Thursday, March 29, 2012

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J K Rowling

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J K Rowling is the seventh and final Harry Potter book and fulfills every promise the series establishes.  This is only my second time reading this novel.  The first time I read it, I devoured it.  I didn’t really have a choice.  It was released at midnight of Rob’s birthday so I was frantically trying to finish it before Rob came home, ready for us to have a romantic Rob’s birthday dinner.  When I finished, I came into the kitchen bawling, put my arms around Rob, thanking him for buying me the fourth book and “forcing” me to read the series.

I didn’t bawl this time.  The first time I read the novel, I noticed a lot, and I should emphasize a lot, of classic mythic themes.  Chapter nineteen is especially rife with traditional British archetypes.  Harry Potter’s journey from orphan boy to hero aligns itself flawlessly with Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces.  I can easily see how Christians would be both thrilled with the series and off-put by some of the things that are said.  (Eventually, the quotes I’ve collected from this novel will manifest on my regular blog and it will be easy to see which would be offensive.)

The themes of redemption and friendship continue to develop and there are more losses, much beloved characters included.  And some characters, who have yet had an opportunity to truly shine, prove themselves to be just as courageous as any of the expected heroes.  Life and death and love—the novels are an invitation for much discussion and even meditation.  I had to remind myself time and time again that these were written for children, more so in the later novels. 

Character development and the pacing of the narrative are nearly flawless.  And I can’t really say too much more lest I give away more than I had intended.  Suffice it to say, the movies do a good job of telling the story, adding scenes to flesh out where the novels themselves become more expositional.  Of course, I don’t mind the exposition.  I like to get inside the character’s heads, to feel and think along with them.  I don’t have a single complaint.  Well, maybe.  Maybe I could complain that the series came to an end although I knew it would happen. 

Full disclosure:  I did tear up a few times.  Not even the same place when, the first time I was reading it, I had to close the book because I couldn’t read through my tears.  I had more emotional self-control this time.  Yes, I got tears in my eyes but I never had to stop reading altogether.  

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

1984 by George Orwell

1984 by George Orwell is a dystopian novel, a classic that is typically read in high school and which has infused our culture to such a degree that certain terms from the novel have become understood by one and all.  This novel was chosen by the Banned Book Group as our February book and I was so excited because I knew it would lend itself to some really interesting discussions.  I was also a little worried because it is also a Presidential election year and I could easily see some of the discussions degenerating into political debates and abuse.  Then our internet disappeared and my excitement/anxiety were moot; if there was a dialogue about the novel, I was not there to participate.  Oh well.

I won’t bother talking about the story or characters because most of these are already known or have been reviewed before.  Also, this is not the first time I’ve read this book.   The first time I read the novel, I did so during a flurry of dystopian reading which included A Clockwork Orange, Brave New World, and A Handmaid’s Tale.  I wanted to read 1984 because I’d read an excerpt from the novel while studying for my GED and the protagonist, Winston Smith, begins keeping a journal on April 4, my birthday.  A rather superficial reason to want to read a book but it opened the floodgates for the other dystopian novels so I regret nothing.

This is, in fact, perhaps my fourth time reading the novel.  I was surprised to notice how many allusions there are to death and suicide sprinkled throughout the text.  I don’t think there is a single chapter that doesn’t have some reference to death in it, whether in the metaphor of a dream or in a blunt statement of a singular act being like a suicide or Smith’s own acceptance that he is already dead. 

Certainly, there is something both desperate and despairing about the characters and their lives.  This is not a pleasant book to read, all the more so because it doesn’t sound so bizarre or even impossible.  If society has not quite reached the level suggested in the novel, there are certainly hints of the possibility surrounding us.  I do not dare say more because I would prefer not to put too much political ranting in this review and I don’t want to get caught up in debate of right or wrong politics.  Whether your politics agree with my own or not, I think we can all agree that when Orwell wrote this novel, in the alarming context of post-Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia, his prophetic vision may have seemed unlikely as people reassured one another “never again.”  But decades later we cannot turn a blind eye to the gradual moves toward the inevitability of his vision being fully realized, if not in our lifetime then perhaps in 2084.  (I am surely not going to live to see the day myself.) 

