Friday, March 4, 2011

True Literary Skill

Some novels are good because they have a great story. Not because of the writing so much, but because of the unique plot of the novel. Take the Harry Potter series as an example. Others are good because they have great characters. The Catcher in the Rye and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest can certainly be included in this category (though they also include great writing and great stories, as well).

But some books are a pleasure to read merely for the writing. The way in which the author creatively uses language to describe the story of the book and to develop the characters often makes some books as good as they are.

Rabbit, Run certainly figures into this class of literature. John Updike's eloquence and mastery of the English language creates more than a novel with three chapters and long paragraphs, but a work of art. The way he beautifully weakes his words together seems to put this book in a separate realm of literature altogether, one where books are written to showcase the author's skill for writing.

Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom is the protagonist in this fine novel. Rabbit was a basketball star in high school, but now, in his early-20s married life, has sunk to a level of monotony and near depression uncharacteristic of the exciting, flighty young man. Finally realizing his wife's stupidity, Harry leaves her on a whim one night, driving from his home in Pennsylvania all the way south to West Virginia.

The novel involves a variety of characters: some who implore Rabbit to return to his wife, some who beg him to not, and others (like Rabbit himself) who are not sure what to do. Updike seems to keep the story in the back seat, however. The book moves along at a somewhat slow pace, though this can hardly be noticed in the face of Updike's superb writing style and excellent characterization. The character of Rabbit seems to be definitely an anti-hero, almost despised by some readers and critics though definitely respected by others.

This is the essence of Updike's craft. He presents each character exactly as a person would be in real life in order to allow the reader to formulate his own opinion. Updike does not create "good" or "bad" characters, but living people who make questionable decisions. It is no wonder Updike was a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Grade: 8.5

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Hunger Games

After a very long hiatus, I thought I'd start 2011 with a review on most certainly one of the greatest young-adult series in recent history.

Suzanne Collins is a favorite author of mine. Her first popular book, Gregor the Overlander, is one of the best I have read, and the next four in the series are worthy successors to such a great beginning (see "The Underland Chronicles"). However, when this series came to a close, Collins diverted her attention to a new trilogy of books that has become very popular in mainstream literary critical circles, both for children and adults.

The Hunger Games is the acclaimed first book in the trilogy. It takes place in a post-revolutionary America centuries in the future. America, now called Panem, is composed of the central Capitol and 12 districts, the thirteenth destroyed in the war 74 years earlier. Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old in the impoverished District 12, is the novel's resourceful and skilled protagonist. An intelligent young woman, she brandishes a bow as fearlessly as any man and cares for her family after the untimely death of her father, a miner.

Every year in Panem, a Hunger Games is put on by the Capitol as a reminder to the districts of who is really in charge. A 12- to 18-year-old boy and girl from each of the 12 districts are taken from their homes. They are paraded on national television (mandatory viewing for every denizen of Panem) in gorgeous attire, trained for weeks in fighting (skills, strength, and strategy), and then put in a massive arena, a sort of miniature world for the children for the duration of the Games. There they are to fight until only one child is left living.

After Katniss's sister's name gets called, Katniss quickly volunteers to take her sister's place in the brawl. She and an acquaintance, Peeta Mellark, are to be District 12's representatives in the 74th Hunger Games. As the Games draw near, they are trained by District 12's only previous champion, Haymitch Abernathy, an inveterate drunk. In the Hunger Games, Katniss must struggle with self-preservation, disapproval of murder, and the desire to show the Capitol that nobody can control Katniss Everdeen.

While being to some degree a children's book, it is quite violent and traumatic in many places. The Hunger Games is just what it sounds like: a bloody, fight-to-the-death gladiator battle. Though Collins is certainly not as great of a writer as, say, Salinger, Steinbeck, or Twain, she more than makes up for it with a balance of fast-paced action and feminine sentimentality that easily appeals to adults as well as younger ones (or at least those who have the stomach for it).

Without giving too much away of the events of the trilogy, I will just express my love for the second and third books in the trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, respectively. Catching Fire takes place a year later and revolves around the events of the 75th Hunger Games, while the final novel has Panem's revolution against the Capitol manifest itself after three-quarters of a century of waiting. Though the first book is the best in my opinion, Cathcing Fire is almost as good, and Mockingjay, though slightly more far-fetched than the previous (what can be far-fetched about a postapocalyptic America where children kill each other for national enjoyment?), is a worthy conclusion to the fine trilogy. It is an action-adventure series that, at its heart, is a coming-of-age story in the face of violence and mortality. Now we all eagerly await another series by Suzanne Collins, the queen of young-adult literature.

Grade (The Hunger Games): 9
Grade (Cathcing Fire): 8.5
Grade (Mockingjay): 8

Monday, May 17, 2010

A Non-Horror Stephen King Masterpiece

When one mentions horror novels, one name that invariably comes to mind is Stephen King. While considered to be one of the most prolific horror novelists of our time, many do not realize that some of his greatest works were not of the horror genre at all.

