July 31, 2007

Book 47: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Mark Haddon

And now for something completely different. This novel is quite interesting and is incredibly original. First of all, from the blurb on the back I was expecting a sympathetic third-person narrative about a poor autistic man who gets caught up in something way beyond his grasp. This is an entirely false description of the book and does a terrible disservice to Haddon and to his many talents as a writer. Christopher's story is told in spot-on first person narration that does as much to characterize him as any airy, lengthy passage of prose. The book is straightforward, but it is also immensely complex. The whole work does as much in static characterization as it does in moving the plot forward, but far from being a detraction, this fact is what makes this book so special.

Haddon takes on an immense challenge in trying to represent the viewpoint of an autistic teenager, but succeeds in spades. The voice of Christopher feels honest and is never condescending. He is undaunted by the comments of people around him, by the sarcasm he cannot penetrate, but in Christopher's confusion Haddon shows us our own bouts of silliness. Yes, idioms give our language a richness and bouyant air of lightness that I (for one) would not want to do without, but they are inherently rather odd when you think about them. Plenty of non-autistic people have enough trouble understanding sarcasm, too. What is most remarkable about Christopher, then, is that he is completely and totally normal. He does not think of himself as handicapped (or even as "special needs"), but actually sees his way of doing things as superior to others' methods. His supreme love of the logical makes the world make sense not only to him, but to us as well. Christopher is able to see through the tangled webs we weave and get at fundamental truths that teach us more about ourselves at times than about him.

Haddon does not condescend to his readers for one second as he deftly pulls them into Christopher's mind. His portrayal of autism is not only sympathetic but is quite easily related to. The reader never knows more than Christopher and can follow his train of thought through numerous digressions back to the main plot. Here is one book, then, where the digressions of the author absolutely enhance the text. That they are mostly unrelated to the plot, and that the plot moves alternately like molasses and a rocket, only makes the book much more interesting and real than it would be otherwise. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is as much about its protagonist as it is about its plot, and that is absolutely okay. This is not to say that the plot is contrived or boring; it has some of the classic characteristics of a mystery novel, including ambiguous clues and a story far beyond the crime at hand, and surprises the reader as much as the narrator.

This story transcends its plot and becomes a novel of triumph rather than a simple murder mystery. Remarkably, it achieves this without resorting to high pretenses or lecturing its readers. Haddon guides his readers carefully through uncharted territory and reveals a mind not so different from that which we consider "normal". Indeed, by the end of the book it is hard to consider ourselves normal, as what Christopher takes for granted has become the new metric of normalcy. Everyone should read this book, if only to become a little bit more open-minded about the world around us and the people we see fit to exclude. I learned as much about myself from this novel as I did about autism, and I like it. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a wonderful way to temporarily try on another's shoes.

Grade: A

July 29, 2007

Book 46: Backlash

Susan Faludi

Here is the first non-fiction book I have read in quite a while. I have strayed a bit from the genre as it is usually dull and self-important. I initially held this opinion of Backlash as well, but I warmed up a bit to its mechanical prose after the first mind-bogglingly terrible chapter and managed to digest its arguments and positions with only mild skepticism. Faludi's main contention in the book is that the 1980s had been a decade of a widespread, multifaceted backlash against women and the feminism of the 1970s. Her introduction makes her thesis quite clear, and though it is a bit militant at times, it is consistent throughout the book. Unfortunately, this claim is somewhat untenable and makes for rather inciting reading at times; it seems as though Faludi is suggesting a conspiracy of men determined to scale back women's rights, and I don't believe her evidence quite supports this contention. The stories she does provide, however, are often touching and do help her make her case that strides in women's rights are followed by periods of turn-back-the-clock conservatism.

If you can pass through the first statistics-laden chapter without losing interest or consciousness, the book becomes quite interesting. Faludi effectively sprinkles in anecdotal evidence with figures that contradict those of the establishment. She is unabashadly unafraid of conflict and is willing to castigate public figures far and wide. While this somewhat militant technique works brilliantly in the vast majority of cases, it is too often employed in unsubstantiated claims that come off as whiny and unsophisticated. If Faludi would stick to specific cases and the stories of people she personally interviewed, omitting her snide remarks about President Reagan (however backlash he may have been- Faludi attacks him far too often without ever expanding on the theme) would have greatly strengthened her credibility. Her pen, however, probes deeply and delightfully when she is able to turn backlash leaders into the feminists whom they despise. Faludi doesn't even need to spin these cases to make them resonate, and her sly humor is well-employed when pointing out how various anti-feminist female icons have traded their careers in for time with their family- and how anti-feminist men often find themselves at home sharing in household chores.

