Friday, April 27, 2012

Fiction | Giving The Hunger Games a Chance

Long, long ago, in my early blogging days of 2009 (when I must’ve had more free time because, wow, 24 posts in one month???), I swore I would never read Catching Fire because, at the time, I was so sick of seeing it everywhere. I remember how The Hunger Games was all the rage with the bookish community at my first BEA, but you know, it just wasn’t for me. I don’t generally like dystopian fiction and the premise just seemed “meh,” so I never bothered to read it.

But then The Hunger Games moved beyond the book blog community and now everybody loves it. And anytime anything gets that popular, I have to see what’s up, on principle. I can’t zealously praise it or trash it based on mass opinion, can I? I need to find out for myself. So I decided that now, in 2012, was the time for me to finally read The Hunger Games, and thanks to a friend who owns it, I didn’t have to wait in a massively long library queue.

Once I had decided a couple months ago to read it, I purposely avoided all things Hunger Games in the media and on the web. If I was going to read it for the first time, I didn’t want any spoilers. I was a little bummed I already knew the movie cast and would therefore probably picture them as reading, but that was a sacrifice I was willing to make. (And now I kind of want to see the movie to see how they put this on film.)

Overall, while I was entertained and engrossed in The Hunger Games, it’s still not really my thing. I liked the characters, and the plot was gripping, but I have to say I am still somewhat disturbed by such a twisted premise! I am known (and often ridiculed) for my often simplistic tastes in entertainment. I don’t like violence; I don’t like situations that show a twisted, dark side of humanity. (The Dark Knight actually gave me nightmares from the whole dual boat bomb scenario.) I like laughter and joy and love, and the darker side of literature and entertainment I enjoy is usually emotional kind, not the violence and death kind! However, I can see why The Hunger Games has such mass appeal without much criticism on the premise. It’s got the kind of literary details—mostly the character development—that gets you engrossed in their plight and forget about the reality of what’s going on around them. You focus on the story of Katniss and Peeta and almost glance over what their situation really means.

I generally have a hard time glancing over situations like that, which is why dystopian literature isn’t really for me, but my opinions can’t discredit a book or an entire literary genre. I did enjoy The Hunger Games and am glad I read it so I know what it’s all about. But it’s just not totally for me, and I’m probably not going to read the rest of the series unless someone just hands me the books!

On a related note, enjoy this humorous video on when “it’s not for you.”

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Review: The Thirteen by Susie Moloney

In Haven Woods the death of a local woman nearly brings an end to a tight knit group of friends who on the surface seemed perfect and unshakeable. When Paula Wittmore loses her job she returns she to her home in Haven Woods to care for her suddenly ailing mother. Everyone in the town greets her with warm embraces. But the promises of joy and eternal happiness don’t come without a price.

The suburbs are hell in Susie Moloney’s eyes. In order to maintain the pristine lawns, immaculate hedgerows, and quiet streets an entire community makes a pact with the devil. Not the most outlandish claim, especially to anyone who’s grown up in suburbia. The façade falls away and we are left to see the festering and poisonous set pieces that make up the (North) American Dream.

Moloney’s writing speeds along. From the prologue we are thrust into a world of death, decay, and intrigue. Characters reveal themselves in interesting and transparent ways. Standing over a friend while she appears to have a have a heart attack doesn’t scream compassion. Then again, in Haven Woods, who would dare to have a heart attack? Death is avoidable for the women of Haven Woods, but that isn’t always the case for their loved ones. When deals are too good to be true, someone must pay.

Moloney’s frequent asides stuck out in interesting and humorous ways. The author often put brief ideas and impulses on separate lines—drawing attention to these moments with a dash of wit. Her characters’ voices are young and vibrant. Occasionally an aside takes us into the mind of a character reminding us through repeated expletives that those in Haven Woods are people trying to make sense of everything.

The supernatural elements of the book don’t overshadow Paula Wittmore’s journey home. A suburban underworld is the perfect place to test someone’s mettle. I only wish the character’s limits were tested more. Paula questions everything, but is never pushed to the brink of being seduced by evil’s allure.

Oh, and try to avoid the American cover. The Canadian version (above) is much more ominous. Sometimes I just don’t understand marketing teams…
Reading copy graciously provided by publisher.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Joint Reading: Lions of the West, Chapter 5

The fifth chapter in Robert Morgan's Lions of the West was my favorite from this past week. I've always associated Sam Houston 100% with Texas, and I enjoyed leaning more about him outside of that.

