Friday, March 26, 2010

Left To Tell

For centuries, the two tribes that make up the country of Rwanda, the Hutus and the Tutsis, have been warring against each other.  The tribe in power has shifted back and forth between the two, often after many brutal deaths in the upheaval for control.  The tension between the parties came to a head in 1994 when exiled Tutsi rebels invaded the capital.  In retaliation, the Hutu government called for the extinction of the Tutsi people.  Hutus across the country took up guns and machetes and went to work.  When the mass murder was finally over after one hundred days, about one million people had been killed, more than 90% of them Tutsis.  That works about to be 10,000 people a day.  Most Americans never knew what happened.

My book group picked the book Left to tell : discovering God amidst the Rwandan holocaust by ImmaculĂ©e Ilibagiza for our March meeting and I had no idea what an impact this book would have on me. Told in first person, Immaculee Ilibagiza describes her life in Rwanda, from her idyllic childhood in a loving, well-educated, and religious family to her time in college studying engineering.  It speaks volumes of her parents' goodness that Immaculee didn't know what tribe she belonged to until she went to school and was required to state her tribe.  There was some discrimination because she was a Tutsi, but not enough to stop her from getting a good education and making a life for herself.  

When everything came to a head in 1994, Immaculee was home from college, visiting her family.  As bands of Hutus began slaughtering Tutsis, thousands of Tutsis in her village camped out on her parents' property, hoping to be protected by sheer numbers.  When the Hutus came for the people, Immaculee's family was split up and Immaculee ended up in a Protestant minister's home, hiding with her brothers.  After the minister kicked out her brothers, he hid Immaculee and seven other women in a tiny bathroom off of the master bedroom in his home.  What started out as a quick solution to keeping them hid turned into 91 days of hiding, cramped and in constant fear of discovery.

 The horrific setting I've described to you is only half of the story.  This book is really the story of how Immaculee Ilibagiza came to commune with God during her months in that bathroom, her struggle to overcome hatred for the Hutus and being able to forgive the men who killed her family.  I was overcome so many times while I read this book with how she coped with her situation.  She could have descended into anger and madness while she was confined in silence in that bathroom, but instead she took that rare opportunity to pray on a constant basis and receive comfort and guidance.  While most survivors of the holocaust wanted revenge, or at least to stockpile weapons for retaliation, Immaculee strove to forgive and find peace.  

As horrific as the circumstances of this book are, it's a story of hope.  Immaculee's story teaches that anyone can forgive and that doing so can bring peace and comfort.  Her story is one that is heart-breaking, terrifying and also incredibly moving and uplifting.  I believe that reading this book gave me a better sense of my own need to come closer to God.  It was beautiful and compelling and my life is better from reading it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Co-review: As Simple As Snow

Gregory Galloway's first novel, As Simple As Snow, has a deceptive title. There is nothing simple about either the story or it's characters, and the title itself comes to have multiple meanings by the time the novel is finished.

Galloway's approach is unconventional in many respects. The story is told as a first person narrative, but we are never given the narrator's name. In fact, his name is censored on the few occasions it's used, but there is evidence to suggest it is Galloway himself. Why? I don't know. Because he could, I guess. But that's one indication that the reader should expect the unexpected when reading this story.

Whatever his name is, the narrator's boring life is forever changed by Anna, a new girl who moves to town at the beginning of his sophomore year. She hangs out with the Goths -- a group he ordinarily avoids -- but attracts his attention with her colorful and engaging personality. (It doesn't hurt that she's cute, too.) Anna is full of paradoxes. She gets D's in every subject, but is incredibly smart and knows more about every subject than anyone he knows. Her insatiable curiosity seems to apply particularly to artistic and historical figures, and she soon begins giving him riddles and games to solve that require him to get outside of his comfort zone and learn more about the world around him. Her Goth attire and obsession with ghosts and obituaries (she writes one for each member of the small town) seem morbid and gloomy, but she is generally a happy person who appears optimistic about the future and more full of life than anyone else in town.