It seems naïve to say that we will not let it happen when we have let the small steps the add up to the fruition go overlooked, the genocidal attempts and ongoing threats and realities of war that have since occurred.  World War I was called “The Great War” because people truly believed that nothing like that would ever happen again.  We have since learned better but clearly continue learning, as this novel’s popularity and relevance clearly prove.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Lit: A Memoir (PS) by Mary Karr

Lit: A Memoir (PS) by Mary Karr is a memoir about the author’s alcoholism and her arduous journey towards sobriety.  Although she’s published two previous memoirs, this is the first I’ve read.  Karr wrote this memoir for her son and she is brutal in ripping her own truth apart, eviscerating her past to expose all of it for the reader, trying to put both her addiction and her sobriety in a context that can be explained.  Even when she thinks she’s found salvation in the form of marriage to an educated man who comes from a wealthy family, her self-destruction tendencies are relentless.

The narrative, however, is not.  If Karr is brutal with herself, she is less so with those around her.  The husband is practically a cypher, a cliché of a WASP who rarely shows any emotion and even then he does so in dismissive and stilted statements meant to cut Karr down to size.  Her family of origin is allowed to have a complexity that Karr does not allow herself. 

It’s hard for me to explain.  She manages to be utterly unforgiving where she herself is concerned while the reader is given just enough space to feel sympathetic, if not empathetic or overly compassionate.  I found it difficult to read, constantly frustrated by her choices.

And that is understandable.  I divorced a man who was an alcoholic and perhaps I am disinclined to hold drunken behavior with much tolerance.  I certainly admire her journey, her embracing the twelve steps and working her program.  Unfortunately, because her story and she tells it with no apology, it is an exhausting book to read. 

I couldn’t help to compare it with other memoirs.  Karr’s language is simple, her story told in a linear fashion.  When compared with Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal, it is simply devoid or relevance.  This is Karr’s story and if it can serve as a cautionary tale of why drinking is bad, she never makes her message universal.  And I know that stories of alcoholism and recovery and even the spiritual journey can be told with both brutal candor and humor, as Anne Lammott has proven time and time again.

Karr’s memoir reads more like a woman ripping open a scar to show how much she has suffered and then, with each chapter, she picks away at the scab as if to suggest that her original scar simply wasn’t bad enough.  Well written but ultimately it left me feeling like a voyeur, unsatisfied because, for a woman who doesn’t pull back from sharing her spiritual beliefs, her story lacks soul. 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick is the long anticipated second middle grades novel by the brilliant writer/artist who brought us The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  Like many, perhaps, I wondered if Selznick could do it again, if he could create a story that is both enchanting and mysterious, that could weave together text and image as flawlessly, and leave me feeling awe-struck.

He succeeds on every level.  The story is told through the eyes of Ben and Rose, two children who live 50 years apart and whose lives are told in parallel to one another, Ben’s through words and Rose’s through drawings.  The reader is dropped into the children’s lives and then slowly lured into each story as the narrative gradually unfolds.  How did Ben end up living with his aunt and uncle and cousins?  Why does Rose keep a scrapbook of an actress?  And what do these to have in common that makes the shared story all the more compelling?

At one point I had tears in my eyes, I must confess, and it probably helps that I grew up in New York City and could recognize many of the details.  I even found myself smiling at certain points, nodding in recognition.  The climactic moment towards the end is a memory from my own youthful years.

But I digress.  Selznick once again does a brilliant job of creating a story that is alluring and compelling, always hinting at things but never giving too much away.  At the end, he includes a long list of thankful acknowledgements that reveals the depth of research that went into creating this book.  (I am unsurprised that one of the books he references is Hands of My Father by Myron Uhlberg, a memoir I read with great pleasure and recommend to adult readers.)  He also confesses to taking some creative license along the way, changing certain details so they would better fit his narrative vision.   Although a simple story and unforgettable, it is one that demands to be revisited, time and time again.  For the parent whose child falls in love with this novel (and I can’t imagine a child who would not), there is a selected bibliography that explores many of the themes that undergird this novel. 

