Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Book 53: The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

This isn't actually Book 53, I'm just a little behind on reviews (I blame Lost), and wanted to write this one up in time for the book club. Barely. As yossarian mentioned when he chose and introduced this one for the Pajiba Book Club, this novel is inspired by/ a modern version of The Jungle Book. It's been years since I've seen the Disney movie, and I believe I read part of the original book once but my recollection of both is very vague. The only thing I really remember about book version is the story of "Rikki Tikki Tavi," and for some reason I remember it as more of a series of stories than an ongoing narrative. I am probably completely wrong, though.

As a result, when I was reading this, my brain kept trying to make connections between half forgotten clips of a Disney movie and the story. My reading process was a little like this, "so the man Jack must be the tiger; oh, Silas is the panther (and possibly a vampire, maybe?); are the ghouls supposed to be the chimpanzees or monkeys or whatever King Louie was?"

The main character of this novel is Nobody "Bod" Owens, a boy that grows up in a graveyard after his parents and older sister are killed in their home. When his family is murdered, Bod manages to toddle to the neighborhood graveyard where the ghosts and Silas, friend of the graveyard and mysterious being, decide to take care of him and protect him from the man Jack who wants to finish his business. The novel is set up as a series of vignettes or snapshots of Bod's life in the graveyard beginning with how he came to be there, and showing his maturation. Some of the snapshots focus on lessons that Bod must learn but his parents' death and the threat on his life are a continuous theme. He is not allowed to leave the graveyard because that is the only place he can be protected, and his very first venture outside his home already leads to a close call.

As Bod grows older, the differences between him and the dead become more apparent. It takes quite a bit of convincing but he starts going to a real school later on in addition to his tutelage under various ghosts to prepare him for what he will need to know eventually. As Bod grows older, everything around him continues to stay the same. His friends don't age, and while Bod thinks he can stay at the graveyard forever, his dead friends and family understand the necessity of him living life. Bod learns about life from the dead, and he learns compassion and courage as well as who he really is (I liked the witch). While there is of course the threat of the man Jack, the novel is foremost a coming of age novel that happens to be set in the graveyard. Bod has to learn about himself and face perils, but he also has to learn to say goodbye and learn to face the world like most children.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Yep, I'm Still Here

I haven't updated in a while, and part of it is because whenever I get on a computer nowadays, I seem to be distracted by Facebook, and lack of desire to be productive. I might have to start going to Starbucks because I've noticed being in a different setting usually helps with the productivity. I also haven't been reading quite as much the last few weeks because my social life has definitely been much busier since being at CLC3. I guess there's just something about having a lot of single officers (or geographical bachelors) with disposable income and no actual work responsibilities besides the occasional homework that fosters the opportunity to have one of those. I mean the majority of my fellow officers and peers are married, some even with children, but there are enough around here that aren't to make for some fun weekends. I spent the weekend before St. Patrick's Day at an Irish pub up in Richmond, and spent the actual day watching Lost.

After hearing about how awesome Lost was for almost six seasons, I finally decided to check it out, now that it is almost over. What can I say, I always join things late. Also, this saves me the frustration of waiting for answers for six years. I've watched three seasons in a week, and just ordered the next two. Obviously, I am enjoying it, but does everybody on that island have daddy-issues? Seriously, Locke's flashbacks kind of irritate me. I know I'm a little late to be adding me two cents but at least it's an update, right?

Monday, March 01, 2010

Book 52: In the Woods

In the Woods by Tana French

I really, really liked this book. I actually only picked it up because I recently heard about the sequel, The Likeness, and figured I should read this one before I read the second one (which I will picking up very soon - not sure if it's a good thing or a bad thing that I'm currently taking advantage of the free trial of Amazon Prime - I already have a huge to read pile due to my past month of Barnes and Noble visits).

The initial set up and description reminded me of Mystic River. One summer day over twenty years ago, a trio of young friends from the neighborhood go play in the woods. After the search parties start searching only one of them is found, clinging to a tree, scratches in his t-shirt, and blood in his shoes. The other two, Peter and Jamie, are never found. Obviously the parallels aren't perfect but it is still that idea of one summer day changing things forever for a trio of friends, though in this case it is unclear what happened to two of them.

In the novel's present day, Rob Ryan, the narrator, and his partner Cassie Maddox are sent to Knockaree investigate the murder of a twelve year old girl, the same neighborhood and woods where Rob Ryan was found as a 12 year old when his two best friends disappeared. He is very conflicted about this case, afraid that it might be connected to his case, but also hoping it will help him find answers. Since twenty years ago everyone knew him as Adam Ryan, the connection isn't obvious, and Rob is able to keep the investigation despite the possible conflict of interest. Cassie is the only one who knows of this, and she helps him hide the connection from their supervisor.

