Friday, March 29, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Upon hearing that Khaled Hosseini will be coming out with another book in May, I decided to go ahead and visit my local Half Price Books to obtain both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. I didn't get in on the ground floor with Hosseini, but that is where I am going to start.

The Situation: The book begins in early 70s Afghanistan, where Amir lives with his father Baba, the family servant Ali, and Ali's son Hassan, who is also Amir's best friend. Amir and his father are Pashtun's and very well off in their hometown of Kabul. Amir's mother had died during childbirth, and Amir would continue to feel guilty for this as he seeks the approval of his father, Baba, who can be unwaveringly black and white about everything, and is often displeased, even disappointed, with how "soft" his son can be. Because of this, Amir continually seeks Baba's approval, and his greatest successful attempt comes when he wins the annual kite fighting tournament that takes place every year. Also, Hassan is the best kite runner in the neighborhood, and possibly even more important than being the last remaining kite in the sky is being the one who finds the second place kite after it has fallen to the ground and is able to take it home and put it on display. Hassan is successful, but that success comes at a price.

The Problem: There are several issues at play here. First, while Amir and his father are Pashtun, Ali and Hassan are Hazara, and are therefore looked down upon as the minority people group. Also, throughout the time span that the book covers, Afghanistan's monarchy will be done away with, the communist will take control, and ultimately, the Taliban will take over and establish Sharia Law. But even before any of that, Amir and Hassan must deal with a local sociopathic bully named Assef who has a penchant for using brass knuckles on the people he preys upon. Many times Amir and Hassan narrowly escape his brutality, but they can only luck out so many times before something happens. And when something finally does happen, it changes everyone's lives forever.

Genre, Themes, History: I have seen this book categorized as historical fiction, as it does cover a significant amount of time and deals with the tumultuous events that have made the country of Afghanistan what it is today. I only don't label it as such here because that history is so incredibly recent, and that conflict still rages on. It is the entrance of the Russians into the country that ultimately lead to Amir and his father leaving their home country for America. And when Amir goes back much later in life, he has to navigate around the Taliban in order to keep himself alive as well as a few others. And while neither Amir or his father are particularly religious, religion does come up often as a continuing theme as the daily Islamic prayers are mentioned, and even in America, Amir and his father follow Islamic customs when it comes to Amir's wedding. Another theme, at least for me, was sacrifice, and how much one person is willing to give for another, even if that person is willing to do the same. Finally, a theme that comes up consistently for Amir is guilt. It seems that no matter what, throughout his entire life, Amir finds something to feel incredibly guilty for and takes the blame onto himself, even if he is the only one who feels that way. He seeks redemption in doing a lot of what he does, viewing it as his way of paying for his past.

My Verdict: I was expecting to feel exhausted and a little beat up after reading this book, but that didn't happen. I wouldn't say that I feel refreshed and like a better person necessarily, but Hosseini is able to deliver harsh truths and cruel realities in a way that is very easy on the reader. I would say that he writes matter of factly, but it is even less jarring than that. Tough events are mentioned and talked about in detail, but I guess Hosseini doesn't dwell on them, and that is what makes them more bearable. He tells what happened, doesn't take any side, and moves on, leaving the reader to make their own conclusions. And for that, I am grateful. I imagine many people would shy away from this book because it is about Afghanistan and they just don't want to go there, but I can see why it became a New York Times Bestseller.

Favorite Moment: I enjoyed greatly the way Hosseini described the kite festival and the tournament. It wasn't the only beautiful moment in the book, but it was by far my favorite. I could be partial to this part because I had seen kite fighting and kite running during my time in Brazil and it was one of my favorite things to watch, but I do believe Hosseini paid special attention to this scene, even if only because it comes before probably the harshest incident in the entire novel.