Things go well for several months (meaning they fall in love, if you can say that with a straight face), until she mysteriously disappears a week before Valentine's Day, leaving nothing but her dress laid out next to a hole in the ice of the frozen river. Her body is never found, and the narrator is torn between his need to get over her and live his life and the possibility that she is still alive and this is only an elaborate game she is setting up. That idea is further supported when he starts receiving messages that seem to come from her and he -- together with the reader -- desperately tries to reconstruct and solve whatever puzzle she has created.

Just as a reminder, in order to discuss this book openly in the co-review, we may give away spoilers!

Caren: First, I just have to ask. Was this supposed to be a young adult novel? The age of the characters and coming-of-age theme would certainly support that. But the sex and use of the f-word seemed way too adult in my opinion. Is that more typical of young adult novels these days? My library had the book catalogued under adult fiction, but the audio version under youth. So apparently they couldn't decide either!

Jenny: I wondered the exact same thing but my library said adult fiction, which seemed more accurate. I don't know what I was expecting from this book since I read a summary about it months ago and I put it on my to-read list without thinking too much about it. I was expecting adult fiction, but was surprised to see that it had more young adult themes. Just another puzzle with this book.

Speaking of puzzles, I like them and find them to be fascinating when they are interwoven in fiction, but I appreciate it when I can either figure out the puzzle or the characters figure it out for me. This had neither. It was puzzle after puzzle with no solution. It was irksome.

Caren: Yeah, I was pretty irritated with the ending. I stayed up late one night to finish it because as the suspense grew closer to the end I couldn't put it down. So to find out that nothing gets resolved felt like a mean trick! And I mean, nothing! Not what happened to Anna. Not why she hated Mr. Devon. Not who was giving her bruises. Not what was going on with Carl's dad and why he was even a part of the story. Nothing.

I don't mind enigmatic endings where every loose end isn't tied up and there are multiple ways to interpret events. Sometimes those are the best endings. But this time I wasn't very attached to the characters, so the only thing drawing me on was the anticipation of getting answers and then those answers never came. Very frustrating. The ending wasn't bad, necessarily. It did end with a lot of hope for a fresh start and the narrator's escape from the suffocating dullness of his parents' dysfunctional life. But the whole thing just felt too cerebral for me. Like something I would read and dissect in a postmodern fiction class, but not necessarily enjoy in the process.

Jenny: I agree with you completely. This could have been an amazing mystery. It could have been like John Green's book Paper Towns that I read some time ago. In Green's book, the story is really similar, with the crazy out-of-the-box girl and her puzzles she leaves behind when she suddenly disappears, but it is so much more satisfying. But no, Galloway decided not to tie up any loose ends and leave us all scratching our heads.

The only reason I can come up with why Galloway wrote it the way he did is because not all puzzles are solved and not all questions are answered. There are plenty of people in the world who lose a loved one and never find out what happened to them. Maybe the point was to observe what happened to the narrator as he grieved. I have no idea. I don't mind reading a book that needs analyzing, but I didn't particularly like this book so I'm less enthused about picking it apart. The characters weren't very likable.

Caren: Note to self: Check out Paper Towns. Satisfying is a good description for what was missing in this one. And sometimes I felt like I was missing something important. Like, why the ambiguity about the narrator's name? What was the point of that? But since I didn't really care about the characters or the story, I didn't really care that much about the cryptic things he did with it.

Another thing I thought was odd was his portrayal of small town life. I grew up in a small town about the size as the one in the story and while some of the things rang true, a lot really didn't fit. He describes a three-story high school, but none of the small towns I'm familiar with can justify a three-story high school building. And all the cliques? I counted at least eight different groups (he names jocks, bandoids, arty types, 4-H'ers, geeks, bandoids, speech and debate team, and Goths). But in my experience, a small town high school doesn't have enough students to support that many different cliques. The jocks are often also the kids who get good grades, play in the band, participate in the arts, do 4-H on the side, etc. There's a lot of overlap between disciplines because there are so few kids to spread around. So that seemed like an unrealistic view of small town high school life. (Though the football coach who gave alcohol to his players definitely fit.)