It is not often a novel is so delicately written, full of hints that are not fully realized until the story’s end, that the reader wants to immediately reread it.  This novel demands to be read again and again.  And I know I’ll be seeking my local library for several of the books mentioned in the bibliography.  Is it too soon to ask about Selznick’s next novel?  I hope not.  I’m already eagerly awaiting it!

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen with illustrations by Rebecca Guay

The Last Dragon by Jane Yolen with illustrations by Rebecca Guay is a luscious graphic novel which takes place in an age when dragons have long since been killed out of existence and a peaceful village can enjoy an uncomplicated life.   Here a healer and his wife raise their three daughters: Rosemary, the eldest who takes after her mother; Sage, a beauty who yearns for her true love to come from across the sea; and Tansy, the youngest, who has her father’s gift for understanding the herbs and their healing properties.

One day when Tansy is burned by a flower that hasn’t been seen in centuries and it doesn’t take her father long to realize that there is a dragon’s egg somewhere nearby.  Unfortunately, he recognizes the danger too late and the dragon is hatched and hungry.  Soon the villagers send out three boys to find a hero who can rescue them from the ravages of the wakened dragon.  They return with Lancot, who looks like a hero, and tells stories of his heroic past, but Tansy has her doubts. 

In spite of a few odd anachronistic moments, the story is well told, as one would expect from Yolen who truly is a master storyteller.  She uses traditional themes—an extinct dragon emerging from a “long sleep,” three daughters the youngest of whom is destined to save the day, and even a flawed savior who may manage to save the day in spite of himself.  The illustrations by Guay are gorgeous, the muted tones and effective use of panel layout all enhance the story telling without outshining it.  Then again, it would be hard for most artists to outshine Yolen; just as difficult for an artist to have the same superior quality of work. 

Here an artistic storyteller meets a storytelling artiste and the end result is a sheer delight.  There are so many archetypes played with in this one story and I enjoyed every turn of the page.  And, as with all good tales, there is a happily ever after. 

Monday, March 19, 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson is a memoir from a writer who manages to write something that makes me shudder with anticipation and sigh in despair because her voice is so purely her own.  For those familiar with the author, her autobiographical novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, gives many hints to what her real life was like but this memoir is worth reading nonetheless.  Why?

For one thing, in spite of any denials on her part, it is nearly impossible for the reading audience not to confuse the author’s fiction with reality.  It doesn’t help that the protagonist of the novel share the same first name (Jeanette), a circumstance she tried to rectify when the novel was brought to television (changing the name to “Janet”).  That there are parallels, she’s never denied but to assume that stories are one and the same is a premature assumption this memoir attempts to address.

For another, Winterson wrote and published the novel nearly 30 years ago.  Her confidence in her writing, in herself, have become more firmly rooted and she is able to share things, personal truths, which before may have been too intimate or too overwhelming.  There is also the plain and simple fact that she probably couldn’t write a memoir then and reframing her life as fiction allowed her to explore the issues that informed her life allowed her a freedom she could not otherwise have experienced.  After all, many of the “players” were still alive and there’s no doubt that feelings would be wounded. 

Of course, it would have been impossible for Winterson to write a memoir at that time even if she did not consider the feelings of others.  Or she could never have written this memoir, anyway, because there are events that are more recent, choices made and experienced, that give her memoir a relevance that transcend simple meaning.  If her autobiographical novel is an inevitable addition to the canon of lesbian literature, her memoir may open doors to a canon in orphan literature.  She certainly sets the stage for this, without necessarily suggesting that she sees her memoir as seminal or even necessary, towards the end of the book when she ties in common mythic implications of her personal experience, giving her unique story and voice an undeniable and universal relevance.