The Green Mile is certainly one of the best books I have ever read. This tale is about John Coffey, an enormous man brought to death row at Cold Mountain Penitentiary for the rape and murder of two young girls. The narrator, prison supervisor Paul Edgecombe, has worked at the prison for many years. He treats most inmates the same way: He is kind to them if they behave, but is not afraid to punish them.

Resident prima donna on the ward is Percy Wetmore. The only reason he still has his job as a guard after years of sadism and incompetence is that his aunt married the Governor. Percy is a terrible person, and one of the worst villains in literary history. His thoughtlessness and his cruelty are his two great faults as he thinks he runs the ward with an iron hand.

When Coffey enters the ward, Edgecombe knows that there is something different about him. Something special. He knows that Coffey is a good man and would never hurt a fly. As the story progresses, he learns more about this man as he learns more about himself.

King writes this novel excellently. Though it is almost 600 pages, it never has a dull moment, and it is difficult to put down. As the reader learns more about the interesting characters of John Coffey, Paul Edgecombe, Percy Wetmore, and the other prisoners on the ward, the novel gets very interesting. The characterizations are interestingly subtle yet shocking. The Green Mile is most certainly one of the best novels I have ever read.

Grade: 9

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Great Character in a Great Novel

Holden Caulfield, The Catcher in the Rye. Ender Wiggin, Ender's Game. Jack Merridew, Lord of the Flies. Randall Flagg, The Stand. Miles, The Turn of the Screw. Scout Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird.

These are some of the greatest literary characters of all time. Some for their intelligence and resourcefulness, others for their portrayal of society at the time, and others for their unique character traits.

Now I can add to that list another amazing character, definitely one of the best characters of all time: Randle Patrick McMurphy.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey, is, quite simply, an amazing book. Its portrayal of lunatics in an insane asylum was adapted into an Oscar-winning film in 1975, being the second of only three movies to win Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Actor (Jack Nicholson), Best Actress (Louise Fletcher), and Best Screenplay.

The novel is told from the point of view of Chief Bromden, a half-Indian who pretends to be deaf and dumb. He experiences hallucinations throughout the novel, making him a somewhat unreliable narrator. The novel takes place in the psychiatric ward at a hospital in Oregon. The two groups of mental patients in the hospital are known as the Acutes and the Chronics. The Acutes are patients who could still be "fixed." The Chronics, of which Chief Bromden is one, are patients who can never be changed from their insanity. These two separate groups live together yet separate in the hospital.

Enter Randle Patrick McMurphy. This cantankerous man was sent to a prison work farm for battery and gambling, and figured he might as well spend the rest of his sentence in the hospital, since it would be a lot easier than working every day.

R. P. McMurphy soon tries to change the way things work around the ward. The oppressive antagonist of the novel, Nurse Ratched, controls the patients with a dictatorial touch. McMurphy finds this control unfavorable to his wandering heart, so he challenges Nurse Ratched every opportunity he gets.

The novel is excellently written. McMurphy's and Nurse Ratched's battles throughout the novel display an excellent allegory of man against government. Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is certainly one of the best books ever written.

Grade: 9.5

Saturday, February 20, 2010

A Disappointing Finale

Beginning with Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card created one of the best series of all time in his story of the life of Andrew "Ender" Wiggin, a boy who gets sent to outer space at the age of six to join the intergalactical army. He shifted to a more philosophical mood in Speaker for the Dead, before creating a more "hard science fiction" mood with Xenocide. All three were amazing books. The final novel in this quartet, Children of the Mind, had a large standard that it had to meet.

It is with great misfortune that I declare that it did not live up to its predecessors.

Don't get me wrong, Children of the Mind is a good book, but it cannot even cast a shadow when compared to the amazing work of literary genius Ender's Game. Orson Scott Card combined just the right amount of childhood with intellectual and brute strength into the boy called Ender and his life on a military spacecraft. In Children of the Mind, however, Ender plays a small role as an old, weak man trying harder to rebuild his marriage than to save the planet on which he lives, being satisfied to delegate this to his resourceful, if not occasionally annoying step-children and brain-children.

The planet on which Ender and his family live is called Lusitania, and Starways Congress is fixing to destroy it because of the horribly deadly virus vital to the survival of every native species on Lusitania, to which the humans on the planet have invented an antidote. The destruction of the planet, however, would kill many humans, as well making extinct three sentient species: the pequeninos, small pig-like creatures; the buggers, large insectoids; and Jane, a sort of supercomputer who lives in the networks all over the Universe. Starways Congress has sensed Jane, who was before known only to Ender and his step-son Miro, and is planning to shut off every computer simultaneously so as to destroy Jane.