So, what are your thoughts on what happened to Anna? It's clear that she planned her disappearance, but did she commit suicide or just run off?

Jenny: First I have to say that I'm glad you know stuff about small towns because I grew up in a large suburb of a major city, so I totally didn't catch any of those inconsistencies about small towns. Very interesting. I wonder if the author even knew anything about small towns or if he just needed the high school to exist a certain way so he threw aside any small town characteristics and did what he wanted.

Okay, as far as Anna goes, I think she ran away. I think all her hinting around about holding her breath in cold water was just another cryptic puzzle, along with the dress on the ice. Oh man, all the puzzles are making me tired. I think Anna was way too insatiable about life to do away with it. I think there might have been an abusive situation either between her and Mr. Devon or between her and her dad (bruises on her arms? weird situation with the ladder?) or between her and the jock/goth guy whose name I can't remember. I think she wanted a dramatic exit. If that's the case, what a selfish kid. The torture she put her parents and the narrator through is unbelievably selfish. This girl cannot be mentally healthy.

Caren: I agree. I don't think she committed suicide either, because that would be way too mediocre for her. And what you said about her insatiable appetite for life wouldn't fit with suicide. Her theatrics -- though interesting -- just proved how immature she was, and how easily discarded her relationship with the narrator was. Does the final obituary indicate that she plans on tracking him for the next 14 years and then re-entering his life? No matter how you look at it she was definitely a disturbed girl!

Add it all up and I'm pretty sure I won't be trying anything else from this author anytime soon!

Monday, March 22, 2010

Love That Dog, Hate That Cat

Poetry isn't always the easiest thing to teach to kids.  Heck, it isn't always the easiest thing to teach to adults either.  Most people can easily enjoy simple rhymes and clear word pictures, but anything slightly more abstract is harder to grasp.  Shannon Creech took this concept, the challenge of learning poetry, and turned it into two books of freestyle verse about a boy, Jack, and his exposure to poetry.  Love that Dog is the first book and takes the reader through the process of watching Jack learn to enjoy and write his own poetry.  His teacher, Miss Stretchberry, knows her stuff and doesn't coddle her students with easy poetry like Jack Prelutsky or Shel Silverstein.  Not that enjoying those poets is a bad thing, but it's much harder to grasp William Carlos Williams when you're only ten years old, like Jack is.

Told in freestyle verse in the forms of notes to his teacher, Jack goes from hesitant and suspicious of this poetry business, to finding his own voice and expression.  He decides to emulate the poet Walter Dean Myers and make a poem about his beloved dog, Sky.  The reader gets hints about Jack's dog and his tenderness towards him, but not the whole story of what happened to the dog until later in the book.  When I finally reached the end where Jack presents his poem about Sky, I burst into tears.  Creech does an amazing job of guiding us through Jack's process in expressing his love for his dog and by the time you reach that poem, you ache for that little boy and his loss.  It was a beautiful book.  It reminded me of all the poems I learned about in the course of my public school education and how much they meant to me when I learned to understand them.  The book is a fast read, but would be great as a read-aloud as a family.  At the end of the book, Creech includes the poems that Miss Stretchberry taught to her class and that would a great starting point in discussing poetry to kids.  It's on my list of books to read to my kids.

In Hate That Cat, Jack is back at school the next year and learning more poetry.  It's more of the same, but not redundant.  The reader gets to learn more about Jack's family and their new addition.  You get to read a bit more about his stubborn Uncle Bill who believes that all poetry must have meter and rhyme.  What a stick-in-the-mud.  It wasn't as moving as Love That Dog, but I still enjoyed it and would definitely read that to my kids right after the first.

