Friday, April 26, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

First off, I will go ahead and admit that the cover of this book totally drew me in. It was getting high ratings on Goodreads and I had to at least read the summary. Couple that with a lucky find at Half Price Books and here we are. I couldn't wait to dive right into Ruth Ozeki's latest book, which has made many people incredibly excited. A Tale for the Time Being even received praise from one of my favorite authors, Junot Diaz, who said this was Ozeki "at her absolute best." I had to know more.

The Situation: Ruth makes a curious find while walking along the beach on the remote island her and her husband Oliver currently live on in the Pacific Northwest. The Hello Kitty lunchbox she finds contains a diary written in English, letters written in Japanese, and an old watch, among a few other things. Ruth suspects that the lunchbox is debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami that wrecked Japan and killed thousands. But the only way to find out is to read the diary and translate the letters. Ruth is soon sent on what appears on the outside as a wild goose trail, as she looks into the history of someone who may no longer be alive.

The Problem: The possibility that the author is no longer alive is very real. Nao Yasutani is a teenage Japanese girl who currently resides in Tokyo, but grew up in California before her father lost his job in the burst of the dot com bubble, and her family was forced to move. Her current daily life consists of being bullied by her schoolmates, sharing a crappy one bedroom apartment with her parents, and keeping her now seemingly aimless father on constant suicide watch. Eventually, since her father seems to believe there is nothing more to live for, Nao decides she agrees with him. But not until she records the life of her 104 year-old grandmother. So the further on Ruth reads, the more it appears that Nao and her father are no longer alive, because if they didn't kill themselves, it is possible the tsunami did.

Genre, Themes, History: This could easily be classified as historical fiction as much of Nao's story comes not only from her ancient grandmother, but also from stories about her great uncle, Haruki (whom Nao's father was named after), who was a kamikaze pilot during World War II. Through him, Ozeki brings in stories about the war, from Japan's perspective. And the interesting thing is that these stories don't paint the Japanese as the hero or even the victim. Haruki's experiences as a soldier, much like Nao's experiences with her bullies as school, show that people can be cruel and hateful no matter what continent they're on. And of course, there is also much mention of the 2011 tsunami, and if the Hello Kitty lunchbox is debris from that awful event, then there is a very real chance Nao is no longer alive, even if she didn't decide to end her own life. Reoccurring themes include bullying, suicide, religion (particularly Buddhism), ecology, the written word and what it means to tell your own story, and even ethics.

My Verdict: The book is interesting, well-written, and I liked it, but that is about it. It didn't blow my mind or anything, and I was kind of expecting it to, but that was probably my fault. Parts of it are absolutely enchanting, like Ozeki's descriptions of the remote island Ruth lives on, as well as the people that inhabit it. And other parts of the book are devastating and heartbreaking, such as the ways in which Nao is bullied...we're talking about horrifying videos that her classmates post on YouTube type of bullying. It's awful. But even so, there are other aspects of the book that I just couldn't quite believe. I didn't believe the relationship between Ruth and her husband Oliver, and I didn't believe at all in the existence of Nao's mother. She was around, and she worked a lot while the dad was unemployed, so that somewhat explained her absence, but still. And then there is the whole part dealing with dreams and time travel, and I just didn't buy it. But hey, maybe you will.

Favorite Moment: When Ruth and Oliver find their missing cat, injured, but alive. It actually has very little to do with the whole plot of the novel, but I have a cat and I was glad the fictional cat was okay. Sue me.

Favorite Character: No, I'm not going to pick the cat. Instead I will pick Jiko, Nao's 104 year-old great-grandmother. She's a Buddhist nun who takes care of Nao for a summer. She became a nun after her son died as a soldier in World War II. She is loving, peaceful, and of course, full of wisdom. At one point, Nao asks her how old you have to be before your mind really grows up, and Jiko answers "105." Ha!

