Friday, June 29, 2012

Historical Fiction: The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

The Chaperone is the latest novel by Laura Moriarty, and it focuses mainly on the life of Cora Carlisle, a woman who chaperones a young Louise Brooks to New York City in the 1920s. I decided to pick up this book because of how much I enjoyed Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence and The House of Mirth. Also, I wasn't previously familiar with Louise Brooks, the popular silent movie star, and I figured this was a fun way to learn more about her. 

The Situation: Cora Carlisle is a well-off and respected thirty-something woman with a lawyer husband and two boys away for the summer before going back to college. When another well-known woman in town is heard to be looking for someone to chaperone her young 15 year-old daughter to New York City for a month, Cora decides to take the opportunity, despite the reputation of Myra Brooks, the mother, and also that of Louise, the daughter. Myra is thought to be somewhat of a snob, and the girl isn't much different. Even so, Cora takes on the challenge, and after announcing her decision to her husband, the trip is arranged. 

The Problem: Louise is pretty much every chaperone's worst nightmare. Not only is she a snob like her mother, but she is condescending, self-serving, selfish, flirtatious with any man she can get something out of, disrespectful to Cora, and rude. Basically, she is what I like to call "messy with her insecurities." Thankfully, Cora is on her own personal mission to New York that can distract her from the challenges her charge presents her with, because her mission has challenges of its own. Only her husband knows the real reason she has agreed to this assignment, as anyone else knowing in their social circle would prove problematic. And this isn't the only secret Cora and her husband are holding onto, and it doesn't end up being the last. To my delightful surprise, mostly because Louise is so awful, this book turns out to be much more about Cora and her discoveries than the starlet's rise to fame. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that takes place after World War I and continues as far as the 1970s. What's interesting to me about historical fiction is the fact that it can cover an era more honestly than a writer living during that time would have been able to. Certain subjects, such as contraceptives and birth control, prohibition, adoption, and premarital sex just aren't as taboo anymore. Cora lives in a time where women were ready to petition against drugstores that displayed information on contraceptives, and they were in the majority. The story isn't so much about Louise Brooks as it is about the time in which she came of age and when she was at the height of her popularity. And the scope goes beyond New York City as she and Cora are only there a month, and Cora has her life and family in Whichita, Kansas, where Louise Brooks was from. 

My Verdict: If Louise had more of a presence in this book, I definitely would not have as favorable of an opinion as I do. But thankfully, this novel truly is more about the chaperone, and because of that, I could bear it. It was thoroughly entertaining and interesting, but there were parts that either felt rushed to me or just untrue, not in the sense that I don't believed they happened, but in the sense that they felt like they didn't quite fit in the book, but the author needed something there. Some of it seemed a bit out of reach, but for the most part, I think it was well-written. It is a different perspective on an interesting and transitional time in American history. And by the ending I really felt as if I had been on a journey through a lifetime as well. 

Favorite Moment: When Cora takes Louise to the theater only to realize that not only are black people allowed to sit other places in the theater besides the balcony, but that the musical they are seeing is an all black cast as well as written and produced by black people...and she actually enjoyed it. 

Favorite Character: Joseph, the nice German custodian that Cora meets in New York and is able to help her out with her own personal mission. He is honest and hard-working, the former of which turns out to be sparse among the people in Cora's life. 

Recommended Reading: Of course I have to recommend The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton, especially since Cora actually reads the novel during her trip to New York and draws a few comparisons. But I will recommend The House of Mirth as well, as I often thought of Lily Bart, the main character in the book, when it came to Louise's own actions.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Horror Fiction: Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

The film Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter comes out today, so I decided to read this book and see for myself what this is all about. I have not read Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so I was not quite sure what to expect from this one. I wasn't sure exactly how seriously the book was going to take itself, or just how crazy the vampire references would get. What I found, I think, is a healthy mix between both the fantastical horror, and the real history behind one of this country's greatest presidents. 

The Situation: Young Abraham Lincoln lives a fairly hard but content existence with his mother and father, and sister Sarah. The hard parts of his life mostly result from his father's inability to keep the family settled in one place. Also, the elder Mr. Lincoln his constantly and consistently in debt. Abraham's father is also a hard man who works the young future president to the point of exhaustion. But Abraham finds comfort in both his mother and often times his sister. We all know that he grows up to become the President of the United States during one of the most crucial points in US history. And while most biographies and history books do show that his road to the White House was not an easy one, Grahame-Smith's book supposes that it was even harder than we have been lead to believe. 