This is a great way to expose kids to non-rhyming, freestyle and more abstract poetry.  After all, if you start young it only gets easier with time.  Next, I'll be convincing you all to start playing opera to your family.  Seriously, it's awesome.  I'll find a way to get everybody hooked one of these days.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Adventure on the high seas with Horatio Hornblower

Recently I checked out A&E's Horatio Hornblower TV series (adapted from the popular CS Forester novels) to keep me entertained on the treadmill. Great choice, by the way. Interesting enough to keep me engaged and help the time pass quickly, but not so intense that I couldn't shut it off when my workout was over. But apparently A&E decided not to finish the series, so after 8 episodes I was left hanging with most of the story left untold.

I hate leaving a story unfinished, so at my next visit to the library I checked out a few of CS Forester's Horatio Hornblower novels to see if I could figure out where the TV version left off and take it from there. (Call me lazy, but I wasn't about to tackle the whole saga from the beginning!) Forester was very prolific with Hornblower's adventures and wrote a total of 11 novels (one of which he didn't finish before his death), though he apparently didn't write them chronologically. They take place during the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century, tracking Horatio Hornblower's career in the Royal British Navy. Hornblower demonstrates courage, brilliance, loyalty, and integrity in the face of countless struggles; staying the course just as you would expect from any true hero.

I've only read one novel all the way through -- Hornblower and the "Atropos" -- while skimming earlier ones that covered the period portrayed in the A&E series. I have to say I'm a bit disappointed. Typically I find a screen adaptation lacking in some ways from the novel. But this time, I think it's the original work that's lacking. Here's why:

The hero: The A&E Hornblower (portrayed by Ioan Gruffudd) was clearly a good guy trying to do his very best. I was sympathic and wanted him to succeed. He was flawed and struggled with difficult decisions, but his goodness and integrity won my admiration. Forester's version, however, was so full of depression and cranky with everyone around him that I got really irritated with him really fast. I couldn't even recognize him as the same person. Maybe if I continued with the series I would get a different impression, but I'm not interested in following such a Debbie Downer for six more novels!

The action: The books are full of action, but also so full of unfamiliar technical seafaring talk that it sometimes took a while to figure out what was going on. Forester's interesting conflicts were so much more dynamic when portrayed visually in the A&E version that even a land lubber like myself could appreciate them. Some of the special effects were a little weak, but many were completely stunning. And those tall ships! Absolutely breathtaking!

The drama: Adapting a novel to the screen always requires some adjustment to the story, and I thought A&E's changes were an improvement on the original. They took liberties with some of the secondary characters, bringing them back in additional episodes instead of introducing us to new and forgettable ones every time. They also manipulated some details of the plot to increase the human dramatic element. It may not have been as realistic as Forester's original, but it definitely made the story a lot more enjoyable.

So now I have a dilemma. Once again, I'm left with a cliffhanger and an unfinished story. Do I continue the series and risk getting more and more irritated with the hero? Or do I squelch my curiosity and hope for the best? Curses on A&E for putting me in this position in the first place!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Maze Runner

I'm so behind in blog posts that I'm tempted to just sum this up by saying, if you like The Hunger Games series, you'll like The Maze Runner. It feels lazy to only write that much, so I'll elaborate some more. The Maze Runner by James Dashner takes place in a dystopian future, but we are given so few details about it that the mystery is slowly revealed by the bare facts Dashner doles out bit by bit. Don't dystopian young adult novels feel like they're all the rage lately? It seems like I've read piles of them lately and but thankfully this one delivers on several accounts.

Thomas wakes up in a metal box, confused and without memories of how he got there or anything about his life, other than his name. When he comes out, he is greeted by a group of teenage boys living in a communal farm, surrounded by giant stone walls covered in ivy. Yup, you guessed it. It's a maze. Every day at dawn, the doors of the maze open and runners take off to find an escape to the maze. They have to return by sundown before the doors close or they take the risk of being killed by the Grievers, monstrous machines programmed to kill. If a runner is merely stung by a Griever, he goes through a horrific change that brings back sporadic memories of life before the maze. Those memories don't seem to be all that pleasant.