Favorite Character: I may not have liked him at first, and he has his own issues, but I do believe that Baba, Amir's father, is my favorite character. He may be very black and white and incredibly difficult to deal with and to love, but ultimately, he is a father and a man and the kind of guy you want to have around during difficult times. He fights for the oppressed and helps out those less fortunate in an almost unreal way. There is a reason why many of the small business owners around Kabul cater his parties and offer him goods and services at no charge.

Recommended Reading: I am not even halfway through A Thousand Splendid Suns, so I will hold off recommending that one. So instead, I will go with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Let me explain: when Amir is describing life under the Russian communists who have taken over, it reminded me of the descriptions Diaz gives of life under the awful dictator Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. Kind of crazy how location makes very little difference when it comes to fear and survival.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Graphic Novel: A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

My choice for this week is a result of my misguided belief that I could just look at the "Recent Publications" shelf at my local Half Price Books while not intending to buy anything and walk away empty handed. Not only did I buy Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, adapted and illustrated as a graphic novel by Hope Larson, but I walked out with two other books as well, because I have a reading problem. Anyway, I had been wanting to try to read a graphic novel, and since I wasn't interested in getting caught up in a new series, reading a book I read as a kid and never understood, but with illustrations, felt like a great way to get my feet wet.

The Situation: Meg Murray lives with her father, mother, twin brothers, and youngest brother Charles Wallace. She is an average girl with her own problems and insecurities. She feels like she can't do anything right lately, and even recently got into a fight at school. She misses her father, who has been gone so long that everyone outside of the family doesn't believe he is ever coming back, and rumors have started circulating that he ran off with another woman. Her youngest brother, Charles Wallace, is incredibly smart, but also very peculiar. All together they are simply trying to live their lives and hold out hope that father comes home eventually, or that they at least receive word as to what happened to him.

The Problem: Charles Wallace's peculiarities also cause rumors to circulate as most everyone believes he is "special." Well, he certainly is special, but not in the way everyone thinks. He sees things that no one else does, probably more than any little boy should. And his latest discovery sets him, Meg, and a new friend, Calvin, on an adventure to find out what really happened to their father. And while they start off under the protection of Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which, they are eventually left on their own with very little help, and all of their flaws. And if what captured their father was too strong for him, what hope do they have of making it out alive and taking him with them? Oh, and if they fail, the entire world may be lost as a consequence.

Genre, Themes, History: I remember when I read the actual book many years ago I was thoroughly confused and had no idea what was going on. Now, it all seems so simple that I am tempted to label this as a children's story, and maybe it is. But I am thinking it is commonly considered more along the lines of young adult science fiction. Something else I forgot about was the religious references and undertones that make the occasional appearance. The story is essentially the very common one of good versus evil. There is also an underlying theme of knowing who you are and accepting your faults as well as your virtues, and not trying to be someone else, or like everyone else. Also, Charles Wallace will receive the lesson of what can happen when we rely too much on our own understanding. The book is the first in a series of L'Engle's known as the Time Quintet. I know, I said I didn't want to get caught up in a series, but I think I can get away with not reading the other books since A Wrinkle in Time is known to be able stand up on its own.

My Verdict: I enjoyed my first experience with reading a graphic novel. Probably what caught me off guard the most, even though I should know better, was the fact that despite being close to 400 pages long, I finished it in a little less than two hours. Well duh! It's all pictures...of course it went by fast. But I also was really interested in what was going to happen next and became incredibly concerned with what would happen to Meg, Charles Wallace, and their father. Even though I have forgotten most everything about the original, Larson's adaptation was a great reminder. Any young adult who was as confused by the book as I was would probably greatly appreciate this graphic novel version. And of course, I can't give all of the credit to Larson, since it is L'Engle's story and its endurance that has even lead to there being a graphic novel version over 50 years after the original publication.

Favorite Moment: For some reason, as awful a moment as it is, my favorite part is when Charles Wallace is proven to have leaned too much on his own abilities. He's a great character, and I only hoped for his safety, but at the same time, I had the slight feeling that he thought a little too much of himself.

