Sunday, November 29, 2009

Seville: Bullfights

I spent Thanksgiving weekend in Seville, Spain, and enjoyed myself quite a bit. While I personally have no interest in bullfights, and don't really like the concept, I figured I would at least go see the stadium. It's not bullfighting season right now, but even if it had been, I wouldn't have attended an actual fight - it's one thing to try to get to know the culture but that's a bit too much for me.
This stadium has been around for 240 years, and the tour guide explained that there had been only three deaths in that time - human, that is. There are about fifty bullfights a year now, but it isn't as popular as it used to be so I'm sure there were more fights yearly back in the day.
I didn't know exactly how a bullfight worked although I considered them to be slightly unfair and brutal, but now I have specifics for why it is unfair. First the matador comes and more or less dances around with the bull for five minutes, then some other guy has five minutes in the ring and is supposed to spear the bull, then comes somebody else that is supposed to do something gets his five minutes, and then the matador comes back for the kill. So obviously, the bull is wounded and tired - I guess you could argue that an angry bull makes for a more challenging opponent . . .
The thing is, no matter what - the bull dies. I know the matador is seen as brave and noble and so forth, but at the end of the fight the bull is dead. If the judges think the matador did well, he gets trophies; if not, the bull is still dead. If the bull gets smart and tries to escape, he is considered a coward and dies; if the bull fights back and kills the matador, the bull is killed and so is its mother (I doubt the bull has any sentimental attachment to its mother and it's probably to prevent the mother from having any more killers but I didn't ask). Is there any way for the bull to be spared here? Considering that only three humans have died, I'd be perfectly fine with letting those three bulls live (far away from me, of course) - it's not like they haven't killed many more bulls. Also, with those rather low mortality rates, I'm not sure what the big deal is about being a matador (I guess this was supposed to be an impressively low number) - the cards are stacked. I guess it's just about the skill with which he dispatches the bull - why not just have competitions in the butcher shop then? It comes down to the same thing.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Book 11: Under the Dome

Under the Dome by Stephen King

I probably would have waited to buy this until it was released as a paperback if it hadn't been for the fact that it was on sale for $9 when I saw it. Despite its size, I read it over a weekend, so it was definitely quickly paced and a bit of a page turner. However, I don't think it really had to be over 1000 pages, and could easily have been trimmed. And while it was entertaining, it also had its share of weaknesses. First off, as usual, King cannot end a story effectively. His endings have a tendency to come out of nowhere after a few crazy twists that make no sense, or they're just weak. This one was definitely more on the weak side of things. However, I think that's a flaw that most people recognize about King so I'm not really going to get into it too much more.

The main thing is that just doesn't really bring anything new to the table. It's very much like things King has written before - this is isn't necessarily a weakness as much of a warning - don't expect anything super-original.

Naturally, the story is set in a small town in Maine. One day in October, the town suddenly finds itself surrounded by a dome. No one knows where it came from or what caused, but it is solid and unbreakable. Nothing can come either in or out (with the exception of a few drops of water and a little bit of air but not enough to really be of any consequence). While there are questions of where the Dome has come from (government conspiracy? terrorist attack?), most of the novel focuses more on what happens within the town after they are cut off from the rest of the world. Yes, they can still watch TV and the internet still works but the outside has no way of enforcing their rules upon the town. The fact that King chooses to just accept the Dome presence, and to explore the effects of this new isolated status on the town is definitely a strength of the novel. A local politican that already had most of the town in his pocket sees this as his chance to gain even more power and control, and convinces most of the population to blindly follow him while only a few are smart enough to see through him and try to set up a type of resistance.

And this is where King starts treading into familiar territory - it just seems like he's already done that before - the sheep-like populace that follow the wrong person with a few brave men to fight against him. Many of the characters are recognizable from his other novels - Chef, the meth addict, had a rather striking similiarity to The Stand's Trashcan Man, in my opinion. There are of course a few intelligent children and a genius boy that help the adults figure things out. Junior seemed like a rehash of some his other lower-level villains. While King never makes his protagonists into perfect people, in this novel especially, his villains are just plain mean and evil. They have absolutely no redeeming qualities or complications to their character, and I think this weakens the novel. Plus it's easy to tell who's bad because they early on make racist and sexist statements. I mean I'm glad the good guys aren't making those comments, but it just seems like it's so easy that way - give me something a little more complex. Was the rape scene really necessary other than to establish who the bad guys were? I think it was already clear from other parts of the novel that thugs were taking over without having to add that as well.

