Thursday, March 21, 2019

Can We All Be Feminists? edited by June Eric-Udorie

I spent my childhood in Greenwich Village during the feminist’s Second Wave movement.  I remember stuffing envelopes for Bella Abzug, flipping through the pages of Ms magazine, and the frustration when the Equal Rights Amendment was shut down by a conservative (and predominantly male) United States Congress.  

A few years ago, when I read a book on Bella Abzug, my own misgivings about some issues I saw within feminism.  There were large groups of women who were under represented or ignored altogether.  I read a collection from African-American women which is no longer being published about their experiences.  It was enlightening then and reinforced when I picked up Can We All Be Feminists? collection of essays edited by June Eric-Udorie.  The focus of this collection is on intersectionality. 

For far too long, large groups of women have been ignored or overlooked.  We’ve seen evidence of the ongoing neglect of African-American women during the 2017 Women’s March.  Other minorities, including East Asian and Hispanic women continue to be overshadowed even as lesbians are trying to find a foothold within the current Third Wave Movement.  How does the legalization of abortion affect low income women? After all, women with enough money will always be able to where abortions are legal while women who can’t afford to travel will be forced to give birth.  Even women who cannot easily travel, because they live in a wheelchair or require help to get from point A to point B, are impacted by things that continue to be easy for the privileged.

It took me a while to read this book.  I found myself crying, frustrated, sometimes even getting angry.  I would read one essay and have to mull over the specifics, remembering some of the moments in my own past when I witnessed inequity but didn’t recognize it.  I was younger but is that an excuse?  And am I, even now, entrenched in my own experience and perception that I cannot see room for improvement? 

If my eyes were semi-closed, I feel like they are wide open now.  I want to fight for the rights and protection of all women, regardless.  I’m going to invest in the writings of the women who wrote these essays to keep these issues in the forefront of my mind.  Future generations deserve for us to do better.  Given how poorly we’ve been doing, young women need for us to do better.  We have no choice.  We simply must.

Monday, October 1, 2018

Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

By now you know, I am a sucker for dystopian literature.  And that I’m reading young adult books looking for ones I like enough to share with my granddaughter.  I also look for recommendations from readers I trust.  I’m still somewhat hesitant even with recommendations because I’ve read a few bestsellers that left me disappointed. 

I’m glad I picked up a copy of Uglies by Scott Westerfeld at the last library book sale and I immediately gave it to my granddaughter when I finished it. The premise is provocative.  When children turn sixteen, they are given surgery to become Pretties where they can enjoy the freedom of partying and wearing the best styles.  Their only responsibility, it seems, is to be Pretty.

Tally Youngblood is the novel’s protagonist and from the first few pages the reader learns that she is rebellious, a risk-taker, and eager to become Pretty.  She meets another girl, Shay, who shares her birthday but has no interest in ever having the surgery.  So when Shay disappears before the surgery, Tally is enlisted by the government to find where she has run off to, to expose a rebel community and bring all of the escaped Uglies back to have the surgery.  Unless she cooperates, Tally won’t be allowed to have the surgery to which she had been looking forward her entire life. 

Westerfeld does an excellent job of building a believable world, one in which conformity is encouraged.  It reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode “Eye of the Beholder” without the novel ever feeling derivative.  Tally’s motivation is clearly defined and her actions never contradict her character.  As with many of these novels, her parents are left on the periphery so her primary relationships are rooted in her peers.  Unfortunately, the novel ends on a cliffhanger, which I hate.  Truth is, I would have wanted to read the sequel even without the way this novel ends.  I’m eager to read Pretties.  

Saturday, September 8, 2018

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

I love library book sales.  They are the perfect opportunity to support our public libraries while being allowed to finally get around to reading books I’ve been wanting/meaning to read.  I have a long list of books I want to read, a list so long I would have to live at least ten lifetimes to finish them all.  And still, I add to the list.  And every time the local library has a book sale, I get to find these books and finally read them.

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami is one of the books I’ve wanted to read because the author is often recommended to me by readers I respect.  I read and liked South of the Border, West of the Sun but I knew it was not one of his most admired novels.  I chose to plunge into a novel I knew was one of his more popular.  Unlike the previous novel I had read, I knew that this one has a reputation for being challenging.

All the more reason for me to want to read it, I admit.

Yes, the reader has to trust the author.   There are two parallel stories and a few flashbacks told through military reports where some of the information is redacted.  It is not immediately evident how the reports tie in with the other stories but it does become evident before too long.  The two parallel stories follow an unreliable narrator Kafka Tamura and Satoru Nakata who can talk to cats.  Kafka is running away from home to avoid an Oedipal curse upon his family, while searching for his mother and older sister who abandoned him and his father when he was young.  Nakata uses his abilities to speak with cats to find lost pets. 

It sounds odd, right?  And in spite of its weirdness, I found it impossible to put this book down.  I found myself making excuses to read it, rewarding myself for doing a chore by reading another chapter.  (Putting a piece of paper on a pile of papers counts as a chore, right?)  I was surprised by how easy the story was to read even if it wasn’t easy to understand.

