Friday, May 25, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus

This was yet another selection that I picked up thanks to the good people at BookPeople in Austin, Texas. Besides, I am always in the mood for a book that explores the idea of speech (as well as writing, language, and just all forms of communication in general as we currently know it) being harmful to us. Being an avid reader and writer, how could I not be intrigued?  

The Situation: Sam and his wife Claire live the usual existence with their daughter, Esther. She is a fairly typical teenager who scorns the attention and care of her parents, hates being asked about her life, argues with them on almost every point possible, and like most parents of teenagers, Sam and Claire want nothing more than to just be around her and love her and spend time with her. They are also part of a Jewish order that does not worship in synagogues with others, but instead worships only with one another, as a couple, in a hut of their own more than an hour away from their house in a forest. This secluded form of their worship, along with their own daughter, become important aspects in a massive issue they will soon face. And they aren't the only ones who end up being affected, but seemingly the entire human population. 

 The Problem: The speech of Esther, this child that her parents love so much and want desperately to be with, is killing Sam and his wife. In fact, the speech of all children under the age of 18 is killing adults. At first it appears to be concentrated in one area, but the condition soon spreads. And them, as if being killed by the speech of children wasn't horrifying enough, it gets to the point where any speech or communication initiated by anyone is harmful to adults. And once a child reaches adulthood, they are no longer immune like they once were but also become affected like all other adults. In order to survive, Sam and Claire must either send Esther away, or move away themselves. While Sam attempts to come up with medicines and antidotes on his own, a well-known theorists is telling the public that the epidemic started only in Jewish children and has spread since. He also seems to take issue with people like Sam and Claire who worship in secret, believing them to be hoarding wisdom that should be shared with the public. Sam eventually encounters a man named Murphy who agrees with the theorists, and subsequently becomes a dangerous presence in his life. 

Genre, Themes, History: I am perfectly okay with calling this a horror as I would think most people would find the idea of children's speech being deadly pretty terrifying. Especially once certain children find this out and decide to use this new found weapon against the adults. And while the book explores issues of effective communication, harmful communication, and finally the ability to communicate without the use of language at all (which is what seems to be what the book is arguing for), Marcus also explores the theme of family and parenthood. Even though all Esther seems to want is her privacy, even before her speech becomes harmful to adults, her parents, especially Sam, seem incapable of giving her that. Sam asserts that one of the worst things that can happen to a father is suddenly no longer be a father. And of course, with the focus on Jewish families and Jewish children, issues of religion and worship and faith and doubt and belief are brought up and whether or not any sort of solution to this problem can be found in that. 

My Verdict: I have to say I was somewhat underwhelmed by this book. The premise is beyond fascinating - the speech of children being deadly. Crazy! I feel like there are so many ways that can go, but instead, I often found the book to be boring and convoluted. Perhaps the first-person narration got to me as the reader spends a lot, and I mean a lot, of time in Sam's head, especially due to the fact that he can't speak too much to other characters since it very well may kill them. Also, many of the theories and science was just beyond me. As a whole, I felt that after 389 pages, the story didn't go very far.  

Favorite Moment: I'm not sure if I can really pick one, it is all pretty horrifying.  

Favorite Character: Again, not sure I can say much here. I found all of the characters to be severely flawed in some what that made it hard to sympathize with them. Esther is you typical sullen teenage girl, and even in Sam and Claire's illness, I found the mistakes they make while trying to survive almost unbearable. Granted, it is a disparate situation, and it is hard to think of a "right" answer in a situation like this, but even so.  

Recommended Reading: Watt by Samuel Beckett. Beckett was a man who was all about language. He absolutely loved it. But he was also embarrassed by how much he loved it. This is why he often chose to write in a language that was not his native language, because it forced him to limit his writing and choose words carefully. Watt has many examples of Beckett's ability to go too far with language, and it is interesting to think of the excess of language found in that book after reading about how harmful it is in The Flame Alphabet.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Young Adult Fiction: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray



Beauty Queens is the latest novel by young adult fiction writer Libba Bray. I was intrigued by the book because of its premise, beauty queens trapped on a deserted island, and was once again able to pick up a book from the UTSA library instead of hunting for it at Half Price Books. Free books are kind of the best thing ever...