The Problem: Vampires do exist and have a very real presence in the America that Abraham lives in. He learns of the existence of them from his father during one of his many drunken nights. And not only do they exist, but they are responsible for the death of Abraham's grandfather, and also, his mother. After resolving to not be helpless and useless as his father had been while vampires killed both his grandfather and mother, Abraham starts to train with extreme vigor. He would grow up to be tall, and because of his resolve, he is also incredibly strong and handy with an axe. But ridding America of every vampire is not a simple case of hunting them all down and throwing an axe into their heads. Abraham learns that there are some vampires that are on his side, that they can be incredibly difficult to subdue, as well as difficult to identify. But most importantly to American history, they play a crucial role in the South's insistence on keeping the peculiar institution of slavery. In other words, the task of vampire slaying goes well beyond Abraham Lincoln's personal vendetta; and his successes and failures, in both the political and personal, will have a much greater effect on an entire nation. 

Genre, Theme, History: This book has been referred to as a mash-up, horror fiction, mock biography, comic novel, historical fiction, comic thriller, etc. I will go ahead and say that it is incredibly bloody...but really I'm not sure why I was surprised, I mean, it's in the name. Graham-Smith takes real events in history and simply (or maybe not so simply) adds vampires. The premise of the book, which is written in an epistolary fashion, is that a struggling writer is given the secret diary of the former president, which includes the accounts of Lincoln's hunting excursions as well as personal agonies throughout his life. And unlike many recent books about vampires, mostly all of the vampires that Lincoln encounters are pure evil. They are not romanticized. They are not pretty or charming or enchanting in any way. If Lincoln were alive today and were to pick a "team" for Twilight, he would be on Team Van Helsing. 

The one thing I don't think people will expect when reading this book - and again, I don't know why we would be surprised - is the theme of slavery and just how much of a presence it has in this story. This is what makes it hard for me to see this novel as comical, although I do understood where people get that. The novel makes it very clear that (spoiler alert!) the vampires are on the side of the South because slaveholders have been providing them slaves to feed on since they made their way over to this country from Europe. Yeah, it makes this story horrifying in a whole new way. 

The Verdict: Grahame-Smith does a very good job of bringing the vampires into the history without making it seem too crazy or too far out there. Sure, there are moments that a serious suspension of disbelief is necessary; however, I think the author pulls it off bed well. There are also moments where I did wish the vampire element would disappear just so I could read the story without some link to the paranormal in there, but those moments were fairly rare. And because I myself am on Team Van Helsing, I do appreciate not having to read about vampires that are simply glorified and over-sexed. 

Favorite Moment: When the fairly reserved and stoic Abraham falls in love for the first time and fawns so much over his love interest that his vampire hunting partner would rather put the axe into his skull. 

Favorite Character: Edgar Allan Poe. Yep, he's in this. And he is just as weird as we would think he would be. He makes a good contrast to Abraham as he is this short, sickly, pale guy who has a different kind of fascination with vampires that borders on admiration. 

Recommended Reading: Of course I have to recommend Bram Stoker's Dracula. To really enjoy something like this you have to go to what is arguably the best vampire story every told. Although, reading some of Edgar Allan Poe's stuff couldn't hurt either.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Door Stop: David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

This book is long. Like The Brothers Karamazov kind of long. But like a lot of door stops out there, it is so very worth the time and trouble and anguish and drama and even frustration. This is the book I chose for my initiation into Dickens' writing, and I thought it worked out well. It may seem like it would make more sense to try One of his shorter books first, but I decided that if I was going to try him out and then I was going to dive in all the way. And I really thought I had, until I read Bleak House...but I have already posted about that experience. 

The Situation: The story follows the life of David Copperfield from childhood to adulthood. In true Dickensian fashion, David finds himself to be an orphan at a young age. His father died before he was born, and his mother dies shortly after having her second child while David is away at a boarding school. And really, that is as far as I fell I can go in this section, because really I have already bypassed several problems that have popped up even in the very early stages of this book. And as David grows older, only more crop up as he attempts to live his life. 

The Problem(s): Well, first off, David's stepfather, Mr. Murdstone (gotta love Dickens' way with names), is the reason David is sent to a boarding school in the first place. He is also the reason David is sent away to live in a factory after the death of his mother. But even after David manages to escape the harsh factory conditions and find his eccentric aunt to live with, Murdstone attempts to regain custody of him, but the aunt manages to hold onto him. And even as David manages to grow up, get married, work, and live his own life, problems follow him in the form of down and out acquaintances, false friendships (that are brought to light in some of the most awful ways imaginable), a regretful marriage, a ruthless but charismatic enemy, and loss of fortune for close friends and family. While David may be the main character of the novel, Dickens provides the reader with many colorful characters that we cannot help to either come to care for, or wish for their immediate demise and ruin. At one point I found myself (and after polling friends and family I realized I was not alone in this) wishing for the ruin and obliteration of a perfectly nice and sweet character in the novel whose only real fault is being incredibly stupid. Yeah, it is that bad. 

