Friday, March 30, 2012

Door Stop: The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

You know I have to say it: this book is long. Like Les Miserables long. But it is so so worth it. I think this is the first extremely long door stop I ever read and I loved it. I had already read Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, and have since read Crime and Punishment as well as Notes from the Underground. Dostoyevsky is probably my favorite Russian writer, but what is interesting is how American readers seem to like him so much more than readers in his own country. I have heard that Vladimir Nabokov (Lolita) wasn't that big a fan and felt that Dostoyevsky has benefited from good translators. Either way, I have thoroughly enjoyed his work and think others should at least read Crime and Punishment.

The Situation: There is a lot going on in this book, so I'll try to keep it as short as possible. Fyodor Karamazov has three sons from two different marriages: The oldest is Dmitri from his first marriage; second is Ivan, the oldest from his second marriage; and finally there is Alexei, the youngest. There are rumors of another brother, Pavel, who grows up in the Karamazov house as a servant. The three main sons generally have grown apart from each other due to their father's disinterest in each of them, but aren't necessarily hostile towards each other. Alexei is the hero of the novel, and his faith is contrasted with Ivan's atheism. Dmitri and his father have the most volatile relationship, but Ivan isn't exactly winning father of the year from Ivan either. Alexei is by far the most likable of the four Karamazovs and pretty much everyone seems to like him. Things eventually come to a head between Dmitri and his father when it is discovered that they are both after the same woman. At one point, Dmitri enters his father's house, assaults him, and then threatens to come back later and finish him off. And this leads to....

The Problem: Fyodor is murdered, and Dmitri is the prime suspect and is arrested. A lengthy investigation and trial ensues in which Dmitri maintains his innocence and does what he can to keep from being sent to Siberia. But the circumstances surrounding the murder, including where Dmitri is seen that night and what he does admit to doing, do not help his case. Also, Ivan appears to be sliding deeper and deeper into madness. At one point he even hallucinates a conversation with the devil in which he is cruelly mocked. Alexei is the one son holding it together after losing his father and having to face the murder trial of his brother.

Genre, Theme, History: This Russian novel is full of drama and grief. Dostoyevsky was heavily influenced by the recent death of his three year-old son who dies of epilepsy. Also, while serving a sentence in prison, Dostoyevsky met three brothers who were somewhat similar to the three brothers in the novel. The three brothers committed a crime, and Dostoyevsky was quite taken with the sweetness and innocence of one of them, and I would assume he is the one Alexei is based on.

Although the three brother and their father are the focus of the story, Dostoyevsky makes many digressions and tells many side stories to express and explore the thoughts and lives of some of the more minor characters. Also, as Alexei is a part of the Russian Orthodox monastery, and Ivan is an atheist, there is of course much discussion about philosophy and religion. And despite all that happens, Alexei's faith seems to strengthen while Ivan's faith deteriorates and breaks down just as his mental state does the same.

My Verdict: This book is incredibly long, but it is incredibly worth it. Whether it is Dostoyevsky's writing or the skill of his translators, there is something about the way his stories are told that I find almost enchanting, especially despite the harsh setting they usually take place in and the lack of likability in most of his characters. Yes there are parts that drag, and yes there are parts that will make you want to reach for the abridged version (or just put the entire book down completely), but I suggest struggling through it. It is, however, one of those books you kind of have to be ready for...if that makes any sense.

Favorite Moment: This is a weird favorite moment, but for some reason I enjoyed the shock and doubt of the surrounding community after the beloved Elder Zosima has died and his body starts to deteriorate. Of course for us, we understand that is just what happens to a dead body. But the people of this town believe that a truly holy man's body would not start to decay...especially not as quickly as Elder Zosima's seemed to. Within the first day, the monk's body starts to smell and everyone, including Alexei, begin to doubt the man's holiness. For some reason I found that so entertaining...

Favorite Character: This one is hard for me because I want to say Alexei for obvious reasons, but at the same time I want to go with Ivan because I really felt bad for him when he started to go mad, and especially when he decides to do the right thing, but isn't sane enough to carry it out. Plus, I seem to have a thing for depressives...not sure what that is about.