The Situation: Adina Greenberg (Ms. New Hampshire) will be representing her state in the Miss Teen Dream pageant. But, as a staunch feminist and a proud budding journalist, Adina only entered in order to expose the pageant for what it really is. The novel follows her and twelve other pageant finalists, including (spoiler alert!) pre-op transsexual Petra West (Ms. Rhode Island), African American Nicole Ade (Ms. Colorado), Indian American Shanti Singh (Ms. California), hearing-impaired Sosie Simmons (Ms. Illinois), lesbian/juvenile delinquent Jennifer Huberman (Ms. Michigan), girl next door Mary Lou Novak (Ms. Nebraska), and of course, because Ms. Texas always makes the finalists, my the Lone Star State is represented by the self-determined blond-haired blue-eyed Taylor Rene Krystal Kawkins. While Adina tries to subvert the entire pageant and the world's ideas of beauty, popularity, and womanhood, Nicole and Shanti deal with the fact that, realistically, only one of the can make the finals as past pageants have never been big on diversity. Also, Taylor has been competing ever since she can walk, so understandably she and Adina will immediately butt heads and not agree on anything.

The Problem: As if dealing with all of the egos of multiple teenage beauty contestants isn't enough conflict, the plane all 50 of the contestants are on goes down over a deserted island, killing everyone aboard except for the 13 contestants the book follows around afterwards. Naturally, most of these girls have absolutely no skill when it comes to trying to survive life on a deserted island full of hostile animals and a hopefully dormant volcano. Surprisingly, although not surprisingly, Taylor proves incredibly resourceful in scrounging up food and providing protection against enemies, and is also able to lead the girls not only in survival, but also in continuing to stay sharp in case they are rescued, and the pageant does go on. But even this isn't the end of it. Soon it isn't just giant snakes the girls are trying to outrun, as they slowly begin to realize that this island isn't quite as deserted as they thought, and that staying ready for the pageant shouldn't be their primary concern.

Genre, Theme, History: This young adult novel plays with the beauty pageant idea and uses it to challenge many stereotypes concerning women, teenage girls, and the portrayal of women in popular culture. But eventually, the book begins to explore the issues of corporate propaganda, corporate takeover, product placement, arms dealing , dictatorship and U.S. government's role in the placement of those dictators, reality television, and even trust fund kids. Yeah, the book actually covers quite a bit of everything, which was surprising, but also brings me to my verdict.

My Verdict: The boom starts out okay, and even the shifting perspective is done fairly well as the reader gets a chance to learn about almost all of the surviving contestants and see the range that Bray has provided. However, soon the book dissolves into a contrived mess. The result is the use of some stereotypes being used to take down or explore other stereotypes. While the book does bring up many key issues relevant to our society today, and makes many important points, I had a hard time taking any of them seriously because of the way they were being presented. There were also many times where I simply felt like Bray had an axe to grind against someone (really not sure who), and this book was her way of doing it.

I also have a bone to pick with Bray and a few other modern writers - I have noticed that having a character reject God or be a lesbian (or in the case of this book, both at the same time) has become the cool thing to do in a lot of recently published novels I have read. The rejection of God usually doesn't merit any more than a few sentences. It is usually mentioned somewhere near the beginning of the story and then never brought up again. And there is usually one, but not more than one, lesbian character, while there are no gay men to be seen anywhere. It has occurred enough for me to notice, which means it has occurred quite a bit because despite any evidence presented in this blog, I am actually surprisingly unobservant for an English major. I have read a few books where both trends were handled extremely well (Ready Player One, I am looking in your direction), but most of the time it just comes across as overused and annoying. Just had to put that out there.

Also, the book is just too long for what it is. It almost pulls a Lord of the Rings and has multiple endings.

Favorite Moment: Any time there was a commercial break to advertise any one of the ridiculous feminine products produced by The Corporation. Some of the names of these products include Lady 'Stache Off (hair removal), Bipolar Bears (mood altering pills specifically for teenage girls), Pore It in clay mask (pore-refining mask), What R U, A Woolly Mammoth? (brow gel), and Breast in Show with Fill 'Er Up implants and injectables (the wonder bra of the future). 