Ultimately, the book's biggest flaws are its vehemence and its dullness. I have come to expect more lively and autobiographical accounts from feminist literature, even serious statistical feminist literature, but this book lacked that. Perhaps I was unfair, but the fact remains that I viewed this book as more of a burden than a pleasure to read, which of course detracts from its effectiveness. What is particularly good about the book is that it still feels relevant fifteen years after its publication. It is a book about the 1980s, and though I itched to know how some of the trends Faludi described managed to pan out in the 90s, the book doesn't feel dated any more than it is naturally by the fact that it is about a single decade. Backlash is an interesting and complex account of anti-feminist and, arguably, anti-female sentiments during the 80s and it covers its decade comprehensively. The only major topics really untouched in the book are music and lesbianism, both of which I would have liked to see out of personal bias.

The exclusion of these two domains, however, is acceptable and the only real reason they seem missing to me is probably a personal wish to see them covered. The book is incredibly comprehensive and does travel from the news media to entertainment to fashion to scholarship and even to the federal government. Faludi is nothing if not scathing, and if this makes the book burdensome at times, it at least makes the book more than the drab statistical analylsis suggested by the first chapter. Though I had my moments with this book, by the end it had made a deep imprint on me and its final chapter almost moved me to tears. Faludi has put together a book that passes at least a skeptical glance and that can inspire fire in readers despite its literary flaws and occasional over-excitement. Backlash is a useful book for understanding anti-feminist currents of the 1980s and is a good enough book for those interested in the topic.

Grade: B

July 21, 2007

Book 45: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J.K. Rowling

I'm breathless. J.K. Rowling has penned a thrilling climax to her series, even if it lolls a bit in the middle, and mixes the unexpected with the unheard-of to create a moving finale that is a tribute to her perseverance and the immense complexity of the world she has created. I was most pleasantly surprised both when things turned out to be exactly as I predicted and when they were entirely distinct. It would take a very keen reader to collect all the clues before reading this final installment, but at the same time there is sufficient cause to recall old facts, cast aside, that suddenly become relevant. All of the major questions are answered satisfactorily, and the final end comes as it should without compromising Rowling's values or the power of her writing.

As a book in and of itself, it takes a really long time to pick up. The beginning is only mildly exciting, and though there is a most touching scene with the Dursleys the book takes a long time to get where it needs to go. The middle could be greatly trimmed and not suffer too much- readers accustomed to the quick pace of clue hunting and gradual unraveling of mysteries will be frustrated. There is, however, a great reward at the end of the journey, and readers who stick it out can easily forgive. The last third or so of the book contains all of the smash-bang action we could possibly hope for, with magical surprises and non-magical daring overflowing. The book rises to a thrusting, pulsing climax which involves pieces of magic as yet unseen. Or perhaps the answers have been in front of us now along.

Grade: A

July 20, 2007

Book 44: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
J.K. Rowling

As Rowling's brilliant series draws to a close, perhaps it is to be supposed that the mysteries will become fewer, the action less suspenseful, the outcomes more predictable. Such is absolute tripe when it comes to this superb author and this superbly crafted work of fiction. Just as the reader thinks it is all coming to a close, we learn the true secrets of Lord Voldemort's longevity and of his descent into evil. Half-Blood Prince only further underlines the incredible amounts of thought and passion that goes into Harry Potter- the backstory is intricate and elaborate and the book forges a connection with things mentioned in passing in Chamber of Secrets, book two. Years after Harry sees things and assumes things, he learns the reasons behind them. Rowling is a master of suspense and plot and always keeps her readers guessing to the very end. The book again hurtles to its climax, but gives a feeling that the real story of Harry and Voldemort is just beginning.

Perhaps the most amazing feature of Half-Blood Prince is Rowling's ability to insert ambiguity into almost everything. Long have we revered Albus Dumbledore, but here we learn that he may sometimes be mistaken, in more ways than one. Magic that is paraded triumphantly at a joke shop becomes deadly when placed in the hands of evil, as can an adversary unwittingly aid his enemy. Magic is neither good nor evil in the Harry Potter series, and Rowling refreshingly refrains from black-and-white depictions of wrongdoing. Characters we want to trust turn bad and those we have grown to loathe have a few surprises of their own in store. Never has Harry been this enchanting and exciting, and it remains only to see how his marvelously spun story will conclude.