Recommended Reading: Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment.  Honestly, this is the better book to start off with if you've never read any Dostoyevsky before. I still like The Brother's Karamazov the most, but Crime and Punishment is pretty thrilling. And bonus: it is also much much shorter.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

WARNING! SPOILERS BELOW! I have to give the same warning that I gave with Catching Fire. There will be spoilers below and I may end up inadvertently ruining....wait, no...I KNOW I will end up ruining The Hunger Games and Catching Fire as well. You have been warned.

The Situation: By the end of Catching Fire, Katniss is told that there is no more District 12 (see...told you I would ruin it). Her homeland has been completely obliterated as the Capitol is attempting to head off the growing and yet imminent rebellion. The good news is that Katniss has managed to escape her second trip into the Hunger Games, along with many of her allies from the arena. She is now (somewhat) safely residing with her family and other survivors and the long-believed non-existent District 13. Here, under President Coin, Katniss and other survivors can further the rebellion and the seek the death of President Snow.

The Problem: Well, besides the glaringly obvious one of District 12 being reduced to smoke and ashes, which means many of the people Katniss knew are also dead, is the horrifying fact that Peeta did not make it back to District 13 with the others. He was captured by the Capitol, and Katniss eventually realizes he is being tortured for information and being used by President Snow to get into Katniss' head...and it is working. And while the rebellion seems to be gaining momentum, the Capitol is definitely not going down without a fight. And of course, Katniss has to navigate all of this chaos while continuing to sort out her feelings for both Gale and Peeta. 

Genre, Themes, History: If the first two books were lessons in social justice, this one is a lesson in the effects of war. Collins has stated that she did get some inspiration for the series, and Katniss' sense of loss from her father's death, from the Vietnam War, in which Collins' father served. The book does not pull any punches in showing how brutal war truly is and how both sides are often guilty using the lives of innocent people to achieve their goals. Also, something I found interesting was that Mockingjay shows how even the "good guys" can end up doing the exact thing they criticized the Capitol for. Once some rulers get people on their side and have the momentum they need to make the rebellion successful, they start making decisions that put the people in the same oppressive situations they were in before the rebellion started. Fascinating stuff. 

And much like the first book, Katniss must deal with issues of moral ambiguity as she is once again having to kill others in order to survive and make the rebellion successful. 

My Verdict: Mockingjay gave me just the closure I needed to finish out the story. I would not call it a happy ending by any means, but it is an ending, and after everything that happens, that is enough. I also thought this book sufficiently redeemed the one fatal flaw I thought Catching Fire had of simply reworking the same plot-lines from the first one. And while all three books go together (although the first one could possibly stand on its own), Mockingjay is definitely the most different and possibly the most terrifying.

Favorite Moment: President Snow's execution. And no, I did not give it away by saying that. Trust me.

Favorite Character: Finnick. This is a guy that you meet in Catching Fire and think you aren't going to be a fan of, but then by the end of book and as the reader gets further along in Mockingjay, he becomes an endearing favorite.

Recommended Reading: Honestly, I have nothing for this. The Hunger Games the movie comes out today, so maybe I'll recommend that. That's right, on a book blog I am recommending that you watch the movie. But I am almost 100% sure that those of you who have actually read the book first will utter that awful phrase that bookworms all over are known for: "The book was better." And you know what? We only say it because it is true.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

WARNING! SPOILERS BELOW! If you have not yet read Catching Fire and do not want to know any part of the plot then you may not want to continue reading this post. Also, because this is the second book in a three-book series, I cannot really talk about it without revealing some of what happens in the first book. So really there are spoilers in here about both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. You have been warned.

The Situation: After winning the 74th annual Hunger Games for District 12, Katniss and her family have moved into the Victor's Village where they have a two-story house and plenty of food. For the first time in Katniss' life there is no need for her to hunt to feed her family, but she still does in order to help out her friends who aren't so fortunate. She even manages to patch things up with Peeta to where they can at least be friends.

The Problem: Even with the improved circumstances at home, Katniss has to deal with the reality that she and Peeta have to go on the dreaded victory tour throughout all 12 districts and the Capitol. Looking out into the crowd and at the faces of the families of the children she killed is not something Katniss is looking forward to. And for every year after this she and Peeta will have to join Haymitch as mentors for future tributes of District 12. Also, President Snow isn't entirely convinced that she is in love with Peeta, and he is still mad at her for making him, the Capitol, and the Gamemakers look foolish because of how she outsmarted them during the games. President Snow blames Katniss for the uprising that now seems imminent, and he is determined to make her pay.