There were also a few internal continuation issues that I noticed. At first, Dale Barbara ends up being a former Army captain. Then in the last half of the novel, they keep seeing he'd been a lieutenant. It kind of bugged me that they couldn't even get his rank straight and also made a comment about him retiring from the Army - if you get out before 20 years, it's an honorable discharge (hopefully), not retirement.

It's not to say that this is a bad novel. It's just it's basically a lot like reading other Stephen King novels that have already been published with a few different elements. And while the ending was weak, I appreciated that he really didn't start focusing too much on the Dome till much later in the novel and stayed focused on the human side of it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book 10: A Pale View of Hills

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

This novel is definitely a little ambiguous. At only 183 pages, it is the shortest novel I've read in a long time, and there are many questions that are not quite answered. Etsuko, the narrator, is an older Japanese woman living in England. Her husband is long dead, her older daughter, Keiko, has recently committed suicide, and her younger daughter, Niki, is visiting her temporarily. Niki and Keiko were only half-sisters, and Keiko never really seemed to adjust to her life with her new family members, spending most days in her room, only rarely coming downstairs before finally moving out.

The rest of the novel goes back and forth between Etsuko's memories of a certain summer in Japan, which took place in the Nagasaki area a few years after the war, and her visit with Niki. It is during this summer that a pregnant Etusko met Sachiko and her daughter Mariko when they moved into the neighborhood. Sachiko is not exactly a very attentive mother, and no one else in the neighborhood really talks to her due to her connection with an American. Etsuko and Sachiko become friends of a sort, though it is a rather weird friendship since Etsuko spends much of her time passively questioning Sachiko's decisions regarding her daughter. In fact, I wasn't quite sure if the dialogue was stilted because this was the author's first novel, or if it was due to the formality of Japanese culture he was trying to represent, though I'm leaning towards the later.

Etsuko's father-in-law is also visiting that summer, and the relationship between him and his son seems rather strained. While Etsuko enjoys her father-in-law, his interactions with his son make him rather annoying although his son is also rather inconsiderate and expects his wife to serve him hand and foot. There is one point when she stops on her way to the kitchen to hear some news he is sharing, and then he notices her and asks what is taking so long with his tea. While his father is much nicer to Etsuko, he also has definite notions of a woman's role, and expresses surprise when hearing about a wife that voted for a different candidate than her husband.

The war still overshadows the lives of the people though they do not talk about specifics too much. Sachiko implies several times that she is from high society, and her current conditions of poverty are completely unlike anything from her previous life. Other characters have lost loved ones; Etsuko's father-in-law was once a teacher, and he feels some critiques from a former student very deeply. He doesn't agree with the critique at all, but the younger generation definitely feels like the extreme patriotism and nationalism in their curriculum did not serve them in the previous years.

The novel itself overall is not too eventful but there is a dark presence in the background, making it seem like something bad could happen or is about to happen. Mariko is always running off on her own, and seems to have some serious problems interacting with people. She also keeps talking about a mysterious woman that her mother shrugs off for the most part. Also, the ending brings the rest of the novel into question - are the narrator's memories overlapping, or is there something she was hiding that she may have accidentally revealed through a slip up?

The novel does not answer these questions, and Ishiguro just gives the bare essentials when it comes to his characters and their lives - he gives background through small hints, but does not spell everything out. While I like that not everything is revealed and he doesn't feel the need to be incredibly specific when a few sentences give enough of a picture, I still would have loved to hear more about what happened to all the characters to get them where they were.

Book 9: Explaining Hitler

Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum

Shortly after The Reader came out last year, I found an article by Rosenbaum arguing that the film tried to excuse the German people from their responsibility and knowledge of the Holocaust and that for this reason, it should not win an Oscar. While I don't think I agreed with every single one of his arguments, I thought it raised a few good points, enough to make me interested in buying his book, Explaining Hitler. Which then proceeded to sit on my nightstand for a few months.

I finally remembered it was there and added it to my to read pile so when it came time to choose my next book to read, I decided maybe now was a good time to see what he had to say.