Grade: A

July 19, 2007

Book 43: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling

If the plot started to thicken at the end of Goblet of Fire, here we see a full-blown cement mixture. The book is long, yes, but on re-reading I agree with Rowling, who challenged naysayers to point out the part of the book they would extract. Everything in the book seems necessary, aside from an outburst or two of the very-adolescent Harry. Even these, however, contribute to characterization and help create a marked contrast in the next book of the series. The fourth book is the pivot between Harry's innocent years and his true quest to fully defeat Lord Voldemort, and Order of the Phoenix provides good rising action, which exponentially increases throughout the book to send it from a fever pitch through a series of calming tones to a dramatic crescendo.

Rowling only continues to prove her intricate knowledge of her fictional world as she guides the reader through the mysteries of Harry's fate. There are clues scattered throughout the book about Harry's ultimate mission and fate, and the last two hundred pages successfully set the stage for the full-blown war of the last two volumes. Though the book is less exciting reading on consecutive passes, its connection to the rest of the series rings true and makes it quite important in the greater scheme of things. While we're still in the dark about many of the secrets of the final installment of Harry's story, Order of the Phoenix provides much fodder for theories and deep philosophical quandaries regarding the futures of certain characters. We have long known that the fate of the wizarding world rests on Harry's shoulders, and in Order of the Phoenix we, along with Harry, finally know why. It's worth trooping through the book to get to its information; the Prophecy within is crucial to the years ahead.

Grade: A

July 15, 2007

Book 42: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J.K. Rowling

Well, what can I say? This book maintains the momentum set up by the first three installations of the ever-enchanting series and ratchets up the speed a notch towards the end. Being the fourth book in a seven-book series, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire succeeds as a carefully crafted pivot for the action. The book begins with the promise of an adventure outside of Hogwarts but within the magical realm, but things quickly begin to go sour and the reader knows along with Harry that darker doings are afoot. Though Prisoner of Azkaban was the first book in the series to overtly show signs of future connections, this book is where things really begin to get sticky, with its final chapters clearly outlining the continuation (and end) of the series.

The book itself builds beautifully on the traditions Rowling has built up through the series. The reader is entirely immersed in the magical world she has created. The feeling of plausibility is only heightened by Rowling's continued references to our own world- the parallel world knows about us and their musings about Muggles are a continuing source of humor. One of the most clever devices within the books, however, is Rowling's usage of metrics from within her own books. Harry isn't described as being "as happy as a kid in a candy store," no, his happiness is compared to his ability to conjure a particular brand of protective spell. In this way, the world of Harry wraps itself around the reader and allows the plot to fully develop and surround the reader. The ending of this book perfectly foreshadows the next in the series, and though the tension is clearly building it ends satisfactorily in and of itself. Like the forthcoming books, however, the tense ending creates the mystifying air of anticipation that accompanies each of the later books and which really links the series together as a whole.

Grade: A

July 12, 2007

Book 41: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
J.K. Rowling

After a brief hiatus, I have indeed returned with the third Harry Potter book under my belt. Much like the first two, I find it singularly enchanting and always delighting, though parts get a bit tedious on a re-read. This book is yet another turning point in the series, as more attention is paid to Harry's specific backstory and the reasons why he is the wizard with the ability to defeat Voldemort, or at least the guts to try. This book is incredibly important as the series progresses, and establishes connections that will become central in the next few books. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban looks ahead like the first two Harry Potter books didn't, and there are a few well-phrased clues that a well-seasoned reader of the later books will regret overlooking the first time around.

This volume only cements the boy wizard's power in the minds of his devoted readers, who can eagerly accompany him across the grounds of Hogwarts and really beyond them for the first time. Familiar pastimes like Quidditch games and the comic relief of the Weasley twins relieve the pressure of the enormous plot, which can get a bit mind-boggling on a first read. Certain chapters near the end require a couple of read-throughs to thoroughly get their point across, but the book definitely accomplishes its task of continuing to inch Harry closer to his destiny. I think that it is also worth mentioning that I, as a time travel buff and armchair time travel philosopher, think that Rowling has put together some of the tightest time-travel writing I have ever seen. She did it right and I am forever grateful. This book is the final book of the Potter series that can really be construed as happy or innocent, and it is very pleasant to end the peaceful years of Harry's time at Hogwarts with this book. The approaching war is but a dull, scattered sense of fear and Harry can bask in the joy of discovery before the mysteries start to take a troubling toll.