Genre, Themes, History: This novel is a classic example of the Bildungsroman. Dickens takes us from David's birth and on into adulthood where he has kids of his own. And while the novel is definitely not an autobiography, there are elements of David's childhood that are similar to that of Dickens himself. There are general themes of greed, control, justice, and even financial ineptitude in industrialized England. Another major theme is family, as David is surrounded and supported by a few since he no longer has one of his own, and his first attempt to build one is a regrettable failure. And David is surrounded by families of all types: rich, poor, noble, despicable, loving, unforgiving, etc. In the end, most of the novel's issues are resolved with everyone more or less getting what they deserve. 

My Verdict: As I mentioned before, this novel is definitely worth reading, but it will most likely take a considerable amount of time. And even after having read three other Dickens novels, I would still recommend this one as a good starting point if you haven't read anything else by him. I have heard Oliver Twist mentioned as a recommendation for first-time Dickens readers, but as I haven't read that one I can't make a judgement either way. I do recommend that an edition with the original illustrations be used. The one pictured above has both the illustrations and notes as to how the original story was serialized when Dickens first published it. 

Favorite Moment: When David realizes what the reader has been thinking for several pages: that his wife is an idiot and he was a fool for basically going after a pretty face with no functioning brain matter in her head. Yeah, it is that bad. 

Favorite Character: David's eccentric Aunt Betsy Trotwood seems like a harsh and cold person when she is first introduced, but she is soon shown to be delightfully offbeat and actually cares for David a great deal. 

Recommended Reading: I think I will go ahead and recommend another Dickens door stop, Bleak House. This one has even more characters (if you can imagine that) and even more tangled plot lines that link the characters together in sometimes unusual ways (view my blog post on the Bleak House cast of characters). Oh yeah, and there is a spontaneous combustion. Yep, that happens.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones won the 2011 National Book Award, and it was after that announcement and after reading the synopsis that I decided this was a book worth covering, even if I ended up not liking it. Also, it is important to me to find books by modern African-African writers beyond Toni Morrison...who is brilliant...I am so not discounting her talent, there is just a lot more out there in the way of African-American fiction than we realize. 

The Situation: Esch lives with her father and three brothers in little more than a shack in modern day Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. Since her mother died eight years ago after the birth of her younger brother, Junior, her father stays in a perpetual state between being drunk and being hungover. Skeetah lives his life taking care of the family dog that really only likes him, and oldest brother Randall walks the line of playing basketball with friends with the entire on playing for a college, and taking care of his family where his father no longer will. The shack is in a constant state of disrepair, and while the family manages to stay fed and alive, they do so by stealing or by salvaging materials from nearby houses that have long been abandoned or destroyed. For the most part, Esch is the only female in the novel as she hangs out with her older brother's friends. The novel covers ten days before and a few days after... 

The Problem: ...Hurricane Katrina. From almost the beginning the storm is coming and slowly gaining strength, and the only one who seems to understand the situation is Daddy, but being too drunk or hungover most of the time, he doesn't get much done. So most of the preparations fall to the three oldest children. But Skeetah only seems to have true concern for his dog, China, and her newly born puppies. Before he makes any move to take care of anyone else, Skeetah always makes sure China is taken care of first, something that understandably frustrates the rest of the family. Meanwhile, Esch realizes that she too is pregnant, and at the young age of 14. Soon, Katrina arrives in full force, and the only way to find out if they are ready is to let the storm run her course. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is powerful African-American fiction that culminates in one of the greatest natural disasters to ever come upon a North American coast. There are general themes of poverty, survival, community, family, and even animal abuse. I am going to go ahead and say that this book involves dog fighting, so if you're sensitive to the plight of our lovable four-legged friends, you may not want to read this novel. I believe the issue is handled well and delicately, but it is also handled honestly. 

Also, throughout the novel, Esch likens her situation to that of the Greek mythological figure of Medea. Esch draws the comparisons mostly in regards to her pregnancy and the father, but she finds links during other events as well. 

