Friday, April 29, 2011

The Bird Sisters: Impressions

Photo by zeteticat, via instagram

One week ago last night, I was sitting with the coconspirator at our favorite STL indie bookstore, Left Bank Books, listening to the lovely and adorable Rebecca Rasmussen read an excerpt from her equally sweet (although with several pinches of bitter) debut novel, The Bird Sisters. I had just completed the novel the night before and was still digesting the story, much as one might sit on a front porch letting a steamy late afternoon fade into the twilight.

It is, as you may have surmised from the title, a story of two sisters. As you read, you can almost hear the tale narrated in your head in the crackling voice of a wise, elderly woman. The novel weaves in and out of the present, in which the sisters are in their late 70s, and the past, a tumultuous summer when they were 14 and 16. The jacket describes the sisters as spinsters, but I don't believe they're ever described with that particularly negative word in the novel. It's true they have grown old together and never married, and we slowly gain a glimpse into why through the course of the story.

Rasmussen writes with tender clarity and soft humor, painting moving vignettes as the past fades in and out of focus.
What they didn't understand then was that love, or even the play at love, wasn't the same thing as forgiveness, which was what neither of their parents could offer. 
The selfishness in their parents, particularly their father, and their parents' inability to let go of the past has devastating repercussions for the entire family. Milly and Twiss are both lovable and flawed in very different ways, and they both make surprising sacrifices that seem ridiculous to make, and yet, at the same time, any other choice would have been impossible. Their selflessness, in a sense, alleviates the next generation from suffering the consequences of their parents' decisions.

Although the sisters live their lives never marrying, which, for women of their time was considered akin to never living at all, they never "end up alone." They always have each other, and lead full, though very quiet, lives. This is, ultimately, a story about the bonds of familial kinship, which can be stronger and more supportive than the romantic love of fairy tales.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Drowning in the (anti-)Hype

Photo by quine_63
Yesterday I stumbled upon this little sarcastic gem, and I was reminded of a question posed on someone's blog some weeks back that I never got around to discussing:

How does hype or status affect your (my) reading choices?

Honest answer: I really try not to let it influence me too negatively, but it's very difficult to fight the contrarian in me when someone, or even worse, multiple people, or even worse, multiple articles or blogs tell me I just have to read this or that. How do you separate the hype from your interest in the stories from your respect of the source of the recommendation?

You can't, not fully. For example, there's a certain hipstery poser subset that very much wants to give the appearance of being the sort that can read and appreciate Infinite Jest. Occasionally overlapping this group are those that actually have read and really did enjoy and appreciate IJ. The coconspirator falls in the latter category, and swears this is the best book he's ever read and thinks no one should be deprived of such an experience. Now that's some pressure to enjoy the book, no? Why would I want to read such a complicated work only to say, eh? It's that fear that that's a remote possibility that almost keeps me from finally picking it up and reading it.

I will get over myself, eventually, and read it, especially since I have a copy on my kindle and it's not nearly so cumbersome or obnoxious to carry it around, but may have to pare down my book goals for the year if I'm to do it this year. Or read a whole lot of YA books as some front-end number-padding.

What I have come to realize, though, is that choosing not to read a book based on all the hype is just as bad, if not possibly worse, than choosing to read your books based solely on hype. The author of the funny tumblr may be depriving himself of a certain good reading experience simply to keep up appearances (or anti-appearances, in this case, which essentially amounts to the same thing). Yes, disappointment is certainly a possibility, but that's the case with almost anything new.

Both the Hunger Games and Room received quite a bit of hype, and I'm really glad I did not let that prevent me from reading those novels. They were books that pushed me to experience, through carefully crafted storytelling, things I wouldn't otherwise have experienced. These are the books from which you come away with a slightly different lens through which to view your world, and I'd never want to give up the possibility of ever-so-slight view-changing lenses.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

new books...

Tonight I broke down again and bought 3 books: The Bird Sisters, by Rebecca Rasmussen, which came out today and for which I've been anxiously awaiting, Christopher Buckley's Supreme Courtship and Agatha Christie's Death on the Nile, the latter two of which were in the super bargain area of Barnes & Noble, where I had a gift card.

Little did I know that Madre by Liza Bakewell would be waiting on my doorstep, just arrived from Erin Reads! I am very excited to read that as well. Big thanks to Erin, who kindly sent me her extra copy after I was fortunate enough to win her giveaway.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Room, by Emma Donoghue: Impressions

Photo by me + instagram

When I bought Room on a whim at a local bookstore Friday night, I only thought I'd read it soon, in the near future, maybe in the next couple of months. I was skeptical of the hype, and yet I'd avoided reading almost anything about it either for fear of spoiling it or out of distaste for the plot's basis.  When I picked it up on Saturday and read the first 30 pages, I thought this book would take me a while. The subject matter was gruesome, the point of view unfamiliar and hard to see through, and the seemingly monotonous details of life in captivity strange and tedious at best. And yet, Sunday I could not put it down, and today I could not wait to finish it.