For the first half or two thirds of the novel, there is no clear answer. There are various possibilities as to the identity of the murderer but motive and evidence point to no one. Cassie took courses in psychology and is the closest the department has to a profiler, and something about the murder seems odd, forced. Katie, the victim, was a 12 year old ballet student about to leave the neighborhood for a prestigious dance school - was it a random pedophile or a jealous neighbor? Something seems off about the family - perhaps abuse? Her body was found at an archeological dig in the area, and the site was about to be destroyed by a new motorway - was it retribution or a warning to her father the leader of the local "Move the Motorway" movement? Or is it a serial killer returned? Nothing makes sense despite Cassie, Rob and Sam's best efforts (Sam was the third detective on the case to help the two partners - a new trio of sorts which parallels rather nicely with Rob's original friends).

At first I suspected everyone, even Rob (actually, especially Rob) - after all, I believe there is an Agatha Christie novel (or possibly just a short story) that uses that exact set up - have the murderer be the narrator that seems just as baffled about the crime as the readers and the rest of the characters. Also, given this opening paragraph to Chapter 1, it sort of makes sense to doubt him:
What I warn you to remember is that I am a detective. Our relationship with truth is fundamental but cracked, refracting confusingly like fragmented glass. It is the core of our careers, the endgame of every move we make, and we pursue it with strategies painstakingly constructed of lies and concealment and every variation on deception. The truth is the most desirable woman in the world and we are the most jealous lovers, reflexively denying anyone else the slightest glimpse of her. We betray her routinely, spending hours and days stupor-deep in lies, and then turn back to her holding out the lover's ultimate Mobius strip: But I only did it because I love you so much . . . What I am telling you, before you begin my story, is this - two
things: I crave the truth. And I lie. (3-4)

I generally don't go on about descriptions or language, but I actually really enjoyed the writing style. As the novel progresses, the case clearly affects Rob more and more. It affects all of them, of course, but given Rob's emotional involvement, it is not always clear if he is thinking straight. I leave it to everyone else to decide how they feel about Rob as a reliable narrator but I actually felt like he was rather honest. It was easy to see when he did things I disagreed with and despite the fact that he was the narrator, I occasionally thought he was wrong - he did not shy away from portraying himself in an unflattering light as the case went on.

Cassie and Rob have been partners for two years when they get the case, and they have been the perfect pair - she was the only woman in the murder squad, and she and Rob just clicked. They are not dating despite the vibe they give off and they have an incredibly a strong bond and trust between them but there are early hints that something has changed by the time Rob begins writing his story. Rob mentions early on that they spent about a month on the case, but it was a crucial and defining month in their lives that would change things.

While the case is of course important and there are small clues throughout (I caught one early on though it concerned a weapon rather than a suspect), the relationships within the novel are just as interesting and important if not more so than the case. Additionally, Rob struggles with his past - he has forgotten almost everything from before he was 12, and spends the novel trying to face and recapture his old memories. I'm not sure if I am really doing this novel any justice at all but it was much more than a simple murder mystery novel, and the characters (at least Rob and Cassie) were well-developed and I will definitely be reading the sequel soon.

Book 51: Vanishing Acts

Vanishing Acts by Jodi Picoult

I've read two other Picoult novels, probably her two most famous ones (The Pact and My Sister's Keeper), so I chose this based on a review that was featured on Pajiba a while back. The writing is somewhat cliche as usual, and very much about the sacrifices a parent will make for their child. As someone who has no children and never wants children, I'm surprised that I keep reading her novels. There is also other stuff going on, but Picoult's novels all revolve around family drama and court room drama and this one is no different. While all her novels seem to follow similar themes and even plot structures, they aren't boring. In fact, I started reading this on the stairmaster at the gym, and it definitely made the hour fly by - every other book I've taken to the gym so far before this, I have ended up putting down at some point because I got tired of holding it or just needed a break to refocus. However, I would say that all her novels end up being just a little bit longer than they need to be.

As usual, there is a cast of characters, all of whom get their say and views represented in the novel. There is Delia Hopkins, a search and rescue worker with a five year old daughter Sophie, her fiance Eric, an alcoholic, Fitz, her best friend that completed their childhood trio and has been in love with Delia as long as Eric, and Andrew Hopkins, her single father. In the first few chapters, Delia mentions a dream that triggered an odd memory, and Fitz does some online research that accidentally sets a chain of events into motion. Less than fifty pages into it, the police are at Delia's doorstep, and her life is in an uproar.