I could go on, highlighting the distances she demands of herself and the reader in referring to her adopted mother as “Mrs Winterson” and how her pragmatic attempts at objectivity still allow her to reveal a complicated woman who is both understood and beyond understanding.  This impossible balance is a testament to Winterson’s own concession to what she could not possibly understand for herself.  And in telling her story, she is fragmented, sometimes interjecting an aside that reveals something to come or interjecting her future into the past.  For those familiar with Winterson’s novels, this will come as no surprise because she is relentless in her fluid use of time.  Because she is a master at it, the effect is brilliantly realized in this memoir. 

The story is incomplete and some readers may find this disappointing.  I would argue (and I dare to suggest I am immovable in this) that the story must be incomplete.  Forget the overwrought implication of the last sentence, which is both perfect and perfectly unnecessary; the point of this memoir is a search for meaning, for understanding the self in face of the madness of life, the insanity of love’s promise, and how desperately we need to create our own fictions, find our own myths, and leave a lot of space for the mystery of unanswered questions.

Jeanette Winterson has left vistas of space to be filled because she carries so much inside and her memoir is a treasure to which I know I will return again.  Her novel and this memoir, read side-by-side, is almost a fait accompli, and I can see LGBT, feminist, and many other professors and teachers reaching eagerly for their syllabi with a keen eye to incorporating this memoir in their next course.  I know I would if I were teaching.  Love Winterson’s style or hate it (and clearly I adore it), she is provocative and her honesty, her personal story, are perhaps more provocative than anything I’ve read in a long time.   

Friday, March 16, 2012

Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni with illustrations by Moyna Chitrakar

Sita’s Ramayana by Samhita Arni with illustrations by Moyna Chitrakar is a graphic novel re-telling of the Hindu classic as told through the eyes of two women:  Sita herself (as the title implies) and Trijatha, who tells Sita what she has observed beyond the confinement of Sita’s imprisonment.  I read this book as part of my exploration of Hinduism and it has proven to be an excellent choice.

The author does a good job of telling Sita’s story and by having Trijatha, the sister of Sita’s captor, telling part of the story the reader is able to learn more about what is happening, in effect sharing the visceral experience of Sita’s emotional journey from self-concern to universal compassion.  As the battle for her freedom goes on, her empathy grows beyond her personal loss and suffering. 

In many ways the story is indicative of the wall that has come up for me as I am reading The Rig Veda, as translated by ???.  I want to appreciate it but the warrior rhetoric is distasteful and I find myself withdrawing from the text rather than losing myself in it.  In many ways, I couldn’t help identify myself with Sita, wanting to be carried away while finding myself overcome with the cost of war.  If the sacred texts offer no transcendence, it is because I am caught in sadness at the martial language. 

So many traditional stories are told through a patriarchal voice and it is always interesting to hear these stories told through a woman’s perspective.  Sita’s suffering if not specifically recognizable is emotionally familiar and I kept reading because I did not know what would happen next.  The climactic ending of the war, when Sita is finally reunited with her husband Rama was not surprising and emotionally wrenching at the same time.  (In Hinduism for Dummies I read another story about Sita that has some similar elements to it so now I am very curious to know more.)

The illustrations for this graphic novel are bold and brilliant, culturally evocative and distinct.  There is simply no graphic novel to which I could possibly compare this wonderful book and I plan on seeking out other books from the publisher because I see that I have a lot more to learn about the stories that infuse the beliefs of Hinduism.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach

Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy by Sarah Ban Breathnach was one of those ubiquitous books that women were buying and recommending with abandon.  I picked up a copy because an online group to which I belonged at the time recommended it to me, and because someone I thought was a dear friend had introduced me to the idea of ____.  I lost the journal.  I tried to read the book and found it to be bourgeoisie and somehow disingenuous.  Ironic given that one of the tenets the author purports is integrity and authenticity.