While the title suggests that Rosenbaum might try to explain Hitler, this is definitley not his intent, and I already knew that when I bought the book. Rather, he is exploring the different explanations people have tried to make to understand Hitler, and analyze what that says about the people explaining and basically us. What is scarier - a Hitler that is outside of explanation, an abnomaly, outside of regular humanity, or someone that was very much human? Since Rosenbaum has a degree in English and isn't a historian per se, it makes sense that he would take this approach, even though as he says in the introduction, he had started with rather different intents.

Through the book, Rosenbaum explores some of the more common explanations and arguments offered concerning Hitler and the Holocaust, and uses interviews he conducted with some of the most famous and important Hitler historians. Some of the ways people try to explain Hitler's actions verge on the comical and ridiculous. Many of them involve sexual hangups - Hitler hated Jews because one of them may have seduced his grandmother (I'm sure many people have heard things along the lines of Hitler being part Jewish but the thing is, there is no proof - no one knows who his grandfather was), maybe a Jewish prostitute gave him syphilis, a Jew wanted to marry his niece that he was in love . . . Various explanations that either show him as a depraved human being or someone whose hatred started in some way that would almost be seen as rational. Of course as Rosenbaum points out, that would be a lot to put on one person (such as saying that Hitler hated Jews due to the doctor that couldn't cure his mother's breast cancer). Others blame Christianity, which certainly has a history of anti-Semitism while others try to blame German culture.

Then there are the people that say that Hitler cannot be explained. One film maker, the director of Shoah states that there is no why, and people should stop trying to explain (in fact, he sounds like an egomaniac since Rosenbaum quotes him as saying that certain things can't be done after Shoah, in other words, his film should be the final word on the Holocaust). In fact, two of the chapters that were most intriguing to me involved this director, and a visit he had made to panel discussion with a Holocaust survivor during which he verbally attacked the survivor for asking the question why.

People are still undecided on how much to blame Hitler and how much to blame history or the Germans. Was Hitler just there at the wrong/right time, and it would have happened no matter what? Was Hitler the driving force? Obviously, it couldn't have happened without Germany's cooperation, but can we say it was historical forces? Some say, "No Hitler, No Holocaust" while others believe it would have happened anyway, disliking the "Great Man" approach to history. When one person argues that Germany was ripe and incredibly anti-Semitic at the time, others argue that if anything, people would have expected it to happen in France rather than Germany if asked before 1933, given examples such as the Dreyfus affair.

One other thing that Rosenbaum did that I liked a lot is he actually had a few chapters on the years before 1933. While much of it has been forgotten by history, even before Hitler took power there were journalists printing articles trying to explain Hitler and show Germany and the world that he would lead to destruction. They protrayed him as a criminal and blackmailer but unfortunately they could not convince enough people beforehand. It definitely takes away the excuse that people couldn't have known ahead of time - Hitler was a street thug and Germans and politicians gave him power.

Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about the topic. I don't think we know enough about Hitler to explain his actions since as Rosenbaum demonstrates too much has been either hidden or lost to say exactly when he decided what he was going to do (and he also covered his tracks pretty well - never giving written orders for certain things) - so while Hitler might be "explainable" and by explainable, he was able to justify his actions to himself using incredibly messed up logic, I don't think it's possible for anyone else to know. I also don't think the Holocaust would have happened without him in a position of leadership, but this of course by no means excuses the German people from what happened. They participated, they let it happen; if they had protested or refused to act, it wouldn't have happened. Hitler was only one man and it may have been his ideas that drove the whole thing but he needed people to enforce them for his plans to happen.

Obviously this wasn't the first genocide in history of humankind (I think I need to start reading happier books) nor the last, but it is the most well-known for many reasons, including the numbers killed in the amount of time, and the bureaucracy behind it all, the set up of labor and death camps. As a result, it is one that people are still trying to explain and grasp. In comparison, while American Holocaust was illuminating about the near annihilation of the American Indians (what is the correct term to use now, is it American Indians or Native Americans - it seems like Native Americans has fallen slightly out of favor lately or am I wrong?), there didn't seem to be much question of why or how, nor was there one particular person associated with it above all others. The Holocaust and Hitler, however, still have not been explained to people's satisfaction.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Book 8: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Occasionally I like to pretend to myself that I am not part of the mindless masses and that just because everyone else has read it or it's a #1 New York Times Bestseller or Amazon keeps trying to push it on me, doesn't necessarily mean I'll like it or that it's good. That was definitely the case with this novel. I just figured it was overhyped. Of course then I read it despite my reservations and liked it - because I'm really not as pretentious or intellectual as I like to think.