Grade: A

July 9, 2007

Book 40: Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling

Here we are at book two of J.K. Rowling's magical series, and yet we have only scratched the surface of Harry Potter's mysteries. This book picks up right where its predecessor left off, with Harry at the dreaded Dursleys' eagerly awaiting another enchanting trip to the castle on a hill and the alternate life afforded him at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. The forces of evil, however, are only beginning to gather as a striking streak of freak murder attempts rocks the school and reminds the world of witchcraft that Lord Voldemort, epitome of all evil villains, is still alive and well; if not in presence, then in spirit.

In this second glimpse into the alternate universe hiding just beyond our own, Rowling does not fail to enchant and mystify just as adeptly as she did in Sorcerer's Stone. We continue to learn more about the wizarding world and are never more confused than Harry, whose own ignorance makes our learning possible and, in a literary sense, allows droll explanations by characters to remain in context. Rowling's wonderful powers of description do not fail her as she opens our eyes to all new pieces of the Potter puzzle, and within each description and each subtle detail there is a piece of a clue regarding future events. It is truly amazing to go all the way back to this book after being up to speed on Half-Blood Prince, knowing full well the significance of certain items and events, significance that seemed heavy at the time but not so weighty as it is now. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets shows the stirrings of greater things and colossal events that will begin to shape the future of the wizarding world. This is the point where the series begins to pick up extrinsic steam propelling it beyond any individual book and into the enchanting universe of mystery and magic Rowling has created for us.

Grade: A

July 8, 2007

Book 39: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
J.K. Rowling

I have this crazy ambition to read all of these books before book seven comes out on the 21st and I decided to begin at the beginning. It's very odd and very exhillirating to re-read the book that started it all. The familiarity of the book does make it quite difficult to evaluate on any sort of objective basis, and I think that I will abandon my usual efforts and simply heap my own critical praise onto this much-beloved book.

First things first: Rowling starts things off with a bang. Even a cursory glance at the first chapter title ("The Boy Who Lived") indicates that there are weighty matters at hand. The subject matter is dark enough to be interesting to mature readers but Rowling is clever enough to prevent things from becoming too awfully frightening. Reading the book, it is easy to forget that the world of Harry Potter exists only in Rowling's imagination and, therefore, ours. Her immaculate power of description radiates throughout the book, making everything believable and leaving nothing out. The book is riddled with clues regarding not only the end of Sorcerer's Stone but also the grand conclusion of the series. Rowling's world may not be as complex as Middle Earth, but it is as well thought out as Tolkien's universe and contains a similar power to entrance and delight.

The plot may be slightly predictable, but this might also be the fact that I've read the entire series thus far about two or three times (and this particular book in two languages). What emerges in the plot is an intricately woven conflict between good and evil with a few sharp surprises whose repercussions linger throughout the rest of the series. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone may be a basic story of good versus evil, but in the hallways of Hogwarts it is not always so simple to distinguish the two. This elegant and brilliantly thorough narrative is a delightful kick-off to a complex and captivating series, leaving plenty of questions to the tomes ahead but prodding the reader forward instead of leaving too many frustrating blank spaces. I'm so glad I decided to read all of the books again; this book makes for a wonderful afternoon.

Grade: A

July 7, 2007

Book 38: I Am No One You Know

I Am No One You Know
Joyce Carol Oates

Callie recently asked me, "How do you evaluate a collection of short stories?" Seeing as I'm not a true literary critic (being hopelessly amateur in my endeavors here), I don't know if my answer was correct in any high literary sense, but my general idea is to try to get a picture of the collection as a whole. This works particularly well when the collection has been written by a single author, rather than being compiled. This particular collection of short stories constitutes a heavy tome of psychological studies that focus on the unexpected, hidden lives of people we think we know or think we are. Each of the main characters in this book could be someone you meet on the way to work, the barista in Starbucks or the high-powered lawyer who helps you sift through your parents' will. "The Girl with the Blackened Eye" has never told anyone of her harrowing ideal; even her husband isn't privy to that particularly gruesome week of her history. Yet here she is, laying it out for us and committing her emotional trauma in ink for a general audience. Her believability only underscores the thrilling power of each and every one of these stories.

Often, the reader is confused as to who may be right or wrong when a certain moral quandary comes up; we are left to figure it out along with the narrators and characters themselves. This is surprisingly genuine and touching- the stories may seem to end abruptly, but perhaps that is because their leading men and ladies don't know where they're heading, either. Every story is satisfying and deserves a moment of deep thought. Oates consistently invokes psychological and moral ambiguity within her stories and they somehow resist the urge to become weighty morality plays. Each tale, each life has its own set of problems and solutions, and each invites the reader to examine complex situations from uneasy angles. On the surface, it seems natural that a suburban divorcee should shy away from a convict, but when even she doubts her racial neutrality we are not automatically inclined to support her. We may initially balk at the idea of student-teacher love, but here is a case that defies expectations and encourages the reader to at least entertain possibilities beyond the initial negative reaction.