It has been on my bookshelf for a while and I picked up a copy of the author’s Romancing the Ordinary which, for whatever reason, appealed to me far more than her previous books (as there had been others published in the meantime).  Then I was given an ARC of her latest book Peace and Plenty and I chose to read these books I had collected of hers along with the latest book given to me for the purpose of review.

I wanted to put all of this into context because my feelings about Simple Abundance will inevitably reflect my long and complicated relationship with the book. 

I love the idea of this book.  Breathnach endeavors to write a book in which she reflects upon certain themes which inform her concept of Simple Abundance.  She recommends certain tools—like keeping a gratitude journal and ­­­Illustrated Discovery Journal.  She shares many of her personal stories throughout, along with quotes she has gathered (but does not adequately cite, one of my ongoing complaints about her books), and ends each month’s meditations with a list of recommended books to read or movies to watch or simple things to do. 

The author is fond of ritual and idealizes the feminine lushness of Victoriana.  Truth be told, I find it amusing how often women hearken back to simpler times, like the Janeites who wish romance were as uncomplicated as in Pride and Prejudice, overlooking the obvious classism and sexism of the era as if falling in love with a Mr Darcy would solve anyone’s misery when the truth is few men ever married beneath them and Elizabeth, for all her wit and fair eyes, would have been a likely let alone possible choice. 

But I digress. 

What Breathnach writes is a book that reflects her definition of simplicity and it simply does not align itself with my own.  Her audience is not me and, while I can see why white middle class women adore the book and even appreciate why Oprah Winfrey recommended it, I found it more superficial than spiritual.  However, that is not entirely Breathnach’s fault.  She wrote this book under circumstances that were bound to manifest on the page.  She is younger than I and I have since read later books by the author that strip away some of the façade of what she is trying to promote.  The life she creates for herself—and into which she invites the reader—later falls apart, as she herself reveals in both Romancing the Ordinary and Peace and Plenty

But she never actually suggests that the reader should do the things she does, although she never really explains how the reader can find their own way.  (The tools she suggests the reader create, such as the ____, are ill-defined, in my opinion.)  And she does have a way of making her ideal sound like The Ideal, which, although is not her intention, is how the meditations sound in spite of her best intentions.  This is evident especially in light of hind-sight and the backlash she has experienced from her readers who have been disappointed and disenchanted with her.

For instance, Peace and Plenty is not as optimistic a book as Simple Abundance.  I am confident that Breathnach would herself concede to this fact. After all, she was not writing the book from the same place.  Older and presumably wise, then the more contemporary book was written she had faced a great deal of loss including a divorce.  So when reading Simple Abundance, it is difficult to feel inspired by her suggestions because one is aware with the turn of every page that it is all impermanent.  In fact, so much of the text comes across as materialistic and this was what turned me off the first few times I tried to read the text.  For a book that purports itself to be simple, she spends a lot of time telling the reader to surround themselves with things.  At the end of each month’s readings there is a list of books r movies, which is fine, but there are also a lot of catalogs and other such resources recommended that belie the supposed deeper meaning and unmet promise of the book.  And when she encourages the reader to collect images of an ideal self, these typically revolve around fashion and physical qualities rather than pure states of being.

It doesn’t surprise me that, in one of her later books, she is nonplussed when one of her admiring readers, at a book signing, is offended by Breathnach’s wearing Milano Bilahniks.  Clearly that fan either never actually read Breathnach’s book or didn’t read it as closely as I did because there is no doubt in my mind that the young woman who wrote Simple Abundance would happily spend a great deal of money on luxury items because she didn’t define her simplicity in Luddite or Amish terms. 

Reading both this book and her most recent book serves as a cautionary tale, I suppose.  For those readers who insist that the former publication is her best work, I can only sigh and sympathize with the author.  For those readers who became angry with Breathnach, I can only sigh and offer the author a sympathetic hug.  The problem is not with the author;  she is constantly saying the reader to be authentic, to find their own way of being.  What Breathnach puts on the page is her own authenticity, her so-called simplicity and her definition of abundance.  If it does not align itself with my own, is that her fault?  Is that mine?  No.