Obviously, the title sounds like quirk for the sake of quirk but the novel was actually entertaining. In a way it seemed very old-fashioned and even reminded me of Jane Austen in a way (not so much Austen's biting social satire but the small society with lots of eccentric characters, misunderstandings between people that like each other etc.) It's an epistolary novel which was almost another turn off for me. The main character is Juliet Ashton, a writer who has recently published a collection of her war time columns. She has a deprecating sense of humor and most of the funny lines are definitely from her. While trying to figure out what to write her next book about, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey, a British island that had been occupied by the Germans during the war. This leads to an exchange of letters between Juliet, Dawsey and various other members of the Guernsey society until Juliet decides to pay a visit to the island.

While most of the islanders survived the occupation relatively unscathed, they were still affected by it. They were cut off for five years without news from friends and family. One of the society's founders, Elizabeth was sent to Germany for aiding a German prisoner, and still has not returned back to her friends and her young daughter. Another man also spent time in a concentration camp but came back after the war. Juliet finds herself drawn to these people, and particularly Kit, Elizabeth's young daughter. This is another part that seemed kind of on the old fashioned side to me - how quickly Juliet became a part of the community during her visit and built her friendships. Juliet soon decides to make Guernsey and the German occupation the topic of her next book.

One thing I enjoyed about the novel was the role books played. During her book tour at thebeginning of the novel, a reporter makes an issue of a secret, broken engagement. As Juliet tells a friend of hers, the reason they ended the engagement is that when the man moved in with her, he proceeded to box up all her books, and put his sports trophies on her shelves instead. I would have kicked him out, too. It's a very enjoyable read so if anyone else has similar hesitance due to all the hype, I would definitely recommend giving it a shot.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Book 7: American Holocaust

American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World by David E. Stannard

This book was incredibly powerful, but it's also very depressing. After reading this book, especially the first two sections, I almost lost whatever hope and faith I had in human society and wondered if there was really any reason for humanity to exist. It's not like we're a very nice species.

Originally published in 1992, or the quincentennial of Columbus's landing in America, Stannard uses this book to address some of ideas that continue to prevail in schools, most of society and even among many historians. The first two chapters in the section entitled "Before Columbus" appropriately discuss what North and South America looked like before Columbus "discovered" America. Naturally, he can only generalize about a few different areas and societies since there was such a large variety, but he definitely refutes the idea of the empty, unused land that has become rather prevalent in the nation's imagination. Yes, North America wasn't nearly as highly populated as Central and South America (he estimates that Hispaniola alone had a population of 8 million before disease and mass murder basically killed off everyone), but it still had a significant amount of people. And they did cultivate the land and many were rather settled - they didn't become the nomads as seen in the movies until the colonials and Americans drove them off their lands. After all, they were the ones that had to show the Pilgrims and early settlers how to produce food before being thanked by being killed off.

His portrayal of Europe at this time is rather dark as well - while many places in America seemed to have a much more egalatarian society, Europe was definitely a very strict hierarchy of haves vs. have nots. The life expectancy was in the 30s. Most were poor and starving. They were unclean (and then thought the fact that the people in America bathed often) and greedy.

The second section, "Pestilence and Genocide," explore the aftermath of Columbus's voyage. It's one thing to hear about the conquistadors in class and quite another to go through the statistics and numbers as this book does. Millions dead to random killings, diseases and slavery within only a short period of time. Only shortly after talking about the riches and the beauty of this country, the same people then went and destroyed everything just for the phone of it. The utter disregard for human life is absolutely disheartening. And this was just the Spanish, who didn't even intend to commit genocide, it just kind of happened while they were trying to enrich themselves.

