Monday, June 24, 2013

Book 66: Attachments

I heard about this novel due to various reviews over at the Cannonball 5 site.  I probably would have never even heard of this otherwise although I did recently notice that her other novel, Eleanor and Park was on an end cap display.  The novel is set in late 1999, and focuses on three different characters.  Of those three, I would describe Lincoln as the main character since half of the chapters are from his perspective.  I gained insight into all three, but knew more details about what exactly was going through Lincoln's head.  The book alternates between chapters from Lincoln's perspective, and an email exchange between Jennifer and Beth.  All three work at a newspaper in Nebraska, Jennifer as a copy editor, Beth in the entertainment section, and Lincoln is the IT guy.  Since this is 1999, the company is worried about Y2K.  The time frame also means that the company can still get away with being fairly technology-phobic, having only recently been convinced that things like the internet are around to stay.  Part of Lincoln's job is to monitor email usage and flagged messages which may appear due to a variety of flagged words or even frequency of emails.  It is as a result of this work duty that Lincoln first gets to know Jennifer and Beth.
As Lincoln reads their emails for any abuse of company policies, he grows to genuinely like both of the women, and never gets around to flagging them.  Jennifer is married and decidedly freaked out by the idea of having children which her husband wants.  Beth has been in a relationship with a musician for about ten years, or since college.  She loves him, she supports him, but she would also like to get married.  The fact that her younger sister is engaged certainly isn't helping her feelings on the matter.  Lincoln just recently moved back in with his mom after spending the last ten years at school, collecting degree after degree.  Though he hates his job and reading people's emails, the fact that he has finally left school surely has to be seen as a sign of progress.  He has also been single since his last relationship ended, and has not pursued anyone since.  However, as he reads the emails, he starts finding himself more and more attracted to and interested in Beth.  He even begins socializing more, and improving himself in other ways.  Still, he has no idea what to do about Beth due to his unethical knowledge of her private life.
While Lincoln is clearly doing something questionable and wrong, he is incredibly sympathetic and it is understandable how he got into this dilemma.  He has been observing life for the past few years, letting things happen to him, and his fascination with Jennifer and Beth begins as him once again observing someone else living their lives.  It's impossible not to root for Lincoln, and hope that he figures things out, and sympathize with the women has they handle their daily lives and jobs.  In fact, I could see parts of myself in every single one of these characters, or at least relate to their actions and feelings.
It was an incredibly sweet novel, and very relatable.  When I first read the descriptions of this novel, I was afraid it might by cloyingly sweet or overly quirky, but I was completely proven wrong.  It was about people attempting to find their place in the world, while making the occasional fumble or getting stuck in a rut.  I also think the time setting made complete sense because not only does the Y2K piece work well for the IT part, but if it had been more contemporary I would have had doubts about the economy and anyone having a career in print journalism - isn't it amazing how much of a difference 14 years make?