Recommended Reading: I must go with The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. If I had read any of his other books by now I probably would have gone with something different since I tend to recommend this one a lot. But much like Ozeki's novel, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle also talks about the war and has elements of dreaming mixed with time travel.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Classic Fiction: The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

This week I decided to return to the land of the classics with S.E. Hinton's The Outsiders. This is yet another classic that I somehow missed out on as I was growing up, so I am once again playing catch up. And while the first few lines made me feel as if I was in for a disappointing journey similar to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, I was pleasantly surprised by the direction the story turned.

The Situation: Ponyboy Curtis (yes, that is his real name given to him by his parents) lives with his two older brothers, Darrel and Soda (also his real name). Their parents were killed in a car accident, so at the young age of 20, Darrel, or Darry, has taken on the responsibility of keeping himself and brothers clothed, fed, and out of the public eye so there will be no threat of them being split up. But that isn't the only threat the Curtis boys have to look out for. In their town, there is an ongoing war between the upper class West Side Socs, and the lower class East Side Greasers, and the Curtis boys are Greasers. Along with Steve, Two-Bit, Dallas (or Dally), and Johnny, the Curtis boys spend their days dodging cruel groups of Socs who seem to have nothing better to do than to find Greasers who have wandered away from the herd and jump them. Most of the Greasers can hold their own, but often it is four or five against one, and even the toughest Greaser can only hold on for so long.

The Problem: If the constant threat of being jumped by a Soc who already has it better than a Greaser in almost every way that counts wasn't bad enough, eventually, as will always happen in gang wars, someone goes a step too far. Someone is dead, and Ponyboy is on the run and honestly believes he may never see his brothers again. But even that doesn't cause the violence to end. In fact, a major rumble between the two gangs has been scheduled, and it actually seems possible for things to somehow become much worse.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel, and Hinton actually began working on this book when she was only 15 years old, and it was published when she was 18. The setting of the book is commonly said to be Tulsa, Oklahoma, but this is never explicitly stated within the novel, and the year seems to be around 1965. Tensions between the upper and lower classes is nothing new, and neither are gang wars, but something about Ponyboy's narrative voice made this story distinctly different to me. And while Ponyboy, and a few others, eventually come to the conclusion that all of this violence is for nothing, the most important thing to everyone seems to be that no matter what, your true friends are the ones that have your back. In fact, one day two Greasers may be cracking each others ribs, but the next day they'll fight on the same side against Socs should the occasion arise. For some of the Greasers, their fellow gang members are the only family they have to count on, and the loss of one of their own may hit them even harder than if they were to lose a relative.

And now for a fun fact: The Outsiders is often on banned books lists and was controversial at the time of its publication due to its portrayal of gang violence and the use of strong language and slang. Fancy that.

My Verdict: The book is only about 180 pages long and is worth the couple of hours it takes to read it. While Ponyboy and his friends can be incredibly frustrating due to the very obvious reality that their way of life can only lead to tragedy, I still couldn't help but cheer Ponyboy on and wish him victory. Even with only his 14 year-old unreliable narrative voice as the guide, I feel like I can believe him, and for some reason I just accepted what he was saying as truth, which is hard for me to do with most first person narrators (Ishmael, I am looking in your direction). And there is a lot that goes down in the 180 pages, and the book only covers a time span that can't be much more than three or four weeks...maybe more. With that much action occurring in such a short time, it would be easy for the contents of this book to enter into the realm of impossibility. But somehow, Hinton keeps everything pretty realistic. It could be because Ponyboy admits that no one is innocent, and plenty are guilty. And he isn't afraid to include himself among the condemned.

Favorite Moment: When Ponyboy is able to have a civil conversation with a Soc in his own home, and both are willing to admit that their way of life has an expiration date.

Favorite Character: It is tempting to go with Ponyboy on this one, but I think I'll actually go with his oldest brother, Darry. The kid is only 20 and has the world in his shoulders. He holds down a job, and keeps himself and his two younger brothers clothed, fed, and out of trouble...sort of. Sure they're eating chocolate cake for breakfast everyday (live the dream!), but he is doing much better than I probably would have in that situation.