In comparison, in North America, genocide was the goal. The Spanish just wanted to get rich and exploited the native people for that reason (the description of the Spanish attrocities still seem worse in a way, possibly due to the documentation or just because much of it happened within a shorter period of time; after all, the expansion in North America lasted over a century); the English and then Americans wanted the land, and the best way to get them off the land was to annihilate them and get them out of the way. Now, Stannard doesn't discuss things such as the Battle of Tippicanoe or other resistance but when it comes down to it, these things didn't justify the American reaction one bit (also, there was quite a bit of propaganda involved in blowing things out of proportion). Wow, the American Indians went on a warpath and killed a few hundred people? Maybe a few women and children, too? Yep, that totally justifies wiping out their entire culture, especially since they didn't kill anyone until they were already on the defensive and being chased from their lands.

It seemed like in history class we always got this idea of the brave settlers that left everything behind to go to a hostile land of uncertainty where they would never see their families or their old country again; however, they were the ones that were hostile and violent and saw it as their duty to kill off the people that originally helped them.

In the final section, "Sex, Race and Holy War," Stannard discusses the religious influences on the thoughts of the Spanish, English and Americans to include their views of sex. He also draws comparisons to other genocides, including the Holocaust since they had their roots in the same historical background and religious cultures. Also here is where it's obvious that this wasn't an abnomaly at all - humans are incredibly violent and intolerant. Between the Crusades, the wars between the Lutherans and the Catholics, blood baths repeat themselves over and over again due to intolerance and ignorance. When looking at those parts of history, it gives a rather bleak view of humanity in general.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Book 6: To Your Scattered Bodies Go

The only reason I even heard of this book (or series to be specific) is because Pajiba posted a trailer of the mini-series (or actual series?) that the channel formerly known as the Sci-Fi Channel is making with Helo (yes, I realize that is not the actor's name).  I honestly wasn't sure about this novel at first - obviously the premise sounded interesting, both from the show trailer and the set up in the book but it took me a while to decide whether Farmer was an author with a really interesting idea that didn't know how to implement it or if he was actually going somewhere with it.
Partially, I blame this on the book I was reading concurrently with this novel (which will be a later post) called American Holocaust.  I think this may have made me slightly more sensitive (than usual even) to sweeping generalizations about races and people.  Especially his one or two references to the Mohawks and another Indian tribe that described them as either war-like or slave-seeking.  However, I should probably actually describe the plot a little bit here since not everyone of course saw the preview.
 The main character is Sir Richard Burton (from what I gathered, I think he is real historical figure since some of the other characters, such as the Alice that inspired Alice in Wonderland, and Herman Goring definitely were).  Everyone that has ever died from the beginning of humankind through the 20th century has woken up at the same time next to a river.  There are no children under five, and everyone has been reincarnated healthy and young (25ish).  They all have grails that only they can open which provide them with food on a daily basis.  This river seems endless and all along its banks there are different people from different ages and cultures.  Unlike anyone else, Burton remembers waking up between death and finding himself on Riverworld, floating in space surrounded by an endless number of other bodies.
As a result of this, Burton is less likely to believe that this was done by some supernatural being.  Many religious are in fact disappointed that this is not the heaven they were promised.  Despite the fact that everyone has enough to eat and the climate is rather temperate, people quickly make weapons to defend themselves, and others are waging wars of expansion and creating slave states.  Not exactly a hopeful look at human nature.  While some just try to enjoy themselves, others feel this might be their second chance at salvation.  Burton on the other hand is on a quest to find out why he has been revived and brought here, and wants to get to the end of the river to find answers.
As I said, I wasn't sure about this novel at first - it was published in the early '70s, and while I definitely see how it would be difficult to write characters from different times and cultures, I was less than impressed with his description of people and their interactions at first - especially the women.  Alice was just annoying at first.  In fact, once the novel gets away from Burton and Alice's relationship and starts focusing on Burton's quest, it becomes much more interesting (I understand that some of the issue is not only was Farmer writing in the '70s which would affect his gender views, but he was writing women from the 19th century, so obviously they might be viewed and portrayed as needing protection and so forth).  I've already taken a look at the second novel on Amazon, and it seems like it focuses on entirely different characters so it sounds like the series will get rather involved before finally giving the answers Burton wants.