Friday, June 21, 2013

Book 65: Caleb's Crossing

A Year of Wonders blew me away, and I also loved People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks.  Despite this, I haven't actually read her award winning novel March because I feel like I should read Little Women first.  Caleb's Crossing is another piece of historical fiction inspired by true events, like her previous novels (the Civil War a true event, even if the March family was fictional).  The narrator, Bethia, is completely made up by Brooks, but there actually was a Native American man named Caleb who graduated from Harvard in the mid to late 17th century.
Bethia is the minister's daughter on the island that is now known as Martha's Vineyard, living with her father who is intent on building relationships between the new white settlers and the island's Native American population, her older brother who wants to follow in his father's foot steps, and a much younger sister.  The novel begins as Bethia finds out that her father plans to have Caleb move in with them and tutor him in order to make him a bridge between the two communities as well as help with converting the local populace.  Little does her father know that Bethia and Caleb have been friends for years despite conventions of the time that restrict their interactions based on both gender, and ethnic and cultural differences.
As can be expected from Brooks, she obviously spent a lot of time researching this novel, and did a great job of capturing the attitudes of the time.  It took me a few chapters to warm up to Bethia for this exact reason as she discussed her guilt and punishment for what she saw as her weakness and giving into Satan's temptation, if only temporarily.  There is very little tolerance for the Native American gods and cultural traditions, all of these being seen as signs of the devil.  While Bethia may be more open minded than the average settler, she too judges certain actions.  Brooks does a good job of straddling the line between not making Bethia too modern a character and making her so much a product of her time that a modern reader can't like her.  She also makes sure to use Bethia's contemporaries to show that while she may not be normal, she is certainly not out of the ordinary: Bethia has a great desire to learn, and is partially inspired by Anne Bradstreet, a fellow Puritan woman, and America's first published poet.
Though the novel is called Caleb's Crossing, the main character is without a doubt Bethia.  We get Bethia's perspective on Caleb's life, his crossing between white and Native American worlds, and the struggles and racism he faces.  Just as much, the novel focuses on a hardships of being a woman in this time period, the lack of opportunities and huge amounts of work necessary to run a household and farm in 17th century colonial Massachusetts.  One thing I quite enjoyed is that at no point does Brooks try to turn this into a romance (well, maybe a little when discussing Bethia's options): Bethia and Caleb are childhood friends, and view each other almost as siblings.  Both of them face restrictions and doubts about their intelligence from society, one for gender, one for race, and in this way, the novel nicely parallels the differing prejudices the two face and different ways they can attempt to overcome them, or must live within them.
Having said all that, I didn't enjoy this one as much as her other novels, and part of this may well be that it took me a bit longer to build a connection with Bethia, who overall was a realistic character.  Once I was into the novel, I was definitely as invested as with all her other ones, but it was a bit of a slower start for me.  I still enjoyed it quite a bit, and found the afterword where Brooks explains the actual historical circumstances illuminating as well.

Book 64: Fire

I had been pushing off reading this book because as much as I enjoyed Graceling, the first novel in this trilogy, I had heard less than positive things about Fire.  The great thing about this trilogy, however, is the fact that the novels are more companion novels than a straight up trilogy so I didn't need to read this to see where the story went due to any unresolved questions.  I was happy with where Katsa was at the end of Graceling, and this novel does nothing to mess with that.  In fact, while it is the second one written and published, it actually takes place prior to Graceling, in a realm that is mentioned in passing in Graceling as mysterious and unknown.  The novel provides a bit more context for a character from Graceling but it isn't necessary - I think Cashore mostly added it for the readers to enjoy the connection between her two novels, not because she necessarily felt that this person needed more exploration.
On the one hand, I was very interested in this world, and the kingdom that is still dealing with the aftermath of a corrupt ruler.  While the old king is dead, there has not been enough time to heal all wounds that he has caused, and the new king, Nash, faces threats from outside kingdoms and internal forces.  Cashore also introduces "monsters," which are basically mutations of existing species that display incredible colors, produce a pheromone (I don't think it was quite explained that way but that's how it makes sense to me) that make them attractive to other creatures and even have the ability to exert a certain amount of mind control on non-monsters.  Some of these animals are incredibly vicious and threatening while others are kept as pets and luxury items.  Fire is the last known human monster, her deceased father being the corrupting influence that caused the previous king to lead his people into a precarious position.  Given her father's actions, Fire is incredibly afraid to use her powers, even when they could be of use, and refuses to use her mind to influence others unless absolutely necessary, such as under threat of death.
Unfortunately, Fire is the weak part of the novel.  I actually understand Cashore's decision to have a different type of heroine than Katsa, and portray someone whose power is less physical, and more due to her caring and emotions, but I think she went to the extreme with Fire.  Additionally, talking about Fire's beauty and the attraction men feel for her, sometimes attempting to act on it forcefully, could all lead to discussions about rape culture and issues regular women face every day in a much less obvious or intense manner.  However, I feel like the novel went too far in this focus, and Fire's seeming passivity got annoying.  I also got tired of hearing about her beauty, and how men and monsters were constantly in pursuit of her, especially the parts about how it was worse when she was on her period.  Once again, I think there are parallels to be drawn to modern day, such as Fire feeling like she has to cover herself up to avoid unwanted attentions rather than expecting men (and animals) to control themselves).  I would also say this novel was slightly more focused on the love story aspect, and while I could see the appeal of Brigan, Fire's love interest, but their attraction wasn't as convincingly developed as in the case of Katsa and Po.
Still, the story is good, and while Fire is often annoying, even she has her moments.  It just seems to take her forever to realize certain things about herself, and the thing that haunts her was obvious from two or three chapters in.  I also enjoy that Cashore tries to show different attitudes about sex in her novels, showing that it doesn't have to only be inside marriage, that things can be complicated, even giving Fire a sexual past and history before meeting Brigan.  I did get annoyed with everyone's obsession with Fire (which is part of the plot due to her being a monster), and the focus on sex in that perspective but I can also see where it could be used as a conversation starter and parallel to current attitudes about women and sex.  Overall, I would say this is closer to 2.5 for me than 3, but I rounded up because of the strength of the plotting and because Graceling was so good.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Book 63: A Journal for Jordan