Genre, Themes, History: As brutal and intense as these books are, I am still having a hell of a time believing they are young adult literature, but they are. I'm probably not giving young adults enough credit, but with that being said I am super curious to see how they deal with the brutality of the story once the movie hits the big screen.

The theme of social justice continues with more instances of the oppressed having to make difficult and sometimes terrible decisions due to their circumstances. The mere fact that the Capitol makes the victors visit every district halfway between when the last Hunger Games ended and the new ones begin show how the government likes to always make its presence felt and remind the people of who is really in charge. But while government control still factors in here, ideas and talk of rebellion start to play a part too among the larger and more general theme of survival and what must be done simply to see the next day. 

My Verdict: While still really good, this book for me was the weakest of the series, and I'll go into why when I discuss my least favorite moment later. I do like how Collins depicted the birth of an uprising and the desperation of those in control to maintain that control.

Favorite Moment: While on the victory tour in District 11, Katniss makes a point to give special thanks to Rue and Thresh as they were both a big part of her winning the Hunger Games despite being from a different district. After she finishes speaking, everyone gathered there from District 11 begins singing in a sign of both remembrance and rebellion. It is actually a really nice scene until the shooting starts.

Least Favorite Moment: This is another category (like Least Favorite Character) that I won't use all of the time unless there is something specific that really irritates me. I was absolutely furious when I read that Katniss was going to have to participate in the Hunger Games all over again. When she won the games in the first book I felt such an intense sense of relief not only because she won and was alive, but also in just the fact that the games were over. And then President Snow just has to get on the revenge path and make it where Katniss has no choice but to go back in because of the unique rules of the Quarter Quell. But not only was I upset with President Snow, but the author as well. I feel like with 11 other districts to play with, and the Capitol, that surely there were other ways of continuing the story. It was too close to the "it was all a dream," or the "she has amnesia" plot lines we all know so well. With that being said, still an excellent story.    

Favorite Character: I have liked Cinna the stylist since the first book. He is always somewhat reserved but really supportive of Katniss, but in this book, he makes some bold moves that make him more than just a pawn of the Capitol, and thus wins my ultimate approval.

Recommended Reading: Mockingjay. The third and final book in the Hunger Games trilogy.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

In anticipation of the upcoming movie due to hit theaters on Friday, March 23rd, I decided to post on each of the books of The Hunger Games trilogy. Over the next three posts I will cover The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. Even before I knew there was to be a movie I wanted to read these books, and in late January I finally got the chance to and am so glad I did. I finished all three books, a total of 1200 pages, in less than six days, because they were so engrossing and so intense, and Collins writes in such a way that you just have to know what happens next. 

The Situation: Every year the nation of Panem conducts the annual Hunger Games where 24 contestants, or tributes as they are called in the book, are chosen (two from each of the 12 districts, a boy and a girl) to compete so that their district can receive extra rations of food from the Capitol for a full year until there is a new winner of the Hunger Games. The winner, however, becomes exceedingly wealthy and it lasts for the rest of their lives. They get a new house and everything and are basically celebrities in their own districts. This year, Katniss Everdeen has volunteered to be the female tribute.

The Problem: The Hunger Games is actually a death match in which the two tributes are chosen at random from a bowl where every child's name (ages 12-18) in the district is submitted. And yes, I did say is a death match for children. And even if both tributes from one district are the last two left standing, there can only be one winner.

So why would Katniss ever volunteer for something like this? In some of the wealthier districts that are often favored by the Capitol, some kids have been training their whole lives for this, so having kids volunteer in these districts is not as uncommon as it is in District 12, which is Katniss' district. But Katniss has not made the Hunger Games her life's mission. She volunteers because it was originally her 12 year-old sister's name, Prim, that was drawn out of the bowl. 

The book follows Katniss as she meets up with her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta, and their mentor, Haymitch, a former winner. Before they even have to face the reality of killing other children or being killed, they are paraded around the Capitol in an opening ceremony, which is also being broadcasted to every district. Actually, the Hunger Games themselves will also be broadcasted to every district. That's right...the entire nation gets to sit at home and watch as children murder each other for sport. And that is exactly what they do when the 24 contestants finally reach the arena and the Hunger Games begin.