Catch up on the first four chapters of our joint reading:

Chapter 1: Thomas Jefferson
Chapter 2: Andrew Jackson
Chapter 3: John Chapman
Chapter 4: David Crockett

Chapter 5, Sam Houston: The President Who Loved to Dance

Kari: This chapter was by far the most interesting to me! Naturally, I knew of Houston’s associations with Texas, and that is what he’s always been linked with in my mind. I never knew that he had such a history in Tennessee, though…and that’s my state! (In fact, three out of these five chapters have strong ties to Tennessee. Guess we were just instrumental in western expansion!) Throughout this chapter and the Jackson and Crockett chapters, there are many individuals whose names I recognize because they are used in Tennessee geography—Jackson, Old Hickory, Grundy, Polk. But I don’t know of anything using the Houston name in Tennessee, which is why Houston’s associations with this state and the city of Nashville really surprised me. I thought after reading the chapter that it probably has something to do with his somewhat shameful exit from Tennessee politics. Perhaps the state decided its former Governor was not worthy of a Tennessee legacy? It is surprising, and unfortunate, though, that such history has not been as widely shared. 

Aarti: So much about history in that way makes me sad. We like to present history as series of unblemished heroes instead of presenting the more accurate, tarnished accounts, and that makes it seem like no one ever made a bad decision or wavered over an issue before in the world, which I think is a really dumb way of teaching history. I agree that this was a FASCINATING chapter. I really knew NOTHING about Houston going in. I am astonished at everything about him, including his very Indian upbringing, his crazy marriage (all of his crazy marriages, really), his ridiculous habit of duelling with people, his alcoholism….

Kari: We realize that there is much more to the stories of each of the individuals we have read about so far. They all seem complex, somewhat contradictory; we’re not fully sure from these brief snippets if Morgan is depicting them in a realistic light or not. Houston, though, seems to me to be the first individual who is extremely conflicted within his own self. He’s not only conflicting with society or persons around him; he just strikes me as a guy who has a lot going on in his own head. It’s like he can never really figure out quite where he belongs. 

Aarti: Right, and Houston is also the first person (besides Crockett, to be fair) that we really see in a long-term light. Jefferson and Jackson were presented to us in a very “spotlight on this particular period” way, whereas Crockett and Houston had a more long-term perspective to their chapters that gave us much more of the nuance and complexity that we missed in the earlier chapters. Houston seemed like he was haunted by a lot of devils, particularly that of drinking too much. It was so sad to see his life slip away so quickly through addiction. Though he seemed very well able to strike right back up again! That made me feel a bit better, really- sometimes I get really upset by how quickly people forget the horrible actions of famous people, but it looks like they did the same thing in the past, too.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reading Roundup: Hook, Line, and Sinker

I mentioned that my class commute really ups my reading numbers—I’m certainly reading faster than I can write. I breezed through all three of these last month, and I can only attribute ample free time as part of the reason; each of these captured my attention so strongly that I didn’t want to put them down. They all have very different styles, but the stories were each equally as compelling.

The Go-Between by L.P Hartley was my book club’s March selection. It’s the story of a 12-year-old schoolboy, Leo, who spends summer vacation on a friend’s grand English estate and gets caught up, unknowingly, as the messenger in an illicit love affair by the friend’s beautiful older sister. The setting is very Downton-esque with strong class distinctions, but perhaps a little less grandeur, because I can’t imagine our Lady Mary swimming in a lake. The story is essentially about Leo’s coming-of-age and loss of innocence as he begins to consider the feelings of others and not just himself. The author tells this story in from a first-person retrospective, which allows more reflection and depth than if told in real-time. This reminded me a bit of Atonement but without so much melodrama. I think it was universally enjoyed in book club, but it was a fairly easy discussion.
Emily St. John Mandel’s Last Night in Montreal has been sitting on my shelf for years, and I’ve intended to read it since I enjoyed her second novel, The Singer’s Gun. Last Night in Montreal is her first book, and it’s a thriller of sorts. The story focuses on Lilia but it begins with Eli. Lilia has just run out on Eli, abandoning their Brooklyn apartment and, essentially, disappearing. Eli’s quest to find her leads to Montreal where he discovers a lot about Lilia’s past—that she’s been moving cities, changing identities her entire life. What’s interesting about this story is that we experience it through Eli’s perspective in real-time, and learn Lilia’s past through flashbacks, but we never hear from Lilia in real-time. To us, the reader, she has also just disappeared. It’s not all plot-driven though; Mandel creates a highly thematic story with complex characters. The Singer’s Gun taught me that her endings aren’t trite and predictable, so you’ll be hooked to find out how the story ends.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is probably not one that needs much introduction; it made the book blog rounds and best seller lists a couple years ago and is pretty well known. In fact, it’s been sitting on my shelf since I won it in a giveaway around that time, and I just now picked it up. I didn’t realize that this story is told entirely through letters, so that was sort of a fun surprise. The premise of this book (real quick) is an author receives a letter from a stranger in Guernsey, which introduces her (and us) to the story of Guernsey during German occupation in World War II. The story moves quickly, and the conversational tone really lends itself to being an engrossing read. The relationships and friendships formed through the letters are heart-warming, while some of the stories from the war are heart-breaking. This is the kind of book I recommend to my mom because it has some depth but can still be categorized as a light read.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Joint Reading: Lions of the West, Chapter 3