Favorite Character: I rarely go with the main character for this, but this time I will. Meg is my favorite character probably because she is an average girl who is able to accomplish an incredible feat just by accepting her own limitations and offering the one thing she has.

Recommended Reading: I don't have any other experience with graphic novels, but some of the ideas that Meg and company are fighting against are the central theme to Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, with a little bit of George Orwell's 1984 thrown in. Either book would be a great follow-up to L'Engle's story.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: NW by Zadie Smith

This week's selection came from the good people at BookPeople. Zadie Smith visited the store upon the release of her latest novel, NW, and after discovering it was available at the school library, I decided to try it out. Plus, there is something about reading a book that takes place in modern-day England and therefore paints a picture that is incredibly different from the England I got used to reading about in my 19th century door stops (Charles Dickens, I am looking in your direction).

The Situation: Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan are from Caldwell, a neighborhood in London. Though all four of them grew up there around roughly the same time, the four lives went in four different directions. Even Leah and Natalie differ greatly from each other, despite being best friends for most of their lives. While Leah is content with it just being her and her husband in their apartment, Natalie is constantly striving to advance her career, and is attempting to raise the perfect family with her husband and two kids while holding down an impressive job at the same time. Nathan has become a well-known figure on the streets, and Felix is attempting to start his life over again, this time without drugs, crime, and alcohol. These are four people that could live in almost any big city in the world.

The Problem: Turns out that growing up is hard. While Leah is content with it just being her and her husband, he is almost desperate for kids, and believes she is too. Natalie is incredibly successful, and has the picture-perfect husband and kids, but she has no clue who she is and never really did. And in her attempts to justify the life she has built up for herself, she continually projects herself as better off and happier than everyone else, including her family and friends. Felix is doing his best to turn his life around, with the help of a new woman who loves him. But he is having a hard time reconciling his new resolve with his father's stubbornness and his brother's imprisonment, as well as many old acquaintances that he hasn't lost contact with. And while Nathan used to be the boy that every girl had a crush on, he has become that figure in the neighborhood that everyone worries about, that everyone expects to hear about in the news. And even when there seems to be moments of peace, all it takes is a strange visitor to appear on a doorstep, asking for help, and everything seemingly falls apart.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that I have seen described as a tragi-comedy, and I would agree with that if I actually found anything funny about it, but I can't say that I did. The lives and events of these four people are almost presented like a creative case study. Leah, Natalie, and Felix all get their own sections, and Nathan seems to make an appearance in all of them. Leah's section reminds me of Benji's narrative in William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, only it is slightly more coherent, but still pretty cryptic. Felix' section reads like most any other fiction story out there, but Natalie's section is basically a long list of facts about her life in chronological order, covering ground that we've already been over in Leah's section, but now with answers to many questions. Throughout the entire book, Smith will mention certain historical events that are common knowledge to most anyone who lives in England or the US, but instead of coming out and saying that Kurt Cobain killed himself, she'll describe Natalie and her family watching the news and knowing that Leah is somewhere holding the picture of her favorite rock star and crying. If you can follow the clues and figure out what Smith is talking about, this can be a fun device. If you can't, then it is just kind of annoying.

My Verdict: One review I saw on Goodreads used the word "dreck" to describe this book. While I think that may be a bit harsh, I am actually pretty close to calling it that myself. I am just not sure what it is exactly the reader is supposed to gain from this. It is an interesting look at four different Londoners trying to live their lives, but I can't say that it at all makes for an interesting story. The ending offers no real conclusions, and I just didn't get what the point of all of it was. And that would have been okay if the story was at all entertaining or amusing, but honestly, a large part of it was just kind of boring. Suffice it to say, I just didn't get it.

Favorite Moment: I've wracked my brain trying to pick out a favorite moment, but honestly, I got nothing.

Favorite Character: Again, same problem here as above. I definitely can't pick anyone out of the four main characters as I really don't see anything spectacular or relateable about them. I do wish Leah's mother, Pauline, had more of a presence...she seemed like that type who could (and tried to) knock some sense into all of them.

