who hasn’t thrown the book aside pursues the same ending—only to find a sense of it. However, the mystery is not as compelling as the discussion on time, history, memory, responsibility, and accumulation.

Like the very first page, which read’s like a scavenger hunt’s list, the novel returns us to impressions, to marked images, at the end. In the “search for for possible hidden complexities” (5) in all we had come to study and learn, we are left (if not returned) to a feeling that is unpretentiously ascribed to and by the novel. The ending might not be the tidy one you want, but what you will get is a perfect one.

If you’ve a few hours an afternoon, you may want to give The Sense of an Ending a go; especially you Writers, and readers of Literature, and anyone over age 55 who’ve had a few good experiences with Literature. I didn’t read the novel in a single sitting, though I think, since it is possible, it is the best course: The Sense of an Ending is an incredibly well-crafted piece and the elements move in a conversation best held close in mind from beginning to end.

*************************

Notes: I know this was a quote-heavy post. but for all the frustrations with unlikable characters and the occasional difficulty sussing interactions, the contemplations were interesting, if not endearing.

I survived. “He survived to tell the tale”–that’s what people say, don’t they? History isn’t the lies of the victors […] I know that now. It’s more the memories of the survivors, most of whom are neither victorious nor defeated.”(61)

“It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age: when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others.” (88)

What had Old Joe Hunt answered when I knowingly claimed that history was the lies of the victors? “As long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated.” Do we remember that enough when it comes to our private lives? (133)

one of my favorite:

“When people say, “She’s a good-looking woman,” they usually mean, “She used to be a good-looking woman.” But when I say that about Margaret, I mean it. She thinks–she knows–that she’s changed, and she has; though less to me than to anybody else. Naturally, I can’t speak for the restaurant manager. But I’d put it like this: she sees only what’s gone, I see only what’s stayed the same. her hair is no longer halfway down her back or pulled up in a French pleat; nowadays it is cut close to her skull and the grey is allowed to show. Those peasanty frocks she used to wear have given way to cardigans and well-cut trousers. Some of the freckles I once loved are now closer to liver spots. But it’s still the eyes we look at, isn’t it? That’s where we found the other person, and find them still. The same eyes that were in the same head when we first met, slept together, married, honeymooned, joint-mortgaged, shopped, cooked and holidayed, loved one another and had a child together. And were the same when we separated.
But it’s not just the eyes. The bone structure stays the same, as do the instinctive gestures, the many ways of being herself. And her way, even after all this time and distance, of being with me.” (81)

* I dislike memoirs and was annoyed to be reading about someone with whom I had zero vested interest. I mean, that is why we read memoirs, right? out of curiosity of a particular person who had an interesting life? Barnes must be gleeful having won an award with Tony Webster.

"review" · comics/graphic novels · fiction · juvenile lit · non-fiction · recommend · young adult lit

bake sale

Bake Sale by Sara Varon

First Second Books, 2011; Hardcover, 158 pages (including recipes)

Calling all Foodies, your graphic novel is here! Many of the book recs put the ages 9-12, but lovers of the cupcake trend and bakers in general will own Sara Varon’s Bake Sale regardless of age.

Things appear to be going well for Cupcake who owns a bakery, plays in a band, has a best friend Eggplant and a friendly customer-base. However, Cupcake is in a bit of a baking rut. He tries a few things that do not go as planned, but Eggplant has an idea when he discovers Cupcake’s idol is Turkish Delight.  Eggplant not only knows her, but is going to see her when he goes to visit his family. Eggplant invites him along and Cupcake must raise money for his ticket. Bake Sales with creatively themed desserts are a great solution, but when he has to quit the band to host them, Cupcake has to review his priorities and deal with the outcome. When Eggplant loses his job, Cupcake again has to decide what he is willing to do.

In Bake Sale, life isn’t all pink and pretty frosting with a cherry on top. Sometimes a blueberry will have to do for a while. Some things give way to better and Cupcake takes some rewarding chances; and some less rewarding chances—for him. In the end, who can predict the future, but hey, it will likely turn out just fine! Okay, maybe the book is for those suffering in this Recession, too. Bake Sale  serves up a warm message about the value of having and being a great friend, good neighbors, and comfort food.

Aside from the cannibalistic tendencies of the anthropomorphized food characters, Bake Sale is a sweet little book with illustrated recipes at the back. The drawings are highly accessible and warm in their soft hues. I was a bit distracted by all the labeling, especially where it seemed unnecessary, if not completely overdone. I can read the arrows showing that the page in that cookbook is being flipped (17), do I need “flip!” as well? And I’m pretty sure a 9 year-old knows what a faucet is and buckets (37), among many other things. As the illustrated recipes appear, the ‘excessive’ labeling makes a bit more sense. Cupcake’s story is also an illustrated recipe, even down to the way ingredients are substituted based on availability, necessity, or individualist flair.

Some may find the ending a bit anticlimactic, perhaps too open-ended, or not even that rewarding, but there is a hopefulness that works with, rather than subverts, the sadder realities written into the story. The ending is perfectly suited to the story, even as the story perfectly suits current cultural trends and economics.