Monday, March 28, 2011

The Hunger Games: Impressions

It's been a long, long while since I've read a book in a day; in fact, so long I can't tell you the last year this happened let alone the day. However, I tore right through The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The story was that engaging and compelling - and my Sunday that open for spending curled up with a book on the sofa.

While reading the novel, I loved every minute of it. Katniss, the 16-year-old, reluctantly rebellious and strong young tomboy made a lovely heroine, and the dystopian world in which she lived proved an intriguing backdrop, in a 1984 meets Blindness meets Ender's Game kind of way. The setting is this: in some terrible future after a nuclear war has impliedly occurred, there are 12 Districts, the 13th having been destroyed in a rebellion against the Capitol, which seems to be located somewhere like Las Vegas or Salt Lake City. Every year, the Capitol hosts the Hunger Games, in which each of the 12 remaining districts must draw the name of one boy and one girl ages 12-18 to participate as "Tributes." The Tributes, after some crazy high tech fanfare, are then dropped in some vast outdoor 'arena' where they must survive whatever the Gamemakers through at them, and fight to the death until only one is left, deemed the victor.

So, yes, a bit bleak and bloody for my tastes, which is why it took me so long to finally pick this book up, especially with all the hype (why does hype always tend to be a dissuasive factor in my choices?). But this is one of those books that draws you right in, nearly hypnotizing you to the last pages.

Now, it is a young adult novel, so the themes are not terribly subtle. Moreover, Katniss is a little more clueless about certain things than I think she should be, but perhaps that's true of most teenagers. I found some of what occurred in the Games rather convenient to allow the plot to avoid dealing with larger, baser human issues, and that the strong female lead behaved more like a traditional boy than girl, but I did like that she was small but strong, good with a bow and arrow, clever and occasionally compassionate.

Minor, minor issues. I highly recommend this book, no matter what your age (well, as long as you're over 12 I suppose) and would probably rate it a 4.5/5, if only Goodreads would allow more range in it's ratings. Off to read Catching Fire. (Yeah. It's addictive. Be prepared.)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The Age of Innocence

Edith Warton's The Age of Innocence gives us a glimpse of what life was like for the New York elite in the 1870s. Social conventions are valued more highly than anything, than happiness or even money. Newland Archer despised this aspect of his well-privileged life, and spends the novel inwardly wanting to rebel against it and yet outwardly conforming to the social order.  He is betrothed to May Welland, a lovely and sweet young girl who seems never to question the role she is expected to play as a daughter and later a wife. When her cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska, arrives in town, disgraced because she left her philandering husband, and women aren't to do such things, Newland finds himself drawn to her and her unconventional ways.

In my early years, I thought love affairs outside of marriage the worst of evils to inflict upon another; in my late teens and early twenties, I found forbidden love tragically romantic. Now I simply find it irresponsible and immature, and definitely one of the most hurtful of betrayals one can inflict upon his or her significant other. Of course, all relationships and circumstances are different, but in this case, May is portrayed as beyond reproach, even if completely unoriginal in thought, attitude, and action.  Perhaps Newland and Ellen were better suited temperamentally, if only she hadn't been married before, and he weren't betrothed to her cousin.

The novel ended perfectly, though, in my opinion. I most enjoyed Wharton's observations about New York society, many of which still ring true today, although some of the conventions, such as a businessman having to be honest above all else, seem to have fallen away long ago. Newland also seemed to believe that "women should be as free as men," and that the strict rules of society mostly resembled those of a prison. However, his "attempts" to break free were both few and inadequate. Ultimately, his life's course was subtly and profoundly directed by the women in his life, who seemed to manage to make all the decisions about the flow of society in the background without the men ever becoming completely conscious of it.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Update: Slow

So: I'm feeling a little slow. Mostly because it's March 16 and I've only finished 7 books this year, which seems sad.  I mean, yes, I do have a full time job, and a volunteer job, but I don't have kids or a jam-packed social life or physical ailments to exhaust me, so really, what's my excuse?

The first volume of From Eve to Dawn: A History of Women in the World is not nearly as riveting as I had hoped, and it might be holding me up. Age of Innocence is actually quite good, but I feel guilty for reading it instead of my non-fiction. My attention is occasionally scattered wondering how I'm going to read everything I'd like to read, a random selection pictured here, in poor quality iphone photography because it really does take too much effort to use my actual nice camera to take the pic, and then plug the card into the card reader, and then download the pictures and then upload to here... that's several steps too many.

So, I'm reading a bit slower than I'd like, but that's okay. I'll catch up, or I won't. After all, the number of books read in a year is just that: a number.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Cookbook Collector

The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman is not at all about what the title might suggest. It is not about cooking; it is about studying cooking by reading instead of actually cooking. But it's not really about that either - it's about yearning for meaning in life, for something tangible, but finding oneself unable to get up and do anything about it. It's about getting stuck in our own inner mayhems, unable to act, to break free, to move forward. It's about being on the outside, looking in.