Recommended Reading: Since many of the 20th century American classics I have read seem to be dystopian (weird how that worked out), and since I refuse to recommend The Catcher in the Rye to anyone ever, the next best book I could think to recommend was Foxfire by Joyce Carol Oates. Oates' novel features a girl gang in 1950s upstate New York. It isn't as easy a read as Hinton's The Outsiders, but it may be worth checking out.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Children's Fiction: The Neverending Story by Michael Ende

As a child of the 80s, I loved watching the movie The Neverending Story whenever it came on TV. But even though I enjoyed it, I admit I never understood very much of what was going on besides that there was a kid named Bastian reading a book in his school's attic and the title of the book bore the same name as the movie. When I was older I would watch the movie in hopes of getting some answers, but turns out my six year-old self was right: the movie makes no sense. So to finally get some answers, I decided to go straight to the source that was written by Michael Ende.

The Situation: Bastian Balthazar Bux is a "fat little boy of ten or twelve" who spends his time making up stories and being tormented by bullies at school. He lives with his father, as his mother passed away years ago. Bastian is the opposite of popular at school as even the teachers seem to enjoy picking on him. And when he returns home, he makes vain attempts to connect with his distracted and seemingly disinterested father who always seems somewhat disappointed in Bastian. One day when the little boy is once again trying to avoid the regular bullies, he enters the book shop of Carl Conrad Coreander, and ends up stealing The Neverending Story. Now that Bastian has become a thief, he has decided to hide out in the school's attic, a place that has become one of his favorite hiding places. It is here that Bastian starts off on a reading journey like nothing he could have ever imagined.

The Problem: As if Bastian's life wasn't complicated enough, the story he has unwittingly entered in on is even worse, and Bastian has no clue what he is in for. At first it appears that The Neverending Story is about a young boy named Atreyu who is sent on a mission by the ruler of Fantastica, the Childlike Empress. A dark force is slowly swallowing up his world, and the Childlike Empress appears to be deathly ill. Atreyu's mission is to find the cure before Fantastica is lost forever. Eventually, through events that happen to Atreyu that Bastian can hardly believe, it becomes clear that it is Bastian himself who must cure the Empress and save Fantastica. But even if he succeeds, that is only the beginning of his adventures, and his subsequent troubles. Turns out not only is Fantastica in trouble of being lost forever, but Bastian is also in trouble of losing the life he has here in our world, as well as all of his memories of it.

Genre, Themes, History: I can see why some have labeled this as young adult fiction as opposed to children's fiction, but I just can't let go of my own memories of watching the first movie on my parent's long ago discarded brown shag carpet, in front of the also long ago discarded box TV in the wood casing. One general theme is meta-fiction, as the book talks about itself in many different ways and at different times. Obviously, there is the instance where Bastian himself is reading The Neverending Story just like we are. But even the Childlike Empress mentions The Neverending Story and Bastian's role in it. And at one point Bastian and the reader are introduced to the man who has been writing it all down, for forever, and will continue to until the end of the time. And with this comes the theme of story-telling, as one of Bastian's roles in the second half of the book is to keep Fantastica alive with his gift of making up stories. Other major themes that pop up include memories, wishes, and true strength and power. There is a point where I was reminded of Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, and that even for the most innocent of characters, absolute power still corrupts absolutely.

My Verdict: First off, I'll go ahead and say that for the most part, this story still makes little sense, but now I am starting to think that may be the point, or at least part of it. The ultimate point is to tell stories, read books, use your imagination...all stuff I can easily get behind. It is just that some of the events that happen on the pages of this book are so incredibly random. Every chapter is another curve ball. And once the book comes to the point where the first movie ends, the rules completely change and what applied in the first half of the book is not longer true for the second half. However, that being said, I loved this book with all of its randomness and quirky characters and strange landscapes. The events aren't so random that they don't connect to each other at all, and by the end the bigger picture is revealed and the journey is definitely worth it. And the randomness helps hold the readers attention, because every chapter is completely different from the one that came before it.

Favorite Moment: When Bastian is faced with the realization that he isn't that special, and the road he is traveling has actually been traveled many times before.

Saddest Moment: Much like the movie, the saddest moment for me in the book is when Atreyu loses Artax, his faithful horse, in the Swamps of Sadness. It just seems so unnecessary. And while the movie manages to make it pretty sad, in the book, Artax can talk. Yeah...let that one sink in.