The novel's setting moves to Arizona where Delia's father awaits his trial. As usual, there is a twist at the end, though this didn't seem like that shocking of a revelation considering. Since it was set in Arizona, Picoult also started adding random Native American mysticism and characters to it, and it seemed like Picoult felt like she should add them because the novel was set in the Southwest. I don't think it added anything to the story. In fact, while I enjoyed the novel as a beach read, I felt like Delia was overreacting maybe a little bit. It just seemed like the stuff she was freaking out about wasn't as big of a deal as she was making it.

Like M. Night Shyamalan, Picoult always has a twist in her novels, and this is part of the reason they occasionally seem too long for me. At some point, there's only so much set up I need before I just want to know what the damn twist is going to be.

Book 50: Alice I Have Been

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin

I have never read Alice in Wonderland and while I understand most of the pop culture references to the movie, I don't recall much of it beyond random clips which are probably just from seeing random clips in documentaries or best of lists rather than watching the film as a whole. In fact, I think I only watched the Disney movie once, when I was about three or four and it scared me and made me cry. Or maybe that was The Wizard of Oz. My parents would have to confirm that one. Basically, I don't have much of an attachment to Charles Dogson/Lewis Carroll or the classic story, but Bibliolatrist gave this novel such as glowing review that it stuck in my head, and I bought it with little hesitation when I saw it at Barnes and Noble despite the fact that it was a hardcover and I'm cheap. Well not really, but I need to be.

Alice I Have Been is a fictional biography of Alice Liddell, the woman that inspired Alice in Wonderland. Or maybe she didn't, the jury still seems to be out on that one, but it was dedicated to her. As a young girl, she lived at Oxford with her family since her father was a dean, and in this time the family cultivated a friendship with Charles Dodgson, the man who used Lewis Carroll as a pen name (I didn't know that wasn't his real name until reading this). Her family's standing at Oxford actually gave Alice and her sisters a chance to interact with a variety of celebrities of those days (the novel is divided into three parts and spans from the 1860s through to the 1920s), including the Queen, a few of her sons that were students, and author John Ruskin.

Benjamin explains in her afterword that there are a lot of gaps in the historical record so many of the specifics of which she writes are her invention or best guess but it is unsure what actually happened. Dodgson's family members destroyed several of his journals after his death, but there was a definite break in the relationship between the Liddell family and Dodgson in 1863 when Alice was 11. Later in her life, she and her family also became close to Prince Leopold but there is debate as to which sister the prince was interested in - some suggest her younger sister Edith but he named his first daughter Alice, so it seems either way could possibly be supported.

While Benjamin may be working with murky details, the story she tells rings true and the characters seem real. As the different sections of the novel progress, Alice matures from a wild and defiant little girl, to a young woman in love that has been left behind by her peer group and is close to being considered in spinster territory, to an old woman that is very stiff and proper, exactly the kind of person she seemed to be fighting against as a young girl. And for much of the novel, her legacy as the little girl Alice haunts her - even if the character is not modeled on her, she is the one that urged Dodgson to write the story down and since the character is named Alice, she is associated with the novel by the general public.

Whatever it is that caused the break between her family and Dodgson continues to define her existence long after, and even when she and the Prince are in love and courting, she knows/fears that part of his interest in her initially began because he saw her as Alice in Wonderland rather than just Alice. As she later states, there is only one person that ever saw her as simply herself.

Given the friendship that developed between Alice and Charles in the first section, it was rather odd to read this after/in conjunction with Lolita. After all, she was a seven year old who was spending a lot of time with a man twenty years her senior. Even though I have never read Alice in Wonderland, I was a bit worried about having that story ruined for me by finding out the author was a pedophile (according to Wikipedia one theory about Dodgson was that he was a celibate pedophile which I could deal with but if he actually acted on these potential impulses, it would definitely put things in a different perspective).

While Alice had a long life with many experiences, a loving husband and three children, overall, the novel just struck me as very sad, and not just for Alice. There were many lost opportunities, and family deaths. I liked the novel a lot, but it made me feel very bad about what happened to Dodgson (he may have been happy, but in the novel he seems to end up alone, which once again, may be what he wanted). Alice's life was defined by that one summer since it affected people's reactions to her for much longer than it should have, and it caused her regrets later in life. Additionally, she couldn't always appreciate what she had until much later - in some cases, it wasn't too late to make amends, but she could have been happier if she had come to certain realizations earlier in life.