Favorite Character: Pretty much all of the contestants ended up being pretty annoying to me by the end. So I choose Momo B. Chacha, the ruthless dictator of the Republic of Chacha island. He is pretty much pure evil, but has a stuffed monkey (not plush, but stuffed as in used to alive but now he is not) he calls General Good Times, an obsession with Elvis as well as white jumpsuits and wigs, and absolutely adores American popular culture and reality television shows such as Captains Bodacious, a show where hot teenage nobodies who are now famous for being famous sail the open seas and have adventures.

Recommended Reading: I am actually going to recommend The Hunger Games, because that is what I call a real story of survival. Having read that before reading Beauty Queens definitely made it even harder for me to take Bray's book seriously.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Nonfiction: The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

With A.J. Jacob's most recent book, Drop Dead Healthy: One Man's Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection, now available all over North America, I decided to post on another one of his contributions to what is often referred to as "stunt journalism." I actually decided to read The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible thanks to my mother who highly recommended. And as usual, mom did not let me down.

The Situation: As a sort of follow-up to The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, another experiment of Jacob's that he turned into a book, where he read all 32 volumes of the 2002 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, Jacobs decided to take on the Bible. After reading it, he decided to devote a year of his life to following every law and moral code inside of it. To do this he consulted many religious experts ranging from rabbis to snake handlers. He also consulted many religious texts and did not skimp at all on the research. Pretty ambitious.

The Problem: This may have been too ambitious. To follow every single law and moral code in the Bible is one ridiculously difficult task. I mean...this is one of those things that human beings just naturally fail at over and over again (kind of the whole point of God giving up his Son for us and all). And not only does Jacobs have his work cut out for him, but he also has a wife and son to consider. Oh yeah, and his wife becomes pregnant during the course of the year...with twins (he's got the be fruitful and multiply part down). Also, he is still writing for Esquire magazine which requires him to talk with celebrities and other personalities who do not know (and maybe wouldn't care) about what he is trying to do. There is one part of the book where he interviews one particular actress that he describes as "the single most raunchy actress in Hollywood." If you want to know who it is, you'll have to read the book (or at least skim it while standing in a local bookstore) as I won't tell you and Wikipedia doesn't have the answer. But I will say the answer will surprise you.

Genre, Themes, History: I have already stated that this genre is commonly referred to as "stunt journalism," which does make sense. Jacobs has four books now in which he takes on a seemingly impossible task and writes down what happens. This one of course is going to have biblical themes, and while Jacobs doesn't stick with just one type of Christianity (Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, snake handling, etc.), or even Judaism, he does lean heavily on the traditional Jewish side of things, which does make sense given the Old Testament of the Bible and Jacob's own Jewish heritage.

My Verdict: While this subject matter has the capacity to become extremely heavy and volatile extremely quickly, Jacobs manages to keep it light, while still making the reader think. The book is funny without being offensive...at least I think so. There are moments that are truly profound and will cause even the most devout follower of the Bible to think about their own spiritual lives and the how and the why of the "rules" they follow. And while someone else may come out of an experiment of this sort with totally different findings, Jacob's journey has a note of universality that I think many readers can identify with. I believe many readers in this modern world will get something out of this book.

My only real bone to pick with the book is that it seems to me, and maybe I missed something, that Jacobs doesn't make it a point to regularly attend a house of worship. Sure, he visits synagogues, he consults with rabbis, he goes to various types of services, but for the most part it seems to be ignored. To be fair though, Jacobs had a lot to cover, even with a whole year to do it.

Favorite Moment: Because Jacobs is not to sit on anything that an impure woman has sat on, his wife, who is currently menstruating (this is before she becomes pregnant), proceeds to sit on every couch and chair in the house before he gets home. She is not a fan of the rule.

Recommended Reading: Paradise Lost by John Milton. I know, I know...but given the nature of Jacob's book I feel it is pretty appropriate to turn to classic and well-known interpretation of the biblical story of the fall of man. Even so, I do not in any way judge anyone for not following this recommendation.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Contemporary Fiction: Sacre Bleu: A Comedy D'Art by Christopher Moore

This was my first experience with a Christopher Moore book. There is no real reason for why I avoided him in the past, but I picked this one up because, well, for one, the library had it available. And two, look how pretty it is! Sure, if you remove the book jacket the woman on the cover is quite naked, but besides that it is a really neat cover. And sometimes, that is in fact how I judge books.