Genre, Theme, History: As absolutely horrifying as this book is and no matter how unable I am to picture this as a movie being shown on the big screen, this is in fact a young adult novel. And actually, I was glad for it because I cannot imagine how much more real this book could have gotten if Collins had targeted adults. 

For me, the book is like a crash course in social justice. The Hunger Games are a weapon used by the Capitol to remind the Districts of their failed rebellion years ago and also remind them that the Capitol is ever present and has complete control. And it is a control they are not afraid to use as they take your children and use them not only as a weapon against you, but as a weapon you can use against each other. It paints this picture of almost utter hopelessness and how the oppressed are often forced to make terrible and horrifying decisions: in order to survive, Katniss must kill other children. Also, throughout the book there is such a focus on hunting and food and finding water and just staying alive. It is interesting that while this focus makes sense in the Hunger Games arena where Katniss is very literally trying to stay alive, this has also been her focus all of her life because of the extreme poverty her and her family lives in everyday. 

The book is set in the future and Panem is supposed to be what used to be North America (chew on that one for awhile). Because of the way they talk and the way Katniss lives, this idea of it being set in the future can be hard to grasp because while they have a television, very few people have a phone. And Katniss' family are able to eat what little they have everyday because she goes out hunting with a bow and arrow and trades at the black market (oddly enough, it is because she has to become good with a bow and arrow in order to eat everyday that she is able to survive and win the Hunger Games). Not until the story reaches the Capitol does the reader get a glimpse into surroundings that feel more like our own.

My verdict: Definitely worth the time and the spike in your blood pressure. Adults and teens should read it.

Favorite Moment: Hard to say really...most of it is so terrifying. I guess I will go with 12 year-old Rue singing to the mockingjays and them singing back. Probably the most tender moment of the whole book.

Favorite Character: As endearing as Peeta is, I would have to go with Rue. I do not want to say too much and ruin it, but how anyone could think that putting someone like her into a death match and watch it for entertainment is beyond me.

Recommended Reading: This should be fairly obvious but the next book on the list should be Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Nonfiction: Bossypants by Tina Fey

I enjoyed Tina Fey's Bossypants just as much as I thought I would, but in a way that I was not expecting. Of course the book is funny, and of course reading about Fey's journey from doing improv with Second City in Chicago to being the boss with 30Rock, but what I wasn't expecting (although really I should have) were he well-expressed points about not only women in the workplace, but women in comedy, and women on television. And by the end of the book, she has some very interesting points to make about motherhood as well.

Genre, Theme, History: The book is a memoir, and a damn good one. It is funny, but with a few serious moments, but they are appropriately serious, although there are parts that are inappropriately funny, but I still laughed...because she's just that good.

The humor found in this book is just about what you would expect if you are at all familiar with her writing for movies, television, and sketch comedy. She writes about her whole life - from her days growing up, through her beginning career in comedy, and all the way through Saturday Night Live to 30Rock - with the same consistent wit and insight. But even as the book manages to stay light-hearted, Fey makes some very real points about what it took her to end up where she is what it takes for women to make it in her industry. She talks openly and honestly about her struggles, especially when she was younger and just starting out. I think what I appreciated the most was her honesty about how competitive and cutthroat people need to be, while also pointing out the difference between real competition and what is only perceived competition, especially among women. Fey is also honest about her flaws and awkwardness, as well as her successes.

My Verdict: Five stars all the way. I think anyone who has ever enjoyed any of Fey's work would thoroughly appreciate this book. The only thing I can think of that people may not be okay with is that parts of the book, like some of her comedy, are awkward and cringe-worthy...but you still laugh.

Favorite Moment: At one point Fey decides to answer real questions or criticisms about her that have appeared on sites like with somewhat real, incredibly funny, but also very brutal and sarcastic answers. One is about the scar on her face (am I the only one who barely notices that she has a scar on her face?) and I just really appreciate her answer. Another one of my favorite parts of the book is when she talks about the start of 30Rock and how she basically attributes it being picked up and continuing as long as it has to Alec Baldwin.

Recommended Reading: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling. Not as strong of a memoir in my opinion (full review here), but similar to Bossypants in that Kaling takes the reader on her journey to becoming one of the head writers for The Office