Continuing on Aarti's and my joint reading of Robert Morgan's Lions of the West: Heroes and Villains of the Westward Expansion, we've moved on to the early 1800s and the man you probably know as "Johnny Appleseed."

Catch up with chapters 1 and 2, Jefferson and Jackson, respectively.

Chapter 3, John Chapman: Apples and Angels

Kari: I thought that this chapter was quite a departure from the previous two on Jefferson and Jackson, and I thought this for a couple reasons. The first being, Chapman is a figure who was “monumental” in westward expansion…but he actually had zero power! He was not political; he was not a general; he was just a guy, yet he is remembered for his role in western settlement. (To be honest, I’ve never associated him with western expansion, but since Morgan is including him in this book, I’ll just give it to him without argument.)

Aarti: I never associated Johnny Appleseed with westward expansion, either! Though to be fair, I always thought of him as a “frontier man,” though never in the sense of Pennsylvania and Ohio being the frontier. I do really like him, though, so I am glad he got his own (very short) chapter.

Kari: The second difference is that Chapman didn’t play the same role that Jefferson and Jackson had—that role of conquering, compromising, defining. He represented a different side of the expansion, one that was more idyllic than the forceful nature of the Presidents. He stood for more than just his actions; he represented something, an ideal, that meant more than what he actually did. If anything, the most important role he played in western conflict was that of a mediator, making things better between opposing sides by acting as a message man and looking out for others. It’s like he worked to prevent conflict while he went about doing his own thing. Basically, Chapman strikes me as an 18th century wandering hippie type. He just went around, never getting too caught up in the lives of others, holding strong to his own set of ideals and lifestyle, not caring what others thought. It’s not an image you really associate with this time period!

Aarti: You really hit the nail on the head here. In a way, Chapman is the anti-Manifest Destiny guy, and it’s refreshing to read about him. I can just imagine how much he flummoxed the people he encountered – wearing rags, preaching a very obscure branch of Christianity, planting apple trees, giving girls ribbons… It’s sad because I feel like if I were to come across Johnny Appleseed today, I’d be totally freaked out by him, with the evangelizing and the torn clothes and the weird gifts to little girls. But reading about him, I am totally enthralled. And so happy that people were so kind to him, too.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Joint Reading: Lions of the West, Chapter 2

I've been talking about this western reading project of mine for a couple months now, and one thing that inspired it in the first place was finding Robert Morgan's Lions of the West while browsing the shelves at the library. I thought the format of this book is pretty cool. Morgan tells the story by focusing on ten different individuals who had an impact on western expansion. There's just something about "the West" that grabs my interest—this adventurous spirit, the lifestyle of survival, the melding of peoples and cultures. I immediately wanted to read this book, but I thought it'd be a lot more interesting (both for me and for you!) to read it alongside someone so we can discuss.

So I approached Aarti over at Booklust to see if she might be interested in joining me. In the past couple of years that I've read her blog, I've noticed an increasing interest in nonfiction, and she is always great with finding points of interest within a text. I thought she'd be a great reading partner and luckily, she hopped on board! We're going to be reading Lions of the West chapter by chapter over the next few weeks. Aarti started the discussion on Chapter 1, about Thomas Jefferson, on Tuesday, so catch up now if you haven't already!