Recommended Reading: If you want to read about the intersecting lives of a bunch of fictional British characters, then I recommend Middlemarch by George Eliot. But if you prefer not to take on a door stop, then I recommend Hard Times by Charles Dickens. Unfortunately, I don't have a modern equivalent that I could think to link NW to, so I'll stick with recommending classics.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Young Adult Fiction: The Disenchantments by Nina LaCour

For today's post, I went in completely blind. I usually either read something I have had on my shelf for forever, or that made some sort of list on Goodreads, or was mentioned on Facebook by BookPeople, or I picked it up because the author has a new book coming out. But I was actually in the independent, Austin-based bookstore, walking by the young adult section, when I saw Nina LaCour's The Disenchantments on a shelf display. As you can see, the cover itself is pretty attention grabbing, so I decided to read the inside flap. Turns out the synopsis is pretty attention grabbing too. So here I am, writing a post about a formerly unknown to me young adult book and author. Usually I got into bookstores looking for something specific, but this book definitely found me.

The Situation: Colby and his best friend Bev have just graduated high school and are about to go on tour with Bev's girl band, The Disenchantments. With Bev at front on guitar, Meg on bass, and Meg's sister Alexa on drums, these girls have amazing stage presence, despite being absolutely terrible. Once the week long tour of the Pacific Northwest is over, Meg will be moved into her college dorm room in Portland, Alexa will return to San Francisco to finish the summer before her senior year in high school, and Colby and Bev will take off for their year-long tour of Europe. They have been planning this trip for what feels like forever, and Colby could not be more excited.

The Problem: The tour has just begun, and already it proves to be a difficult and tense one when Bev reveals that she applied to college, in Rhode Island, and will be starting in the fall...and oh yeah, this means the trip to Europe is off. To make matters worse, Colby didn't make any back-up plans or apply to any colleges. But to make matters even worse, Colby is madly and deeply in love with Bev, and has been for nine years. He's been hoping this trip would finally get him out of the friend zone, and he has been holding onto this hope despite nine years of watching Bev flirt and make-out with both guys and girls that aren't him. Just a few days ago Colby was so sure of everything, now nothing is for certain, not even the person who knows everything about him, since it is becoming clear to him that he actually knows very little about her.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel set in modern day San Francisco, traveling all the way up to Portland and a little bit beyond. So the shifting settings due to the road trip play a big part in the book. Every day the band ends up somewhere different and meeting new kinds of people. Also, because these are four art school kids, art and drawing and sculpting and painting and writing come up a lot. Even graffiti art makes a pretty significant appearance in the book. Also, these are kids that are just on the edge of adulthood, so there is a little bit of this whole figuring out who I am thing. The thing is, as many seasoned adults are now aware, that process can take years and isn't going to be figured out during a one week road trip in someone's uncle's VW bus. Sure it's fun, and sure it is a great way to spend those last few days with some of your closest friends, but it probably won't solve any major long-standing issues. That being said, it makes for a hell of a ride.

My Verdict: As I mentioned, I went in knowing very little about this book so I really didn't have any expectations. But the risk was well worth it. First off, having a road trip from San Francisco to Portland as the background and setting made for some wonderfully imaginative surroundings and scenery. Much like the cover, the entire story is incredibly colorful. And if it isn't the scenery passing by as the kids drive up the highway, it is the kids themselves, mainly Meg and Alexa. Meg is described as having bright pink hair and wears a different color retro dress every day (I basically imagined the sort of dresses that can be found here). Alexa sticks with her naturally dark hair color, but always wears feather earrings or some sort of headband that may have hit its height of popularity in the 1960s. But even beyond the excellent descriptions, there is more to this story than a guy being crushed by the girl he has been in love with and now not knowing what to do with his life. By the end, there is quite a bit going on, and LaCour ties it up nicely. There are the other people they meet on the way, the side story about an old tattoo that comes up as a result of one of these encounters, and then, because this is a band tour, the discussions of music and bands, both popular and obscure. Really, the only bone that I have to pick with this book is that Colby seems like almost too big of a chump. Yeah, "chump" was the actual word I kept thinking of. He's just a little too naive for me. I mean, I feel like he has wasted nine years of his life on Bev. And also, Bev has wasted nine years on him too if their entire friendship is based on him wanting to be more than friends. It also doesn't help that Bev is pretty annoying for most of the book, and does that thing girls do where she doesn't talk about what's going on but continues to act mysteriously and therefore attract more attention to herself. Which is why I again get mad at Colby for wasting so much time on her. But even so, it is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Favorite Moment: When Colby gets to meet one of the graffiti artists he studied, and this leads to an amazing opportunity of his own.