Oates poses constant challenges to her reader, but challenges at just the right level of difficulty. No situation is cut and dry; Oates gives us plenty of chances to doubt the veracity of the narrators and to argue along silently as they doubt themselves. Neither are the moral issues presented abstract and therefore meaningless. The stories are entirely tangible and readable, and this is what the collection in its entirety hinges on. "I am your son," one narrator says to an Alzheimer's-ridden man, "I am no one you know." Rather than being no one we know, Oates's characters could be anyone we know, from a passing glance to the intimacy of, well, intimacy. In this book the reader finds issues never expected to be met head-on, but which silently nag nonetheless. The reader is silently encouraged to look beyond the facade and realize that these narrators are, in fact, people we know, if we only bothered to look.

Grade: A

July 4, 2007

Book 37: Atonement

Ian McEwan

I feel like I'm not up to the task of reviewing this book. I finished it yesterday and I'm still digesting it. This is a book not to be taken lightly, and it has as much to say about the writing of literature as it does about its story. This initially frustrated me, and I kept silently urging McEwan to press forward with the plot already. The central conflict in the book isn't even introduced until the first section is mostly past, and while the writing is always brilliant and evocative, the plot is constantly bogged down by incessant detail. What is most interesting, however, is the fact that this minor oversight, if we can call it that, doesn't matter at all by the end of the book and in fact enhances its rhetorical power. This book is much more than the story it contains; it is really a speculative treatise on the art and power of writing.

I should have seen it coming. It's right there on page 35, in a quote I mentally siphoned off: the writer of novels has the power to communicate as if telepathically with their reader. The ink is a direct medium between the two individuals, and the author's vision is realized on the page, becoming a kind of truth. What happens, however, when the truth of the fictional world is muddled by a fictional author? Atonement not only begs the question inside its fictional world but transcends that world to bring the issue directly to its readers. McEwan and his vision hang over the novel, standing aside bemused as it smacks the reader minutes after putting it down. Atonement is a powerfully written book about the terrible power of words, and their limitations. The book forces us to ask ourselves how atonement can be reached, and if our feeble gasps of apology can ever be enough. It is a self-conscious work, but McEwan's lingering smirks only add to the charm of the book.

This has been purposefully vague and probably mostly unhelpful, but I cannot encourage you enough to read this book. The novel gets exponentially better with every minute that passes since the pages are set aside and the ideas left to simmer. The words themselves are evocative and elegant, paying excellent tribute to a time of grace that has disappeared behind the commercial value of the estates of the rich and powerful. The book contains some of the most painful war writing I've ever encountered, with vivid imagery that never ceases to shock or utterly stun. Atonement is a perfect book for a reading group. I feel that it is so hard to do justice to its genius alone here, speaking to and not with my own readers. If you're feeling at all contemplative about the nature and value of literature or even the power of art in general, Atonement will nudge you in interesting directions you hadn't considered before.

Grade: A

July 1, 2007

Book 36: What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self

What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self
Edited by Ellyn Spragins

This book is a cute little volume that I spotted one day outside of the Dawn Treader. It looked like it might hold some interest for me in my current quest of self-improvement, and I decided to pick it up. I'm not exactly disappointed that I did, but I'm definitely glad that I bought the book used and not new. The premise is intriguing enough: what would you say in a letter to your younger self, given the chance? The women writing in this book represent a cross-section of successful high society, from singers to newscasters to CEOs, reminding us all that even the best among us stumble. I find this top-down approach a tad condescending, but the book has bigger issues than that.

The problem with the letters in this book is that they are often too specific to a certain writer's situation to be useful to the populace at large. By the end of the book, the themes become repetitive, though through no fault of the writers themselves. The prose that introduces each letter also becomes tired and trite. Instead of generally acquainting the reader with the writer, the preludes descend into lists of accomplishments and oversimplifications that are really unnecessary. The letters themselves are usually fairly short, and while some have nice bits here and there, they are too introspective to really resonate to an audience at large. I believe that a project like this could be useful if done correctly, but this particular attempt settles for cliche and isn't particularly useful for the discerning reader.

Grade: B-