Longings - of love, of wealth, of answers, of meaning - plague the characters in the book, only most of the time they don't even realize that's the case. It is the tale of two sisters completely different in temperament and aspiration, five years apart in age but eons apart in personality, during the rise and fall of the early dotcoms pre- and post- 9/11. Only, we merge in and out of peripheral characters lives and viewpoints, to the point that the picture we have of the sisters, Jessamine and Emily, is mostly that of the men that love them, and so we are also left feeling we are on the outside, looking in, only seeing the surface of people and situations.

Goodman's language is liltingly poignant, insightful and highly quotable, with sentences like
How sad, he thought, that desire found new objects but did not abate, that when it came to longing there was no end. 
He could read her face, even as she became a stranger to him.
The book also openly discusses wealth, young wealth, and monetary, financial motivations pitted against spiritual, socially progressive motivations. However, it only discusses wealth from the point of view of the very privileged and very wealthy. The closest we get to financial problems is at the beginning of the novel, when Jess, a grad student of philosophy, doesn't happen to have $1800 lying around to buy her sister's stock. This is seen by her older, incredibly intelligent, highly successful and fantastically fortunate older sister as a failing on her part to grow up. Either my experience is drastically different from everyone else's, or it's a pretty normal thing for a 23-year-old graduate student to not have a substantial cash reserve in the bank. It's also pretty normal to have not 'grown up' by age 23. And so, while the actual acknowledgment of money as existing was nice, it also managed to fall flat.

Emily's naivete, at age 30 by the end of the novel, proved somewhat unbelievable, especially given that she is the CEO of her own company, graduated MIT, and is a multi-millionaire:
[S]he imagined that people were rational and courteous, as she was, and when they proved otherwise, she assumed that she could influence them to become that way. Dangerous thinking. When she was truthful, she expected to hear the truth. Reasonable, she expected reasonable behavior in return. She was young, inventive, fantastically successful. She trusted in the world, believed in poetic justice--that good ideas blossomed and bore fruit, while dangerous schemes were meant to wither on the vine.
Don't get me wrong - it's not as if I can't relate to having had this endearing point of view. I did... in my late teens and very early 20s, when I moved to New York (apart from the 'fantastically successful' bit, if you define success as running your own company and making millions in your twenties - I never did that - alas). However, reality normally reveals itself in some form or another, through heartbreak, through betrayal by family or friends or lovers, even through things occasionally just not working out according to expectation, by the time you're 28, or 30. We all interact with humans, right? For Emily, reality never manages to even scratch her world's surface, apparently, until later. She also has Jonathan, an Abercrombie, viciously ambitious and very unlikable boyfriend on the other side of the country, dealing with a similar dot com venture, and the relationship never quite makes sense, unless somehow the distance manages to mask true personalities.

My main point of bother with the modern plot (loosely based on Sense and Sensibility) was that as CEO of her own company in Silicon Valley, and with Jonathan starting and running his company over in Boston, when they talk of the future, the only option to make the relationship work is for her to quit her job and move across the country to be with him. That the converse might occur is not an option. It is not discussed. It is not even mentioned as a matter of contention. Even when she puts off moving, making excuses and dragging her expensively clad feet, even then, even in her own private musings, it is not once mentioned as a point of resentment. For such a successful, entrepreneurial, intelligent and "inventive" young woman, even as naive as she is colored, that the issue never comes up is a bit negligent in the plot development. At least include a fight about it, a logical, rational reason that it should be Emily that moves and not vice versa. But we, as readers, are not given that.

Despite my now seemingly heavy criticism, and despite the flaws I perceived, I actually enjoyed the novel, and was compelled to keep reading. The writing, the language, is superb. Lyrical. It captures much of the discontent and discomfort of that time, as well as the strange realization as youth merges with adulthood that life will never, ever be quite what we'd expected. The discussion of greed and wavering stock markets is all the more relevant after the crash of 2008. The dialogue is scripted, of course, but cleverly, meaningfully so. Because it's been too long since I've read S&S, I can't speak to the legitimacy of the comparison. Also, the New York Times seemed to enjoy the book more than I, so for a less cynical view, check out their review, although Beth over at Bookworm meets Bookworm seems to agree with many of my issues, as I do with points she brought up and I didn't mention.

The themes are interesting, if not entirely fleshed out, due to the overabundance of character viewpoints in the first half of the book. The ending is satisfying on many levels. That the men somehow manage to take the focus away from the women, in a book about women, is a little strange - but in this world, the plot device might be a clever take on our current culture, and how little it differs from the societal limitations of Jane Austen's time - how far we've come and how far we haven't.
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