Book 5: Infected

Only a very few people in the US government know about the link between a few people that seem to have gone crazy and then died.  In fact, it looks as if they had an infection of some sort that made them go on a crazy killing spree before killing themselves or being stopped somehow.  In the first few scenes of the novel, Dew Phillips witnesses one man's reaction to the infection: the government desperately needs someone who is alive to do research on because the bodies disintegrate within a very short time after death.  They have determined that one man may be a candidate based on a phone call made to a radio station, and once inside this house, Dew finds two dead bodies, and a man with tourniquets tied around his legs.  In front of Dew, he proceeds to cut off both legs, saying that ''they can walk there themselves'' and then burn himself alive.
As Montoya uses the remains in the few hours she has before they too are simply rotted away, the reader starts to become aquainted with Perry Dawson, a former college football player living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.  It quickly becomes apparent that he has been infected or become a host, and Sigler uses him to show the progression of the disease including the blue triangles.  Montoya makes a few discoveries with the charred remains she has, while Dawson demonstrates how exactly they might affect a person.  For example, the parasites/virus/whatever one may call it, uses the host's own DNA to create what it is they need to survive.  They also increase the body's production of natural painkillers and hormones causing paranoia (explaining all the murderous rampages that have recently come to the government's attention).
Dawson's reaction to the invasion of his body is in ways typical, and in others, very unique.  He, too, becomes paranoid.  On the other hand, being afraid of doctors and coming from a family that taught tough love, he also believes in handling things himself and actually cuts out on of the infected areas towards the beginning, before they have matured and mutated.  However, even this doesn't stop him from continuing to try to get rid of it.  In fact, as Dawson demonstrates, the people that have been going on killing sprees and then committing suicide are actually the people that are strong enough to fight against the voices and their bodies being taken over rather than simply submitting.
The government at first suspects terrorist activity, but Montoya soon begins to doubt this as the technology is too advanced for this to be man made.  She wonders if it might be natural and considers a few other options.  This novel is obviously the first a series (I don't know how long a series), and the second one is available in paperback next month.  The novel was good but it also left me wanting to know more, so I'll definitely be reading Contagious when it comes out.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Book 4: The Pact

This is the second novel I've now read by Picoult, and while I wouldn't add her to my favorite authors by any stretch, she does a good job of creating engaging stories that make me want to keep reading.  Of course, I've noticed I'm not exactly discerning when it comes to books - while I don't often react with ''Oh my god, I loved it,'' it is also very rare for me to say I disliked a book.  In general, I tend to have reactions of ''I liked it.''  This might be because I'm easy to please or I generally know how to pick books that I will like - who knows.
Having said this, after two novels, I can already see some general themes with Picoult - in a way, it seems like her audience is very much the kind of middle class, white housewife that talk shows like Oprah are aimed towards.  They tend to very much revolve around the husband and wife with 2.5 kids kind of household - the perfectly normal, loving family who have everything going for them except for that one big tragedy or issue, be it cancer (My Sister's Keeper) or teen suicide (The Pact).  Despite this, her characters are engaging and seem well-developed.  The other thing I've noticed is that her writing isn't exactly subtle - how exactly does that saying go - if there's a gun revealed in the first or second act, it will go off by the third act?  Yeah, her clues in her novels can be rather obvious.
As the novel begins, Picoult introduces two families that have been neighbors and best friends for the past eighteen years - the Hartes and the Golds.  Their oldest children, Emily and Christopher, are only a few months apart in age, and grew from being attached at the hip as children into a couple as high schoolers.  Within the first few pages of The Pact, both sets of parents get a call about their children being at the hospital.  Once they arrive, it turns out the Emily is dead of a gunshot wound to the head, and Chris is alive.  The weapon is from the Harte's gun cabinet.  Was it a suicide pact as Chris claims or did he kill her?
As the novel progresses, more and more is revealed about the characters, and even though I had a pretty good idea of what happened (thanks to that gun in the first act), I still wanted to know if I was right, and what exactly may have been the motive (for the murder or the suicide).  Despite being easy to figure out, Picoult still writes in a manner that keeps the story going.  Also, like My Sister's Keeper, The Pact had a lawyer that doesn't want to get too close to his clients as well as the big court reveal.  Still, formulaic isn't necessarily a bad thing nor is it uncommon for authors to have stock characters.  And I may just have chosen the two novels that happen to have these similarities - it doesn't necessarily mean it applies to the rest of her work.
In case anyway is interested, and since I really wanted to mention it, I did want to discuss the whole ''gun in the first act'' thing that I feel gave away the end of the story.  Since the novel flashes back and forth between present and past, the reader can see how the relationship between the two families and Chris and Emily develops (some of the issues Emily was having with their changing relationship were rather interesting).  Of course many of the vignettes were important to just showing their day-to-day life with each other as well as what may have influenced them but one scene in particular seemed like it was only there to explain later on why Chris may have acted the way he did.  His father is a hunter and had a few hunting dogs.  One of his dogs became sick enough to need to be put down.  Instead of speaking to Michael Gold, a vet, James took the dog out hunting one last time and shot him.  As he saw it, it was his dog whom he loved and as a result he owed to the dog, and also this way, the dog would die happy.  Given this scene as an example, is it any surprise to see that Chris might associate love with making tough decisions and helping someone they love die?  Another point where Picoult's writing wasn't exactly subtle was during a prank involving the guy's bathroom at a fast food restaurant, but I don't really feel the need to get into that one.