Chapter 2, Andrew Jackson: Old Hickory at the Bend

Aarti: This chapter is where the chronology that Robert Morgan forced himself into really bothered me. It seemed like a cop-out to me that he focused on Andrew Jackson before he became President, especially considering that Jackson earned the name “Indian Killer” during his tenure and was the mind behind the Trail of Tears. I understand that Morgan focused on a major battle between Americans and Native Americans, and that he chose the one in which Jackson earned his stripes, as it were, but I thought there was too much focus on the battle and the military tactics themselves than on Jackson and his mindframe.

In a sense, I understand this. I don’t know much at all about Andrew Jackson except, really, that he was called the Indian Killer and that he forcibly removed many Native Americans from their lands and drove them further and further west. I didn’t realize that he had such a striking personality as well. Here again, we have a very ambiguous and complex man whittled down into several pages. It’s not fair of me to complain that these chapters aren’t longer, but I do complain that so much of Jackson’s chapter was given over to battle tactics instead of to a higher-level strategy and description of his overall character.

Kari: Having grown up in Nashville and taken many a school trip to Jackson’s home outside of Nashville, The Hermitage, I was particularly interested in reading this chapter because despite this, I don’t actually know all that much about him. I knew he was around for the War of 1812; I knew he fought some Indians; and I knew he had a wife named Rachel. It’s not like the state of Tennessee automatically painted a Tennessee President in a positive light; he wasn’t really painted in any light when I was learning about him in school. He was just from Tennessee, and we learned the basic facts mostly without bias. It wasn’t until I came up to the North that I heard such strong opinions about Jackson one way or the other (though mostly the opinion that he was brutal and ruthless against the Indians).

Aarti: Haha, as I grew up in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln, I think I know what you mean. We LOVE Lincoln here. Though admittedly, I think Lincoln very worthy of lots of love 😉 But also a very complex man, and I didn’t realize how complex until reading Team of Rivals a couple of years ago.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Reading Roundup: Memoirs Memoirs

I know lots of you can read multiple books at a time and have a long queue of books to write about that, and I don’t know how you do it! I have a single track mind. I told you I was really behind on posting, and it’s just stressing me out. This week, I’m finally starting a long-awaited read-along of Lions of the West with the wonderful Aarti, and I want to be focused. Therefore…it’s reading roundup time!

I can’t remember what inspired me to put Samantha Bee’s memoir I Know I Am, But What Are You? on my to-read list. I think maybe I heard her on NPR, but it actually took me forever to get my hands on a copy. Samantha Bee is most well-known as the first woman (and first Canadian) correspondant on The Daily Show. Her memoir is a collection of essays and anecdotes chronicling such things as Bee’s awkward adolescent years, her stint as a Japanese anime character, and her rise out of obscurity on Comedy Central.

This is just a funny, entertaining book to read. If you liked Tina Fey’s memoir, this is written in a similar style (though this was actually published first), and you’ll probably enjoy this one as well. Bee has got some amusing stories to tell, often awkward, sometimes a bit vulgar. It caused me to laugh out loud a few times on the subway, and you can’t ask for much more than that.

Marzi by Marzena Sowa caught my eye in the Random House booth at the ALA Midwinter conference, and the nice booth rep gave me an extra copy at the end of the show. (Thanks, person!) It’s been a while since I’ve read a graphic novel, and I do enjoy those of the memoir variety. This one tells the story of Marzi’s childhood growing up in Communist Poland in the 1980s. Political events unfold through the eyes of a child, and though Marzi sees what is happening around her and understands that it is important, she doesn’t fully grasp its meaning (and thus, the same for us, the reader). There is a great mix of the big events happening in Marzi’s world around her and in her own little day-to-day world. The interaction of the two create a very rich, full picture of Marzi’s childhood.

My only feeling of unfulfillment is wanting to know more about Marzi’s relationship with her mother. You can just feel tension between the two through the words and pictures, but it’s not explored in much depth. I don’t know why I need to know this intimate aspect of the author’s life, but it’s just hinted at so strongly that it left me curious! But beyond that, this was a good graphic pick-up.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Sneak Peek: Farm Anatomy by Julia Rothman

It’s no secret that I really want to live on a farm. I don’t want it to really be a working one, because frankly, I’m too lazy for that—utmost respect for all working farmers. I just want to be surrounded by nature and know all the little details about plant and animal life that my mom seems to know. (How does she know these things?? She can ID any flower in about 3.2 seconds.) And I want at least two pigs, two goats, two sheep, two horses, and two chickens (so they can each have a friend, obviously). And lots of cats and a farm dog. And some owls.