Favorite Character: As with the movie, my absolute favorite character was Falkor the luckdragon. I mean come on: he flies, he saves people in distress, he can sleep while flying in the air, and he's just plain lucky and isn't at all stingy with it.

Recommended Reading: For those out there ready for some advanced reading, I suggest J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, The Two Towers, and Return of the King. For those out there who want to stick to children's books, I suggest C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia. Both are excellent reads and would make a great follow-up to Ende's The Neverending Story.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Naturally, I would follow-up Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner with his second book, A Thousand Splendid Suns. Ultimately, I hope to read Hosseini's newest book, And the Mountains Echoed, which is scheduled to come out in May. If it is anything like his first two, it will definitely be worth checking out.

The Situation: A Thousand Splendid Suns is told from the point of view of two women living in Afghanistan, Mariam and Laila. Until the age of 15, Mariam lives with her bitter and extremely caustic mother. Why is mom so bitter? She had a brief affair with Mariam's father, in whose house she was a maid, and because of her pregnancy, she was cast out to the outskirts of town. Now, Mariam's father only visits once a week, but has nothing to do with either of them otherwise.

Many years later, Laila lives with her mother and father in the city. She is not the only child, but her brothers have gone off to help fight the war. Laila is a fortunate woman in that, under the communist regime that has taken control of the country, women are encouraged to go to school and educate themselves in order to obtain important jobs. The idea of Laila becoming an educated and accomplished woman excites her father, a former teacher. But her mother can only grieve over the absence of her sons and their participation in the continuing conflict.

The Problem: Eventually, both women find themselves married to a man for convenience, and the ever-growing conflict in their country affords them few options for escape. Eventually the Taliban takes control, leaving them with no freedom and no ability to follow their own dreams and live their own lives. Their violent and controlling spouse rules them and there is seemingly nothing they can do about it, unless they wish to invite more abuse upon themselves. After awhile it becomes apparent that all they have is each other, and even that may not be enough to save them.

Genre, Themes, History: Much like The Kite Runner, I have seen this book categorized as historical fiction as is takes place before Afghanistan's monarchy fell, and continues on until the Taliban take over. Islamic rituals and practices are mentioned, and while the tensions between Hazaras and Pashtuns played a major role in The Kite Runner, this novel focused more on the freedoms and restraints on women in the country as opposed to men. Marriage and motherhood are big themes, and it is interesting how the rules change with the different factions and governments that come in and take control. Sacrifice remains a big theme as well, but in this book, it isn't really used as a means to erase feelings of guilt over some past incident. This novel deals with the kind of sacrifice where there is absolutely nothing to gain in return. Also, while this book is told from Mariam and Laila's points of view, the narrator is actually third person limited, no matter whose story is being told at the time. This was interesting in that we know what the characters are thinking and feeling, but we don't necessarily get to hear their voices. And the title comes from an Afghani poem that Laila's father is fond of and recites for her.

My Verdict: I found this book to be much harder to get through than The Kite Runner, and it is possible that is because I am a woman reading a book told from the view point of two other women. I'm not saying that it isn't a good book or wasn't well-written or enjoyable, but I am saying there are tough scenes to get through. Hosseini conveys the feeling of hopelessness that these women find themselves in, and it isn't a pleasant feeling, even if you're far removed from it and just reading about it like I was. But once again, I didn't feel like the author was being brutal or harsh just for the sake of it or just for the shock value. Wile it was tough to endure, the brutality had a place in the story and seemed necessary to get a point across. Also, I feel like I have learned so much about Afghanistan and its history through this novel - even more so than I did with The Kite Runner.

Favorite Moment: When Laila's childhood best friend, Tariq, who only has one leg, defends her honor against a local bully, and as a result, the bully never messes with Laila again.

Favorite Character: After much debate with myself, I have finally decided to go with Aziza, as it is her presence that starts the bridging of a gap between Laila and Mariam.

Recommended Reading: Obviously, I am going to recommend Hosseini's first book, The Kite Runner. It is the book that put him on the map and, I would say, is slightly more compelling than this one. But they are both worth picking up.