The Situation: It is 1890 in France and the news of the death of Vincent van Gogh has just reached two of his fellow French Impressionist painters, Lucien Lessard and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. The official verdict seems to be that he has shot himself, but Lucien and Henri are not entirely convinced. Lucien, a baker's son turned painter, cannot help but question the fact that after the emotionally troubled painter supposedly shot himself, he walked to the nearby house of a physician and sought medical treatment. Also, van Gogh's friends and family recall him having been haunted by a certain "colorman" whom he believed to be stalking him. Armed with this limited amount of information, Lucien and Henri set out to discover the real cause of van Gogh's death, while attempting to become painters in their own right, as well as find love with their muses that often become subjects of their own paintings.

The Problem: Turns out (and I promise I am not giving anything away here because it is revealed in the first few pages of the book), van Gogh was murdered and this mysterious colorman is to blame. And while van Gogh's death by shooting was somewhat accidental, the colorman was looking to "use him up," and intends to do the same to many other painters, including Lucien and Henri. And as if attempting to solve the murder of a fellow painter while preventing your own demise was not enough, turns out something weird is going on with the women that "inspire" these painters to paint. It appears that the female subjects of many famous paintings, including Renoir's "The Swing" and Toulouse-Lautrec's "The Laundress," have managed to literally drive many of these painters out their minds with some of them being left dead in the end. Even Lucien and Henri admit to having lost vast amounts of time and even a few paintings they half remember painting when they were with the women they love. After realizing the same has happened to many other painters, including Monet, Whistler, Seurat, Manet, and Gauguin, just to name a few, the painters can't help but wonder if these events, along with the part the colorman has played in all of their lives, aren't somehow related. One thing is for certain, the blue paint that the colorman is always trying to push on the various painters is part of the puzzle.

Genre, Themes, History: This book is all at once a comedy, a murder mystery, a surreal odyssey, and a fun history lesson (although the parts that Moore made up or changed to fit his story are explained at the end of the book). There is obviously a constant theme of art, but there is also the theme of creation and the kind of energy, both emotional and physical, it can take for someone to produce a work that is truly inspiring. And while art is the main focus, there is also some science involved as well as history, archeology, religion, and folklore.

What I received a crash course in was the French Impressionism of the late 19th century. This is an area I have never known much about (or really have been all that interested in), and while a lot fo what is presented in Moore's book has been fictionalized, I feel I learned a lot, and anyone else who knows little about art history may feel the same. Because of how Moore depicted certain painters such as Whistler and Toulouse-Lautrec, I know get references from books and TV shows that have previously been over my head (the Daria movie "Is It Fall Yet?" where Jane goes to an artist colony comes to mind). And the best part about it is that I learned these lessons while being able to laugh at the same time. Learning is fun!

My Verdict: I typically have an aversion to novels that make up stories about real people or events from history, but not only was this story entirely entertaining, but it was educational too. I felt the novel moved a little slowly at the beginning, but it quickly picked up speed in the second part and held my attention for the remainder of the novel. The plot is incredibly interesting, and while Moore doesn't reveal the entire mystery right away, his method of slowly drawing it out over the course of the novel is effective without trying the reader's patience. None of the characters are exactly model citizens, but I did have a good deal of trouble with the main female in the book. And because of her, and her part in everything, the book's ending was pretty disappointing to me. I will say this: it lends proof to the theory that most any man can be lead to his downfall with the help of a pretty woman.

Favorite Moment: When Lucien's mother hits Juliette, his love interest, over the head with a crepe pan and knocks her out cold. Yeah, I really didn't like Juliette.

Favorite Character: Even though he spends a large amount of the novel in a drunken and debauched state (which apparently is historically accurate), I do like Henri a great deal. Moore gave him great comedic timing and made him the perfect sidekick in this humorous murder mystery.

Recommended Reading: The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. At one point in Sacre Bleu, Wilde even makes an appearance and has a conversation with Henri. And the subject of Wilde's story, which is a handsome young man who is kept youthful with the help of a portrait of him painted by a good friend, is incredibly appropriate and relatable to Moore's novel.