My Verdict: I was not sure what to expect from this book, and while I was extremely frustrated and disappointed by the time I got to the middle, I was pleasantly surprised and pleased once I reached the end. For the majority of the story, I had the same problem with this novel that I do with Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. While I acknowledge Huck Finn as a great American masterpiece, I don't personally care for the book. The first time I read it I just kept waiting for Huck and Jim to get off of that damned river...and then I realized that the book was all about the journey on the river. Then the duke and king show up. Then they leave only to be replaced by the agonizing presence of Tom Sawyer. With Salvage the Bones, it is the presence of China, Skeetah's dog, that gets to me. But really, it isn't necessarily China's presence that is frustrating so much as how Skeetah treats her. I love dogs, but Ward's novel presents the issue of people who care for them more than they do human beings (although sometimes I get it). Even with the impending presence of a category 5 hurricane, Skeetah makes sure China is taken care of first. And yet, while he will expend all of this energy looking after her and loving on her, he still subjects her to dog-fighting...a practice that gives bragging rights to the one who isn't in the ring getting their faces bitten off and their throats ripped out. Yeah, I'm going to have a problem with that. But as I said before, Ward handles it well, and the ending brings all of these issues together in a workable conclusion that does not feel slapped together. 

Favorite Moment: This is a hard novel in the sense that a lot of it is dealing with some heavy stuff and hard situations. All of the moments I think of that resonated with me aren't exactly pleasant and not ones I would necessarily pick out to read to a mixed crowd. 

Favorite Character: Either Randall or Big Henry. Maybe it is because he is the oldest, but Randall steps in where his father cannot...and he has to do it a lot. He's level-headed and calm, and serves as the voice of reason this family desperately needs. Big Henry is the friend of the family that acts more like blood family than some of the actual family. Esch describes him as the biggest member of the group of friends, but he is the most gentle and graceful, and often tries to keep the peace. 

Recommended Reading: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neal Hurston. I couldn't help but think of it because it also involves a hurricane and a community's fight to survive the storm.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Classic Fiction: 1984 by George Orwell

I decided to do yet another one of those summer reading classics that I somehow was never forced to read. George Orwell's 1984 is a dystopian novel in which he puts forth a prediction of what 1984 was going to look like while he was living in 1948. The result is a chilling representation of a future that, while much harsher than the one we actually live in, still has some unsettling similarities that we could really do without. 

The Situation: Winston Smith lives in London, which is part of what is now known as Oceania. Presently, at the beginning of the novel, Oceania is at war with Eurasia, and they have always been at war with Eurasia. Winston works for the Ministry of Truth in the Records department. His job, more or less, is to literally alter and change the past. Because Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia, every record and article ever must say as much. And later, when it is realized that Oceania is actually at war with Eastasia, and has always been at war with Eastasia, Winston's department must work hard at making the past reflect this. He isn't part of society's elite, but he isn't a "prole" either. He is a Party member with a Party job and Party housing. He had a wife once, no kids, and mostly lives a mundane existence obeying Big Brother. Until he no longer decides to. 

The Problem: Big Brother is watching. Big Brother is always watching. But Winston starts to take small liberties and break the rules in small ways anyway, at first. Even with the simple act of buying a diary and writing his true thoughts in it, Winston becomes convinced that he has already signed his own death certificate, but he keeps going anyway. Eventually he is hanging out with proles, looking to start a revolution. He even begins having an affair with a coworker from another department who shares his desire for change. And when they both sign up with a group that barely identifies themselves as "The Brotherhood," they soon realize they have reached the point of no return. Capture by the Thought Police seems inevitable, and everyone acknowledges that it will eventually happen. There is no escaping it. 

Genre, Themes, History: 1984 is a dystopian novel. Issues that are presented in contemporary novels such as The Hunger Games and Ready Player One are really nothing new, but man are the find to explore and read about (and I imagine write about). For some weird and kind of sick reasons, human beings love to imagine all the different ways this world can go horribly horribly wrong. And this novel goes to a pretty dark place and imagines a pretty horrifying situation. We're talking government control at its worst, but they're really good at it, which makes it even more devastating. There is also the theme of desperation and the human condition under torture and utter hopelessness. Keep in mind, Orwell wrote this in 1948...and somehow that makes it creepier for me. 

My Verdict: Pretty much a must read. I see why teenagers have been forced to read it for so long and will continue to be for years to come. It starts out as disturbing, and then things are so scary, and then in the third part we are shown why we were fools to think that things weren't so scary in the first part, and that the characters failed to head the warnings from the first part. I can see readers wanting to dismiss it as paranoid musings from the post World War II era, but this story has survived long after the actual year 1984 has come and gone for a reason. But I really don't want to look into what that reason might be. 

Favorite Moment: When, during the Two Minute Hate, Winston finds himself shouting with rage at the images on the screen even though he doesn't really believe or support a word of it. That's the power of both suggestion and mob mentality for you. 

Favorite Character: Yeah, this is another one of those books where it is going to be hard to pick a "favorite." Everyone is pretty messed up, but it isn't their fault necessarily. 

Recommended Reading: I will have to go with a book I have already mentioned, and that is Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. Cline's book is set even further into the future, but because it was written today will include many things we are used to having in the present day, such as the Internet, while using mostly references from the 80s. I highly recommend it.