Book 3: A Breath of Fresh Air

The novel begins in 1984 at a train station in Bhopal, a small town near an Indian Army base.  Anjali, the main character and narrator of this section (most of the novel is narrated from Anjali's perspective but there are also sections from her current and her ex-husband's points of view), is waiting for her husband who is over two hours late to pick her up when there is a gas leak at a nearby factory.  Many people die as a result of this, but Anjali survives, though she will have health problems as a result.
From there, the novel flashes forward sixteen years to a day at the market where Anjali runs into Prakash, her ex-husband, the man that forgot her at the train station.  She hasn't seen him in years, and this sighting brings out different emotions in her.  She is currently in a very loving relationship with Sandeep, a local professor, and they have a son together.  However, their life is far from perfect - as a result of Anjali's exposure to the gas, it caused some issues with her reproductive organs, and her twelve year old son Amar is dying of lung and heart problems.  Her disapproving sister-in-law lives with her family and money is tight due to all the medical bills.
As the novel progresses, more is revealed about the past and Malladi shows Anjali and Prakash's marriage from both their perspectives.  While Prakash was incredibly mad at Anjali when she filed for divorce due to his career, he has since seen how horribe he was as a husband.  However, his bad behavior still doesn't excuse her decision in much of society and her parents' eyes: as an Indian woman, she was supposed to stick with her husband no matter what, even if he didn't love her, didn't respect her or cheated on her.  Obviously it was her fault for not being a better wife, and not sticking it out.  As a divorcee, Anjali is a rarity in her surroundings, and she and Sandeep have not told their neighbors about Anjali's past life.  Anjali's decision was incredibly untypical for a woman of her background and upbringing.
As a result, seeing Prakash brings up questions about the decisions she has made - while she is happy with Sandeep, she has still felt the occasional guilt and pressure from society about her choices, and through the course of this novel, she deals with these feelings.  I actually enjoyed the novel quite a bit - from the way the novel began, I wasn't sure what kind of relationship Anjali and Prakash had once had, but given Sandeep's occasional self-doubts, I definitely thought it would be different from the one described.  There were no miracle cures or anything, so overall, the novel was about people dealing with the choices they've made and the hand they've been dealt, and whatever happiness and sadness that comes along with life.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Book 2: Never Let Me Go

This novel went in a completely different direction than I expected to from reading the backcover.  Based on the backcover which mentioned a secluded, exclusive boarding school in England with three students and their relationship, I figured it would be about them growing up together.  And it was definitely about that, but there was so much more going on as well.
The narrator, Kathy, explains that she is a carer helping donors.  I figured I'd get an explanation as the novel progressed but basically thought that meant she was a nurse who specialized in working with organ donations and patients or a nurse that helps terminally ill patients.  She said she even was at the point where she was allowed to choose her own patients, and had lately chosen to deal mainly with people from Hailsham.  From other comments she makes and descriptions of her patients that aren't from Hailsham, I got the impression that Hailsham was a very exclusive boarding school but also seemed to refer to possibly the upper crust and a rather well to do part of society.  Ishiguro uses assumptions people would normally make about private boarding schools so that he doesn't even have to mislead the reader - my own preconceptions managed to do that for me.
However, there soon seemed to be something rather odd about this school: all the students are encouraged to be ''creative,'' making life for Tommy rather miserable since he has no artistic talent.  His inability to draw leads him to be somewhat ostracized for a while.  It made it sound like a school whose goal was to create well-rounded individuals but then there was also the issue of the gallery: their best pieces were taken away.  This actually made me wonder if this was going to go into Vonnegut territory.  Perhaps the school was part of a society where they want everyone to be well-rounded but no one to be better than anyone else.  I was wrong about that theory.  There are no red herrings in the novel, everything pulls together and makes sense but not in a way that was necessarily expected at all.
I'm not sure how much more I can get into it without giving away the larger twists but in addition to all that, at its heart, the novel is a story about three friends growing up together: Kathy, Ruth and Tommy.  Their relationships are very much what one might expect from a novel about boarding school but so much more complicated.  Ruth is the queen bee while Kathy is more or less her loyal follower.  Tommy matures from the teased boy to a person Kathy appreciates as honest and warm.  The novel explores their relationship while also taking a look at something much larger involving ethics.  It kept me reading because I wanted to know what would happen next and yet I would also describe it as rather peaceful despite the turns it takes.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