As for the ending, it is about as close as I have ever come to reading a David Lynch movie.  As if the rest of the novel hadn’t been surreal enough already.  Surprisingly, this did not disappoint me.  If anything, it felt like the perfect choice.  No wonder people love this book.  No wonder the book has a sort of cult following.  And at the next library book sale, I’ll be looking for more books by Murakami because this book will linger in my mind for a very long time.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Dear Evan Hansen by Val Emmich et al

Although I have heard good things about the Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen, I have not listened to the soundtrack let alone seen the show in person.  This didn’t keep me from eagerly grabbing a copy of this novel inspired by the show.  I mean, I’ve heard of books inspiring Broadway plays (and had seen Dracula on Broadway a long time ago).  And I’ve heard of books inspiring musicals (Hamilton immediately comes to mind, naturally).  I’ve even heard of books inspiring a play that is then turned into a musical (the first Broadway show I ever saw in my life and the first touring production I saw here in Atlanta—Cabaret).  This is the first time I have heard of a Broadway production inspiring a novel.  Hmmmm . . . .

The story is about a high school boy who lives with anxiety and broke his arm over summer break.  So he’s starting the year with a pristine cast on his arm and a promise to his mother that he will at least try to connect with someone else.  Naturally, this is easier said than done.  On the first day of school, something happens that serves as a catalyst for the rest of the school year and the story. 

Intriguing?  Possibly.  But not necessarily compelling.  Still, as I try to find books for my granddaughter to read, I figured this might prove to be one I could add to her collection.  So maybe I wasn’t approaching this novel with enthusiasm.   

After only three chapters, the novel (by Val Emmich, Steven Levenson, Benj Pasek, and Justin Paul) has subdued my skepticism altogether and I was thoroughly hooked.  To be fair, some aspects of the novel are predictable.  However, unlike so many novels written for teens (and tweens), Evan has a relationship with his divorced mother who plays a significant role in Evan’s life.  Many of the characters are complicated, not merely Evan.  While there are a few two-dimensional characters, most of them feel like real people, people you might have known when you were in high school.

Also, unlike so many other contemporary novels, the conclusion doesn’t feel rushed. Each event is organic, moving from one moment to the next, leading up to the inevitable climax.  The denouement is gratifying, tying up loose ends without being overly sentimental or pandering to a too-perfect conclusion.  Overall a very gratifying read and a book I will happily share with my granddaughter.  

Are there other Broadway shows that have become a novel?  If so, let me know.  I'm curious to see if other productions bridge the novelization so effectively.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Eragon by Christopher Paolini

As mentioned previously, I’ll be reading more middle-grades and young adult novels to hopefully find something I think my granddaughter will enjoy. I guess I could give it a title. Any suggestions?  Grandmother Reviews?  Old Woman Reads Young Books? 

Also, if you have a book you would like to recommend, feel free but be warned: if I don’t like what you recommend, I won’t sugar coat my opinion.  After all, it’s just my opinion.  We can’t agree on all things all of the time.

Eragon by Christopher Paolini is the first in a trilogy that follows the adventures of the titular character a farm boy living a simple life until the day he finds a strange blue rock which ends up being the egg of a dragon.  But Eragon lives in a world where all dragons serve King Galbotrix and his dragon riders.  Soon, the boy is being pursued by the Ra’zac who also serve the king.

What makes the book remarkable is that it was written when the author was merely a teenager and eventually became the third best-selling children’s book of 2003.  And it is this back story that seems to drive the popularity.  Because, frankly, the storyline itself is predictable, following the traditional fantasy plot made famous by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces. 

I think this is why I wasn’t consumed by this book.  I set it aside more than once and even skipped a day or two of reading, highly unusual for me.*  Because of its popularity, I may have gone into the book with high expectations. I was not aware of the backstory although the book’s “about the author” blurb announces that the author was young when her wrote it.  (As I suggested, this seems to be the selling point of the novel, if not the entire series.)  Ultimately, for me there were no surprises.  Even when naming the dragon, I guessed what was supposed to be the biggest surprise.  The rest is just a traditional quest journey set in an interesting but ultimately uncompelling world.

I even went to the trouble of watching the movie, although at this point my expectations were fairly low, having finished the novel.  I mean sure the movie didn’t get great reviews but I’ve read more than a few disappointing books that ended up having pretty damn good movies.  But yeah, this book didn’t make a great movie.  Perhaps had the production been of a higher quality, the movie could have held up better.  Nonetheless, the whole thing, movie and book, feels like a happenstance, a book that happened to come along, with an interesting sellable backstory, at a time when readers were clamoring for more children’s fantasy series, thanks in no small part to Harry Potter, resulting in a pretty forgettable product overall.

Obviously the first book did not intrigue me enough to keep me reading which is why I am not jumping to read the second and third books.  The truth is, I felt the same way after reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  I continued reading those books because I was encouraged to do so and, if someone I knew with reading taste I trusted, assured me the books do get better, I might consider reading the next two.  Until such a day, I happily finished this book underwhelmed overall and easily set the rest of the series aside, uninspired to find out what happens next in Eragon’s highly predictable journey.

* I am reading several books at any given time so setting aside one book doesn’t mean I wasn’t reading. But I save certain books for the evening when and it is unusual for me to forego my evening reading one day let alone more than one.
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