Meanwhile, we are trying to find out about Peter and Wang-mu's mission to change Starways Congress's mind about their decision to destroy the planet, and Miro and Valentine's mission to save Jane's life. These young people out in space leaves the dying Ender with nothing to do but try to salvage the last strands of his marriage and await his own death.

The lack of focus on one of the best literary characters ever conceived is somewhat troubling. Why would Card make a sequel with the main character of the preceding novels as only a minor character? Not a smart move. This unintelligent decision made the novel not nearly as good as it could have been. Was it a good book? Yes. But in light of Card's previous successes, Children of the Mind did not meet my expectations at all.

Grade: 7

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Hail to the Chief

With Barack Obama now celebrating his one-year anniversary, I dedicate this review to the current president of the United States of America.

George Orwell's Animal Farm is an allegory for the death of Lenin and the rise of Stalin as he brought about totalitarianism in the U.S.S.R. In the very first chapter, the aged pig Old Major is dying. He represents Vladimir Lenin, the communist who essentially started the whole demise of the nation. He passes on his blessings to the farm, telling everyone to try to start a rebellion.

The rebellion occurs, and it works perfectly. The farmer, Mr. Jones, runs away, and the Manor Farm is changed to the Animal Farm. Two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, soon take control. They write up the Seven Commandments of Animalism, the seven morals by which all animals should live their lives. The seventh and most important of these is "All animals are equal." The Seven Commandments represented the hope that the animals had for a better future.

Snowball starts teaching the animals how to read and write, while Napoleon makes speeches in front of the animals to instill principles of Animal Farm. The two pigs each try to gain more power than the other. One day, Snowball declares the idea of building a windmill, and Napoleon attacks his idea and chases him off with dogs. Soon after, he said that building a windmill was his idea all along, and Snowball just stole his idea. After this, things started getting worse around the farm.

Snowball is the character who represents Leon Trotsky, commander of the Red Army and one of Lenin's successors. Snowball's departure from the farm signifies Trotsky's exile from Russia to Mexico. His skill with writing reflects Trotsky's actual character as well. Napoleon represents the cruel leader Joseph Stalin. Stalin used his power to inflict cruel policies on the people of Russia, while Napoleon also did terrible things to the animals who trusted him.

Animal Farm is an excellent depiction of the fall of Russia and the rise of communism. Orwell's novel seems hauntingly realistic in the fact that everything starts out well, but eventually grows worse. It should be used as a warning to our government today. Mr. Obama should take heed so that America does not turn into a mess like the Manor Farm did.

Grade: 9

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

So Why Did She Write This?

Upon reading Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street, one question I asked myself was, "Why would you write about this?" The book contains several short vignettes in the life of a young tween living in poverty named Esperanza. Every episode has a random little snippet from Esperanza's life, some of which are only in her mind, others of which are actual events. Many of the events are either autobiographical or inspired from Cisneros's own childhood. Although there are a couple vignettes that are interesting, the large part of them are just plain boring.

Take "Hairs," for example. In this vignette, Esperanza compares the hair of each of her family members, likening them to oil or bread. This story is nothing more than a drab monologue over hair.

We continue to read "A Rice Sandwich." Though this may be the best story in the book, it too is pretty pathetic. Esperanza wants to eat in the school cafeteria, but her mother wants her to come home for lunch every day. Esperanza's mother finally gives in, but the nuns will not let Esperanza eat there until she cries. Not interesting at all.

How about "Rafaela Who Drinks Coconut & Papaya Juice on Tuesdays"? Rafaela is married to a very oppressive husband who locks her at home on Tuesday nights while he plays poker so that she will not escape. She throws a dollar bill out her window so that Esperanza and her friends can buy her coconut or papaya juice. Though this does show Esperanza how not to live her life, is it trying to prove to young girls that you can never find happiness?

Much of the book concerns Esperanza's search of a home, and her insecurity concerning a lack of a sense of belonging fuels many of her emotions throughout the book. She always strives to be in a better place, and dreams about running away from Mango Street, the neighborhood she lives in, to her own happily ever after. This may be the sole redeeming quality for the novel: the message to young people in oppressive environments that they can someday be happy.

The House on Mango Street is not a good book. It is not interesting, and many of the vignettes concern menial events in life. Though it is not as bad as the horrendous Living Up the Street, also an autobiography about growing up in the barrio, it is drab and unappealing. I still cannot figure out why she wrote about the stories she did.

Grade: 4

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Not Really a Slaughter...

One of the most acclaimed science fiction novels ever written is Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five. It is also one of the most weird books I have ever read. The novel takes place in many different settings, and jumps back and forth between these places several times. Also, the novel is not written chronologically. The spasms between space and time can be very difficult to understand, and this does have a drawback on the strength of the novel.