Book 1: Company of Liars

I read about this on either Bibliolatry or Books for Breakfast (I can't actually look up which of the two at the moment), and thought it sounded interesting.  It takes place in medieval England, 1348, and concerns a group of people that end up traveling together.  They are all strangers, and all of them have something to hide (hence the title).  Additionally, they are trying to avoid the pestilence, or plague, that is currently beginning to sweep the country.  Their first destination is a shrine in the hopes that it is too far inland and north to be affected.  Also, given the occupations of the travelers, they hope to make some money off the pilgrims.  With the setup, for some reason, I was expecting something reminiscent of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (not that I've read much of that beyond excerpts).  In fact, the different characters do tell each other a few stories but other than that and the time period, it definitely wasn't like that.
Since the last novel I read was Antony and Cleopatra set in Rome/Egypt from 44-26 BC, it was shocking to see the differences between 1348 London and BC era Rome.  The Romans seemed so much more advanced!  Medieval England, in comparison, was steeped in superstition.  Obviously this isn't exactly a new revelation but reading the two novels so close together to compare just made it all the more apparent.  There is talk of werewolves and vampires (who were believed to be people that were killed by werewolves in those days) as well as various other superstitious rites.  For example, in one village the travelers come across a cripple wedding - the villagers chose two people in the village to marry each other in order to ward off the plague.
The narrator is Camelot, an old man that sells relics to the unsuspecting and gullible.  He has a huge scar on his face and only one eye - at separate points in the novel, he claims it was due to the Crusades and werewolves.  Of all the characters, he reveals the least about himself and his past to others.  The first to join him in his travels are Roderigo and Jofre, two Venetian entertainers, in search of a new lord.  They soon pick up Zophiel, a magician, a young married couple who are about to have a child, Pleasance, a healer, Narigorm, a young child that reads runes and is kind of creepy (or at least in the eyes of our narrator - while I trusted the narrator, others might find him less reliable and think he is crazy by the end) and finally Cygnus, a young story teller.  All of them have no desire to dwell on their pasts too much, and some are much more sympathetic than others.  Despite their differences, they decide to travel together - protection is much easier in a group, and it is easier to find food when they pool their sources.  Still, it is incredibly difficult to find food in England that winter, and they feel the effects.  (I may have misspelled some of the names since I can't reference the novel right now.)
The detail in this novel was amazing, and all the historical tidbits definitely made this worth the read.  For example, while I was just in Venice and noticed that there was an island called Murano famous for its glass making, I didn't realize that the glassblowers in Venice had at one point all been forced to that island.  Venitian officials wanted to preserve the secret of glass-making in order to continue to make a lot of money off of their glass (Venice definitely seems to have liked segregating people - they may not have been the first to segregate the Jews, but they were the first to call the place the Jews were confined to the ghetto).  Some rich would buy old monk robes to be buried in to trick the devil, etc.  As I said, they were very superstitious.  While I was expecting a literary novel/historical novel, there may be a slightly supernatural aspect to it.  Depending on one's view of the narrator, things are either completely natural and normal or there might be something more at play here.  Either way, Narigorm's rune readings tend to be rather accurate - deadly accurate in fact, as misfortune befalls the travelers repeatedly throughout the novel.