I like alternate futures and puzzles like what are depicted in this book, but a few things bugged me. The boys have their own slang and profanity, that while the words are innocent in themselves, are used so frequently and substituted so obviously for familiar swear words that they become just as offensive. It bugged me that Dashner used that tactic and then proceeded to beat the reader over the head with it. It bugged me that it was assumed that all teenage boys would have giant potty mouths. I was never a teenage boy, so maybe that's the norm, but it bugged me.

Complaints aside, this was a cool book.  The mysteries are slowly revealed, but not so slowly and teasingly that I got annoyed.  I reached a point in the book when I realized that this is the first in a series, which annoys me, but what isn't a series any more?  I throw my hands up.  I'll read the next books, I'm sure.  Like I said in the first sentence, if you liked The Hunger Games, then this is a book for you.  If not, I've got a whole stack of books waiting to be blogged about in the next week or two and surely one of those will interest you.  I aim to please, after all. 

Friday, March 12, 2010

Finishing Lois Lowry's trio

I reread Lois Lowry's The Giver a year or so ago and was once again impressed by the hauntingly enigmatic ending. So I was delighted to learn that she had written two more books as companions to it. It took me a while to get around to reading them, but I finally did and am glad to have some resolution to this story.

Gathering Blue features a completely different character in an opposite setting from Jonas's world in The Giver -- though, we find out later, it takes place at the same futuristic time. Kira was born into a harsh and brutal society where any weakness or flaw is worthy of death. Kira herself was born with a lame leg, but her special gifts help her to stand out and receive an honored task in the community. At least, that's what she thinks at first. Over time she begins to uncover secrets about her community that make her realize that her honored role is really relegating her to a lifetime of imprisonment. Similar to The Giver, Lowry explores the vitality of individualism and creativity and their role in creating a healthy society. But this society's form of oppressiveness is more primitive and cruel than where Jonas grows up, and really could be read as an isolated tale.

The ending of Gathering Blue was pretty abrupt and anti-climactic, I thought. Just as Kira comes to understand what her future holds for her, she is faced with the difficult decision of either fleeing to safety or staying to try and help her society change. Her decision is an interesting next step in the conflict, but it didn't really work as an ending. Instead, I felt like it ended when it was just getting good. Another thing I wasn't a huge fan of is that Lowry could sometimes be a little over-the-top on the social commentary. But considering that's the real point of these books, I decided I could cut her some slack. It is for a young audience, after all, so I guess you can't rely too much on subtlety.

Messenger is the last book in the trio and brings the two stories together in a final conclusion. Matty, a young boy we first met in Gathering Blue, is the featured character. He is now several years older and growing into early manhood in the Village community briefly mentioned at the end of Gathering Blue. Unlike the societies portrayed in the first two books, Village is full of good people who live rich and meaningful lives due to their compassionate selflessness that contributes to an overall sense of wholeness. But selfishness and materialism are beginning to creep in and threaten to destroy the utopian society they've created. At the same time, Matty is beginning to discover a secret and fearful power he possesses and wonders what it means for his future and the future of those he loves.

The conflict in Messenger was more interesting and dynamic than that in Gathering Blue. It was also easier to get involved with the characters, especially since some of them we'd seen before in both Gathering Blue and The Giver. There were some inconsistencies in the ideology that bothered me, like the fact that people in the Village are given special life-long tasks and titles similar to what we've seen in The Giver, but supposedly it's a good thing even though there's still no sense of choice in the matter. And the ending, while more dramatic than Gathering Blue, still lacked the power of The Giver. But overall it was nice to tie up some of those loose ends and because they were both quick and easy reads, it was a few hours well spent.