Billy Pilgrim is an American soldier in World War II. Also, he randomly and uncontrollably travels through space and time. He could be inside a slaughterhouse as a prisoner of war in Dresden, and then be on the planet Tralfamadore inside of the zoo, and then be in his future as an optometrist, and then be in his past as a six-year-old. Because of this unpredictability, Billy as a narrator is often unreliable, and the reader never truly can separate fact from fiction.

Two of the major themes present in the novel are those of death and time. Whenever someone died on the planet Tralfamadore, the Tralfamadorians would say, "So it goes," suggesting that death was in the ordinary course of events. Vonnegut uses this expression as well. Whenever the novel says something about a death in the war or elsewhere, he says "So it goes." This is to lessen the pain of death. Another philosophy of the Tralfamadorians is that every moment has always existed, exists now, and always will exist. This is the fourth dimension that they can view. This is the basis for Billy's time travel, as he does not really go back in time, because every moment that has existed exists now.

Vonnegut had a very unique idea when he set out to write this story. The concept of traveling unwillingly and unexpectedly in time must have been a very unusual one at the time. The only fault with this (and it is a major one) is that it is too confusing. Vonnegut definitely did the best he could with the basic details, but it was not enough to make the novel more than a good attempt. While it is not a bad novel, it is certainly not as good as other classics of science fiction, such as Foundation and Ender's Game. Read this if you choose, but do not put it first on your list.

Grade: 6.5

With a Capital 'G'

While many classics in our time concern the lives and persecution of the lower class, a select few are about the ease of living in the upper class. F. Scott Fitzgerald's celebrated The Great Gatsby is perhaps one of the best examples of this genre of literature.

The narrator of The Great Gatsby is Nick Carraway, a man of the middle class who lives next door to the mysterious Jay Gatsby, a man who everybody seems to know but nobody seems to know anything about. In addition, his cousin Daisy Buchanan and her husband Tom, who live on the other side of the town, are wealthy. The novel is basically about the doings of Daisy, Nick, and Daisy's friend Jordan Baker, and Nick's fascination and envy of the easy life he sees so often in his friends.

Jay Gatsby holds parties every weekend at his mansion, and one day, Nick decides to go to one. There, he finds out that although everybody claims to know Gatsby, nobody knows what he looks like or, in fact, anything about him. While Nick is looking, an odd man presents himself to Nick as Gatsby. They soon become very good friends. Although one has all the money he could ask for and the other has almost nothing to himself, Gatsby enjoys spending time with Nick, and Nick is too fascinated to think otherwise.

The novel is excellently written. The characters represent the wealthy and carefree people of the 1920s. Nick represents the bourgeoisie, constantly looking up to the rich. As Gatsby's character is developed, we learn more and more of his past, and we see the reality of people in his position as well.

The Great Gatsby is a very interesting historical fiction novel of an important time in our nation's past. Its acclaim is well-earned. Gatsby is definitely Great, with a capital 'g.'

Grade: 8.5

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Neither the Best of Books, Nor the Worst of Books

Arguably the most famous literary quote of all time comes from A Tale of Two Cities, a novel about the French Revolution by Charles Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way -- in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison alone."

That one quote can quite possibly sum up the entire novel. While it has some amazingly intelligent parts and quite unforgettable characters, it also can be extremely boring in other sections. The action of the novel is often juxtaposed with a chapter of introspection and ambiguity. However, the good parts eventually outweigh the bad, and it results in a satisfying read, if not completely interesting.

While there is not a definite main character of the novel, there are many protagonists and antagonists who define the social classes of the French Revolution. The story opens with a drab banker, Mr. Jarvis Lorry, on his way to Dover. There, he is to speak with Lucie Manette, a beautiful young woman. Her father, thought dead, has actually been imprisoned in the Bastille for 18 years, and he is finally being released. Dr. Alexandre Manette, though once a happy, young doctor, is now a near insane and socially awkward shoemaker. Soon brought into the story is Charles Darnay, a handsome man on trial for treason against the throne, and Sydney Carton, a depressed barrister who looks almost exactly like Darnay. These five people comprise the main protagonists of the novel, who live and work in London.

Meanwhile, across the English Channel, the Defarges live together in Paris. M. Defarge is a wine shop owner, who has moderate revolutionary ideas. His wife, Mme Defarge, is a violence-driven bloodthirsty revolutionary with no thoughts but to destroy the nobility and as many innocent Frenchmen as possible. These two, along with their various comrades, form the antagonists of the novel.

Dickens tells the story of the French Revolution as both parties mentioned become involved in it. His recurring themes of resurrection and redemption throughout the novel are very good means by which to tell the tale, although the delivery of it occasionally falls flat. The novel starts out slow, accelerates quickly, drops to a high level of monotony, and then becomes extremely suspenseful and exciting in the last hundred pages. While this is certainly not as entertaining as Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities is a fulfilling novel.

Grade: 7.5