Favorite Character: For whatever reason, I was more interested in Alexa than anyone else. Probably because she reminded me of myself. She was all about staying on schedule, knowing where they were going, when they would be there, the whole thing. But at the same time, she was still a kid, the youngest member of the band, and had also just discovered the band Heart and was immediately, and comically, way into them. I just found myself wanting to know more about her.

Recommended Reading: I had a hard time coming up with a book to recommend for this one, but I think I'll settle on John Green's Paper Towns, only because it also a young adult novel that includes a road trip after graduation, but that isn't what the entire book is centered around. Still, I think young adult readers will enjoy Green's writing and perspective.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Nonfiction: Super Mario by Jeff Ryan

As a child of the 80's, I grew up playing a wide range of Super Mario games made by Nintendo. My all-time favorite will always be Super Mario World for the Super Nintendo. It was the game that introduced Yoshi, one of the most ingenious video game characters ever, and there were so many hidden levels and Easter eggs in that game that it seemed like a near endless adventure, but not an impossible one. Jeff Ryan's Super Mario: How Nintendo Conquered America, takes readers on the journey starting from before Nintendo even put out its first game. And while it was fun reliving the introduction of games and characters I haven't thought about in years, it was even more fun finding little tidbits of information that make the popularity of the little Italian hero even more remarkable.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a pretty straightforward nonfiction book about the history of what is arguably the world's greatest video game company. But it is also not so straightforward in that Ryan tells the story with humor and incredible insight that I feel like we wouldn't get if the story was told straight off. Every chapter is named after a different Mario game, there are many references included that aren't just about video games, and instead of being bored by facts and figures, I was intrigued by them and wanted to know more. In other words, Ryan made learning fun. Granted, the subject matter makes it easier to do. And a big theme throughout the novel involves both the Japanese culture and their way of doing business, since Nintendo is a Japanese company. And with Ryan starting his history with before Nintendo even existed as a brand, readers are able to fully understand just how much the video game industry owes to pioneering games like Pong and even older brands like Atari.

My Verdict: This is an incredibly fascinating book. If you ever played a Nintendo game, not even just Super Mario, with any sort of intensity, you will enjoy this book. Now, if you are just a child of the 80's like myself, and have only intensely played a handful of the Mario or Nintendo games Ryan mentions, but watched your older brother or cousins and their friends playing many more, then you will absolutely love this book. So, needless to say, if your allegiance to video games is at all stronger than that, then this book is for you. Like I said before, Ryan makes learning fun, and reliving a history that many of us were alive for can still be a suspenseful experience. Even when I knew what game was released next or what move Sony was about to make with the PS2, I was still anxious to turn the page and read the next chapter.

Favorite Moment: When Nintendo changed the video game world with the Nintendo Wii.

Favorite Quote: "Since the late 1970's, Sega wasn't so much the Pepsi to Nintendo's Coke as it was the RC Cola. It had been Rosencrantzing and Guildensterning it's way around the gaming world for decades, always buffeted by the wake of others, rarely the one making waves." Ha! And completely true...

Recommended Reading: It only makes sense that I would recommend Ernest Cline's Ready Player One. This book reads like a video game and was just as fun and intense.