So would I recommend this book?  No.  Maybe.  Not really. 

No, because I think there are better books out there to encourage women to find a life and a way of being that is fulfilling. 

Maybe, because I found a few ideas she throws out there to be intriguing although I would have to remove them contextually and redefine them to better fit my own life.  And I also realize that there are some women’s whose own lives are perhaps so consumed with children and work that they have lost some personal depth and this book can be an invitation to begin going deeper. 

Not really, because I think it is superficial even when it is its most deep and I like to believe that we’ve come a long way, baby, and this book, even when it was first published, does not bring women or the idea of femininity forward. 

The thing is, I haven’t given up on Breathnach’s idea for this disappointing book.  I didn’t keep it around for so very long because I didn’t think it contained any merit.  However, I think that I, and every woman who has ever considered reading this book, would do better to write her own book (which the author encourages the reader to do at the book’s end).  Maybe, just maybe, the time is ripe for Breathnach to write a how-to book that doesn’t just lay out her personal ideal but serves as a workbook for the reader to reach some essential and personal definition for “simple” and “abundance.”  And considering all that Breathnach has since experienced in her own life—two divorces, financial challenges, and more—she can probably write something that will touch the hearts of a much larger audience than ever before.

But if she does, I really hope that this time she puts a title and page to every book quote and such she cites because I am so tired of the laziness that just throws them out there and doesn’t allow the reader to see these words of wisdom within a context other than Breathnach’s own.

Note:  This book was actually one I read as part of my morning books in 2011 but I just noticed that I forgot to post the review.  So this is a belated review, I suppose.  Sorry about that.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Bringing Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield

Bringing Home the Dharma by Jack Kornfield is an attempt by one of America’s foremost Buddhist teachers to take the more esoteric Buddhist teachings into a Western, and particularly American, context.  Kornfield himself moved from being a monastic to a married man, founder of Insight Meditation Society, and is candid in sharing some of his struggles with keeping the dharma relevant in his own life.  In doing so, he came to realize how American sensibilities occasionally conflict with the Buddhist ideals.  I found myself remembering the story of how the Dalai Lama is so surprised by the self-esteem issues endemic in our country, saying that this is something his people did not have.  

Kornfield has a strong foundation from which to work.  His personal experiences as a monk and his training in psychology infuse his teachings in this book which, to be frank, sometimes feels pieced together.  Many of the chapters are previously published essays, articles from various magazines, or even expansions of interviews that Kornfield has done through the years.  All are well written if not always interwoven with the same precision as a single text might have been.  This possibly explains why some personal stories are reiterated in similar contexts.  I found myself wondering if I hadn’t already heard this story before and realizing that I had, referring easily to a previous chapter.  For me, this sort of distraction makes me wonder if the author doesn’t trust the reader to have any recollection of what he’s already written or if the editor is simply too lazy to ask for a revision or a different story. 

If in the introduction or elsewhere I had been made aware that this book is an expanded collection of previously published pieces, I would have probably been more patient with the redundancies.  I bring this up because I like the book well enough to recommend but would perhaps suggest that the reader set it aside occasionally, to allow time for a little forgetfulness to take root so that the repetition won’t be so tedious.

With that said, Kornfield does manage to bring the transcendent down to earth, and he allows the American Buddhist layperson practice in a way that is both personally meaningful and possible.   His stories of monastic training may inspire some readers to take their spiritual practice to the point of taking vows.  But he also recognizes that most readers will merely be trying to live out their daily practice in the typical world of family and professional lives.  I would be very interested to know if Kornfield has ever taken his personal story to the page in more than anecdotal tidbits because I’ve a feeling his personal story would be a perfect complement to the intention of this book. 