Once I grew accustomed to 5-year-old Jack's peculiar voice, the story drew me right in. Donoghue managed to turn the can't stop staring at the tragic train wreck story into a poignant, intelligent and gripping tale, wrought with all the likely reactions such characters would have. For those who have not read the book nor heard much about it (is that possible?), Room tells the story of Ma and Jack held captive in an 11'x11' room for years, including the whole of Jack's existence. Jack's entire reality consists of only what he encounters in that room-he doesn't even know to wonder about the outside world-something his mother has done to protect him from wanting what he can't have. The only other human he knows about is Old Nick, who turns up for semi-regular nightly visits, during which time Jack stays mostly hidden in the wardrobe.

The novel took me on something of an emotional roller-coaster, which I normally don't appreciate, but here I never felt manipulated. Events were somewhat softened since they were told through the curious and innocent eyes of a child not meant to understand the horror of his situation. I am not sure I'm ready to spoil the story for anyone that hasn't read it, but I'd definitely recommend it to almost anyone, aside from those for whom the subject matter might hold triggering topics.  You'll find yourself exasperated with the characters as if you actually know them. You'll find humor in strangely uncomfortable places. Mostly, you'll find a smartly imagined story told by an astute observer and skilled word-weaver.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Catching Fire and Mockingjay: Impressions

Well, wow. It's been quite some time since I've raced through books at this pace, reading all three in less than a week, and not a vacation week! Catching Fire was very interesting, continuing on the same sort of plotlines as the first novel, yet at an accelerated and possibly more suspenseful pace. The final book, Mockingjay, really took the story the only place it could conceivably go, and while I predicted the climax, that somehow didn't make it any less intense. Yes, this series is almost entirely plot driven, with characters sketched out in the starkest of terms, but it's a stark story about a stark existence, so it works.

And now, if you have not read these books and there's even the slightest chance that you might pick them up in the next couple years (and I recommend you do), stop now, because I don't think I can discuss them in any depth without spoiling them for those that haven't read them. So, here's your warning.

Ok. So you've read these? Excellent. Here's my take:

Catching Fire is a lot like the Hunger Games since it involves the Quarter Quell a more intense set of Games held every 25th year, and Peeta and Katniss have to participate again, conveniently. When the plot took this expected turn, I was a little concerned, as I didn't really want to read another account of surviving the horrid games, but luckily, these were different, with a strange alliance forming among the tributes.

That everyone had to be manipulated by other forces, either the Capitol or the Rebellion, was a little much. In some ways, it made sense that Haymitch and others trusted these two teenagers with so little of the greater plan. On the other hand, with them risking their life as they were, and since they were supposed to be fairly clever, it seems a little too much that they absolutely had to be controlled and let in on very little of the master plan. While it may have made for some suspenseful reading, I think it could have been just as suspenseful had the main characters known their ultimate purpose.

By Mockingjay, I was definitely tired of the love triangle. Luckily, there wasn't too much harping on it, since Peeta was absent through most of the first half, and just plan mad through most of the latter. Gale's militaristic tendencies came out with perhaps too much force, but much of that was set in the earlier two books with his comments against the Capital and talk of organizing an uprising in the mines.

I am really not sure why it seems many people hated this book; I can't say where else the plot could have gone without ending in the bleakest of ways. I definitely appreciated that President Coin was painted as just another version of Snow, with her own agenda for seeking power by any means possible, using her own rebel people as disposable pawns to be manipulated into doing her will. As soon as this image of her began to emerge, the reader can easily predict the climax, although not necessarily the denouement and conclusion.

I originally did not appreciate what happened to Prim, thinking it a poor plot device both to play on the reader's sympathies and move the plot in a different direction, but I felt the explanation - Coin's willingness to do whatever it took to keep Katniss in line and to retain power for herself - ultimately made sense in the context of the story.

I did thoroughly enjoy this book - this trilogy, really, and it's views on power and human resilience. Yes the characters were a little unreliable and unpredictable, but in situations of great stress and dire circumstances, how could they behave consistently and predictably? I do wish there was at least a little character growth, beyond Katniss succumbing to Peeta's affection and eventually creating a family. She seemed mostly a pawn, after all that. She was mostly exploited and carefully maneuvered into everyone of her honorable choices, so that they weren't necessarily her choices at all. I'm not sure what this says about a strong female character.

Further, gender issues were pretty much a non-issue in this dark dystopian future. Women were often in command in military operations, and men never seemed to have a problem with women in positions of authority. It was never discussed as being odd or out of place. They were not beyond corruption, as in President Coin's case. But then... the characteristics that seemed most valued - aggression, perseverance, physical strength and fortitude, military strategizing, fighting, surviving against great physical odds, hunting, etc - are all characteristics that are considered to be stereotypically masculine. Only one revered ability - healing - is generally thought to be a stereotypically female quality.

Small criticisms really. I can't seem to get away without pointing out flaws. But writing is an extension of our humanity, and we are far from perfect - so there must always be flaws to find.

Overall, though, a fantastic trilogy that might make you think a little about the plight of human greed and power dynamics, if you let it. If you don't, it's still very entertaining.
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