I first heard about this book a few years ago, and bought it soon after that.  However, I never could quite get in the mood to read it, and that may be a combination of not wanting to read a tear jerker and not wanting to read a civilian's take on the military.  I finally read it last month, motivated by my goal to read more novels from my TBR pile and the fact that "name" was one of May's keywords.
The book chronicles the relationship between Dana Canedy, a journalist and modern woman, and Charles King, a professional Soldier.  Canedy was a military brat so she knew more about the military lifestyle than the average civilian but it was exactly this knowledge that made her incredibly hesitant to pursue a serious long term relationship with King.  Eventually, she realizes that despite the distance and the struggles, she wants to spend her life with King, and the two start trying to have a baby.
Jordan is that baby, and this book is Dana's way of coping with her grief following King's death in combat and leaving a record for her son.  Prior to leaving for deployment in Iraq, King wrote a journal for his unborn son, and Canedy peppers her story with quotes from the journal as well as context for the circumstances in which it was written.  King did have the opportunity to meet his son and spend two weeks with his family during his R&R, but was killed in the last six weeks of his rotation.
I liked the book for the most part, though it began to feel a bit drawn out in the last half.  If these had been fictional characters, I would have been a bit annoyed with many of the religious references but being in the military, I definitely know people with a similar faith to King (they don't tend to be people I hang out with much outside of work, though) - in other words, it was realistic and true to life.  I enjoyed how frank and honest Canedy was, though I also wondered at her or King's decision-making process.  At various points, Canedy describes issues that arose due to the fact that King and she weren't married.  And I certainly understand her reasoning for postponing the wedding ceremony, but King, the actual Soldier, should have known better - they were having (and later had) a child together and planned to marry each other.  King wrote his son a journal because he was afraid he might not come back - in that case, get married.  I'm not saying they should have planned an elaborate wedding, but all the Army needs to recognize a marriage is a certificate - if King really was worried about dying, they should have gone to the justice of the peace one afternoon and gotten the paperwork.  Without the paperwork, the Army doesn't care if you've been together twenty years and have ten kids together - you have no rights.  Your kids have rights, but you don't.  While Canedy understands this, it is also obvious that she still feels slighted and frustrated because of her treatment due to her lack of legal standing.  Generally, I think people get married too soon, but in this particular case, it would have been so helpful to have done the legal part.  I know plenty of couples in the Army that get married (in many cases to get ahead start on some paperwork) and then let their families believe that the later, large ceremony is their actual wedding date.
I'm mostly writing all that down not to judge Canedy and King but to make sure that people are aware of this, in case they end up dating a military person, or if they read this book and get mad at her treatment - it's unfortunate but it's the system.  Other than that, it was a good book, and since she did have the military upbringing, she definitely had more understanding than perhaps someone else would have in a similar situation, which meant I wasn't getting annoyed with weird mistakes about the military throughout the book.