If there is a single message to be carried off from this book, it is in the Buddha’s own means of teaching a variety of ways to find enlightenment which the author effectively communicates to the reader.  There are many ways to experience the promises made in Buddhism, from traditional meditation practices like intensive retreats and simple mindfulness, to a more western use of psychology and even drugs.  Kornfield doesn’t shy away from potentially controversial issues, including some of the sex scandals that have arisen over the years, but he is no apologist, and tries to follow through on his intention of suggesting ways to take an Eastern tradition and keep it relevant in a Western world.  This is a good book although it did not blow me away.  It did, however, leave me curious to read some of Kornfield’s earlier works and I intend on doing so in the future.  

Friday, March 9, 2012

The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

The Bad Beginning: A Series of Unfortunate Events (Book 1) by Lemony Snicket was recommended to me by my son and the son of a friend of mine and I have to say that I can see why.  The narrative voice of this book is undeniably that of a story-teller.  Every page sounds as though it is being spoken to you, with authorial interjections that explain the meaning of words and phrases and occasional sardonic asides.  Never is the reader allowed to forget that this is the story of three children—Violet Klaus, and Sunny—who are perhaps the most unfortunate children in the world. 

Or unfortunate in a bourgeoisie manner, anyway.  In the first chapter there is a fire that destroys their home and in which both of their parents die.  This is tragic, no doubt, but in a world where children are living in war torn countries, where orphans are left destitute, the events are heartbreaking and unfortunate but the Baudelaire children are left with a fortune, a large one in fact, and this inspires a greediness in the first person who is chosen to be their guardian.

Although the author does not withhold any information, immediately warning the reader to close the book if there is any expectation of a happy ending.  And even though I knew what nefarious plot was underway to cheat the children out of their inheritance, none of this inevitability stopped me from devouring this little novel.  It was a fun and quirky read, surprisingly erudite and intelligent.  The sadness of the children’s story is told well enough to make it all quite compelling and I can only hope that the final book in the series ends with some inkling of happiness for all three of them.  I’ll find out, so don’t tell me anything. 

Now, I have no clue why anyone would think this story would make a fun movie unless it was with the hope that they could milk all seventeen books in the series into movies but how much suffering can anyone watch before it becomes too much?  If I feel this way, why would I think reading it is more delightful?  I don’t honestly know.  What I do know is that there is a certain cathartic quality in reading about the longsuffering of others, especially when it is clearly untrue.  I can see why these books have become so popular.  Too often adults forget the darker needs of the human psyche or assume little children are devoid of such leanings.  So if I don’t see why anyone would think this delightful book, albeit devoid of the-happily-ever-after of most children’s books, would make an equally delightful movie, I’m right there with all the others who find these books an amusing distraction. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Pink Smog by Francesca Lia Block

Pink Smog: Becoming Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block is a prequel, arguably long overdue, for her seminal Weetzie Bat book, the first of the Dangerous Angels series.  I say that this prequel has been a long time coming because a sequel, A Necklace of Kisses, came out several years ago.  Clearly, the character of Weetzie won’t leave her author alone any more than she will her readers.  She’s easy to fall in love with and the opportunity to revisit this character in different stages of her life is irresistible.   And while I both liked and disliked this novel, I want to begin with what I dislike.

Immediately  upon reading the first page I was taken aback by Block’s choice to write in the first person.  Neither of the previous Weetzie Bat books was written from her point of view. This shift in narrative voice held both a lot of promise and a potential to be problematic.  I was, truth be told, excited to her Weetzie tell her own story in her own voice because much of her personality sparkled in how she spoke.  Such phrases as "lanky lizards" and "slinkster" and even "Secret Agent Lover Man" revealed a quirkiness of character that defined Weetzie, her way of being, of living, of thinking. 

So imagine my disappointment in this younger Weetzie's voice and how it was completely devoid of any quirkiness.  Poetic and often lavish in her descriptions, she was lacking in any syntax that set her apart as the Weetzie of later novels.  Her personality, in fact, was simply not there.

One could argue that this novel, being a prequel, is telling the story of a younger and less self-actualized Weetzie.  However, I remember being thirteen and being sixteen and there were rudimentary parts of my later persona which were taking root when I was in my very early teens already evident.  These would not fully bloom until later, even decades later, but they were there.  The idiomatic language that I still find myself blurting  out, the sense of how I move and dress.  Even at thirteen these things were beginning to emerge as I moved through a variety of definitions that were to become "Satia."