I saw this book on display in the Workman booth at PLA, and it was just so awesome that I came home and special ordered it from my local bookstore, WORD. It’s like a guidebook to rural living, and soon I’ll be able to tell you how to make maple syrup and what kind of apple it is you’re eating. The only thing it lacks, to me, is a quick guide to common flower and tree species, but I guess that’s not specific enough to a farm. Oh well!

I’m sharing some photos I took of the illustrations, because I think they’re wonderful. I hope you do too.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Westward Ho!: The Life of a Town + Giveaway

Jonathan Evison created an epic in West of Here—a century-sweeping history of a fictional town called Port Bonita in Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. I grabbed this at BEA a couple years ago and have been waiting for the perfect opportunity to pick it up since, and my current reading project afforded me that chance.

This 500-page chunkster flips back and forth between the early days of Port Bonita in the 1880s and the present early 2000s. Not only is West of Here expansive in terms of time; there are also lots of characters to follow, from early explorers and a hard-headed 19th-century prostitute to a Sasquatch hunter and 21st-century Indian. For the most part, the characters each have their own storyline, but they do often overlap and interact. As the reader, you’re constantly thrown back and forth between times, which may sound a bit overwhelming, but it’s not; it’s a smooth read.

I have to say, I didn’t give this book much thought as I was reading it. For a chunkster, I got through it fairly quickly, and it was an enjoyable read. I love this kind of epic story that pulls us into the past and present and introduces us to a number of unique characters and their lives. However, there’s not much of an over-arching plot; it’s more a series of stories and experiences. And the whole time, I found the characters just meh. Not that they weren’t well written or strong; I just didn’t particularly like any of them. But then again, I didn’t particularly dislike any of them either, so what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t have a strong emotional tie to any of them.

It wasn’t until now, as I’m writing this, a month after finishing it, that I’m starting to really think of the themes of this book. The obvious ones are man as relating to his environment—nature, progress, development. Nature plays such a huge, conflicting role in all of these stories. Should it be conquered for progress’ sake? Preserved for progress’ sake? No matter which viewpoint, the characters possess that rugged, frontier relationship with nature in which it is there and they are a part of it and must react accordingly.

Because this book is a fairly easy one to read, I think it’s also easy to miss the point of it all, easy to close it once you’ve finished and think no more about it, because its themes need no deep analysis. And I think that’s selling it short. I probably won’t be clamoring to read this again, but its perspective on man’s attitude in the face of nature is worth hearing.

I have an extra copy of this book to giveaway. If you’re interested, leave a comment below and I’ll shoot you an email. (Of course, I fully expect you to discuss it with me after reading!)

Monday, April 2, 2012

April 2: Next On the List

I am way behind on my posting. Way behind. It’s actually starting to stress me out a little, because I don’t think I’ve ever been this slow at it before! I’ve got a back log of at least five books to write about (I know, I know…to some of you, that is normal), but my reading is not slowing down. I have class to thank for this. As I’ve mentioned before, that gives me so much reading time on the back and forth commute.

Anyway, that’s all boring and probably of zero interest to anyone, but hopefully I’ll have some time to catch up this month with both Spring Break (which only means no class for a week; doesn’t mean as much when you still have to work full time) and a week-long trip to Nashville (which will hopefully mean a week spent relaxing in the sun by my parents’ pool).

W    H    A    T        I    ‘    M        R    E    A    D    I    N    G
I’m unable to attend book club this month because of class, so I officially have nothing on my reading schedule. This is giving me the perfect opportunity to read some things that have been sitting on my shelf for-ev-er. I just read Emily St. John Mandel’s Last Night in Montreal, which I won from a book blog at least a couple years ago, and I’m currently in the middle of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society, which I also won somewhere years ago. My goal may just be to go through a single shelf and read everything that’s been sitting there for at least a year.
I’ve still got several things on my list for my Westward Ho! reading project. I have at least one review for that pending, but I want to read at least one title from my original list this month. I also am planning on bringing back my JUV FIC Corner, because I’ve been reading tons of books for my Children’s Lit class. I did not read all of them as a kid, which was the original theme of the project, but still reading from an adult perspective is thought-provoking.
A short but sweet summary; here’s to the end of March (thank God; it’s the worst month) and looking to warmer days ahead.