I could not find Weetzie in this novel. 

Somewhere along the way, I released this need altogether and read the novel as if it were completely different from the others, telling the story of a different character altogether.  When I did this, when I divorced it from its sequels, the novel worked as well as many of Block's other forays into young adult magical realism.  From the very first pages the reader feels a sympathy or even empathy for Louisa/Weetzie , who is struggling with the separation and immanent divorce of her parents--Charlie and Brandie Lynn.  She is also dealing with the usual frustrations of the final years of middle school before moving onto high school.  She is lost, lonely, and set adrift in a world that is beyond her control.  Her only hope is to somehow find meaning and at least understand what is happening.  In her search, a sort of psychological quest, she meets other people who are either friends or foes, she cannot tell.  She cannot even be certain that they are not merely figments of her imagination and yet she does the best she can in the face of so many possibilities and unanswered questions.

As a prequel to the other Weetzie Bat books this novel is a disappointment.  On its own merit, it may be one of the better novels Block has written in the past few years.  No doubt, it lends itself to a Jungian analysis but it is written for an audience unlikely to know anything about archetypes or shadows.  In that respect, it is quite possible that Pink Smog could even stand as a modern metaphor.  At the least, it holds strong as a coming-of-age novel, even if it is weak in pure Weetzie magic.  

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry

A Brief History of Thought by Luc Ferry is an overview of philosophy which, as Ferry himself explains “is both modest and ambitious:  modest, because it is addressed to a nonacademic audience; ambitious, because I have not permitted myself any concession to simplification” (xi).  He moves through the generally accepted epochs of philosophic thought, choosing a few exemplary voices to represent each, never allowing his own preferences to go unrevealed. 

Ferry effortless moves from the stoicism of Epictetus, laying out the premises and flaws of Stoic thought, through Christianity, which fills some of the need for meaning left unexplained by the Greeks and Romans, to Kant and eventually Nietzche.  In focusing on a chosen few voices, rather than superficially touching on too many, the author allows the reader to not only come to an appreciation for each of the different schools of thought.  Never does he pull his punches, throwing a harsh light on the weaknesses of even his own preferred philosophers nor does he disguise his own skepticism towards beliefs he feels do not hold up to contemporary rationalism.  Transcendence and salvation, theoria and chosmos, lay a foundation for what Ferry discusses throughout the rest of the text.

Because of the breadth of the content, Ferry obviously must leave many philosophical questions unanswered but the significant stones are not left unturned.  Can the explanations of the Stoics suffice in the face of the promises that Christianity holds?  Does Christianity offer a view of the individual that can adequately meet the needs of modern man?  How far can the idealism of Enlightenment’s democratic teaching move society forward?  And now that Nietzche has exploded classical thought into the modern era, where can the contemporary philosopher go from here?

If Ferry does not draw the same conclusions as the reader may reach, he allows the reader an insight into why he has come to certain ways of thinking, even sharing a story from his personal experience of collaborating on a book with another philosopher’s whose own beliefs were different from his own and how these disparate perspectives allowed him to better appreciate his own ways of thinking.

For the person interested in reading about philosophy but who is not confident enough to read the primary sources quoted by Ferry yet who is weary of reading an overly superficial look at philosophy, the seeker need look no further.  This book is more academic because it doesn’t try to include too much and Ferry encourages the reader to the “original texts as early on as possible” (19).  This encouragement is reinforced in his commitment to citing each quotation so that the reader can indeed turn to the source and read the context from which each quote is taken.  In the end, Ferry succeeds, modest in the breadth of his approach, he is able to provide a semi-academic overview of philosophy and, for the reader who is moved to continue in learning more, offers an abbreviated reading list.  This is an excellent introduction to the sweeping implications of philosophical thought and a book I highly recommend to others.

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