Friday, August 30, 2013

Classic Fiction: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain

It's been awhile since I have posted about a classic novel, door stop or otherwise. So I decided to write about Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Much like anything else written by Twain, this novel is incredibly humorous while also managing to be very serious as Twain addresses the economy, religion, slavery, personal freedom, education, technology, and the destructive nature of war, amongst other things. 

The Situation: Hank Morgan is a highly skilled mechanic in 19th century New England, where he works in an arms factory. One day, during a quarrel, he is struck on the head, and wakes up in 6th century England. It is the time of King Arthur's Camelot, and the Knights of the Round Table. A time when the only thing more powerful than the divine right of the king is the influence of the church. At first, Hank believes he is simply dreaming, but when hours lead to days, he realizes he is in this unfamiliar place to stay. 

The Problem: Aside from the obvious issue of being transported away from your home to a time and place that is completely unfamiliar to him, Hank also finds himself in trouble almost immediately upon arriving in Camelot. One of the Knights of the Round Table captures him as prisoner, and once Hank realizes he has been sentenced to die, he starts to think of how he can not only save his own life, but also influence these people to change what he sees as their backwards way of living and improve upon their quality of life, while profiting from it of course. But in saving his own skin, Hank also manages to make a powerful enemy of Merlin, the most renown magician of King Arthur's time. During Hank's years in Camelot, he becomes a knight, a king of industry and business, a slave, and even a ruthless autocrat responsible for one of the worst wars King Arthur's England will ever see.

Genre, Themes, History: In true Twain style, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is a satire that contains much of his trademark dark pessimism and quick wit. There are moments that are laugh out loud funny, and then in the next page there may be a scene that will make you audibly gasp in horror. From Hank's first few days in Camelot, it becomes fairly easy to see why the English did not much care for this book when it came out (and they actually still may not care for it). Twain pulls no punches in mocking and ridiculing the monarchy, the church, the economy, the laws, and even the people of England. Sure, it can be argued that he is making fun of the England of the past, but much of what he is pointing at still remained true in the 19th century. It is also no small thing to make fun of the Arthur legend. And while Hank puts down the practices of 6th century England, he simultaneously elevates and praises American ingenuity and laws and education. 

Twain also uses many stories concerning the Knights of the Round Table as they appear in Sir Thomas Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. The author gives Hank a history that intertwines with that of the knights. Hank even goes on a long tour of the country with King Arthur at his side as they both pretend to be traveling commoners.

My Verdict: When it comes to Twain, I prefer this novel over Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. They both have that dark, quick wit that can turn incredibly serious within the same paragraph, but for me, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court is much less frustrating. And while Hank may be the hero of the story, Twain makes the point that he may not actually know what is best for Camelot, despite the "advancements" and ideas he is able to put into place. Material progress isn't always a good thing, and better weapons do not necessarily mean better wars. But even with the brutality and awful truths, there are scenes that are genuinely touching and endearing. And of course, Twain still gives us plenty to laugh at.

Favorite Moment: When King Arthur and Hank visit the smallpox house. It is possibly the saddest moment in the book, but it gives Arthur a kind of humanity that you often don't see in other stories about him.

Favorite Character: While she may be a bit vapid, I do like Hank's companion on his first adventure, Sandy. She can talk for hours on end about nothing, with no interruptions deterring her from her story. And while Hank may complain about her, he is good enough to humor her, and even ends up loving her. 

Recommended Reading: It stands to reason that I would recommend Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, but I never cared for that book, so I won't. I do believe that everyone should read it, but it is not one of my personal favorites. Instead I'll recommend Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. Yes, it is a door stop. Yes, it is totally worth it. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Young Adult Fiction: The Moon and More by Sarah Dessen

I am glad to have found (although I am still amazed that I did) Sarah Dessen's The Moon and More on a recent trip to Half Price Books. I figured that with it being brand new, and it being a Sarah Dessen book, that I would have to wait much longer for it to show up on any discounted shelves, or that I would have to break down and buy it new. Fortunately I lucked out and didn't need to wait any longer before cracking it open.

The Situation: This is Emaline's last summer at home before heading off to college in the fall. She knows what to expect, mostly. There will be many hours working at the family realty business checking guests into their beach house rentals, delivering extra towels, responding to random problems that may pop us such as a feral cat infestation and broken door knobs, and trying to avoid her oldest stepsister Margo as she attempts to assert herself as the new head of the family business. There is also maneuvering around her own house as her stepdad is perpetually upgrading it, which means her other stepsister, Amber, and her mother are always invading her room in order to escape the noise and fumes. Then there is Luke, Emaline's boyfriend of three years, and his sister's upcoming wedding. And if she gets any spare time, she does her best to catch up with her best friend Daisy, as they are each heading off to separate schools in the fall. There is a lot going on, but it is nothing Emaline's isn't used to. Growing up in the small beach town of Colby means not much changes and things move at a steady but relaxed pace. 

The Problem: Some of the people that decide to visit Colby this summer aren't used to the relaxed pace of beach town life, and their love of bigger things and rushed schedules interrupts Emaline's life, and may make her last summer before college rush by all too quickly. If it wasn't enough that the guests from New York City staying at the nicest rental beach house on the property are a little too demanding and also attempting to reach out to the local reclusive artist who wants nothing to do with them, Emaline's real father has decided to try and contact her after a strained absence, and will eventually be visiting Colby as well. Suddenly Emaline's summer goes from routine to almost overwhelming, and she finds herself in situations she never imagined possible. And while some believe she can do better than Colby, others believe she should stick close to home. And then there is Emaline, who isn't quite sure what she believes yet.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult novel dealing with that all-important transitional time of the summer between high school and college. For the most part, Emaline knows where she is headed in the fall, but she must reconcile her past with the possibilities of the future. Much like in What Happened to Goodbye (and I suspect many other Dessen novels), Dessen uses the fictional towns of Colby and North Reddamene as prominent backdrops for the story. Colby seems to be a typical small beach town with the locals working at the businesses and venues that the tourist come and enjoy for the summer. Themes include the blended family, small town life, beach town life, high school to college transition, and big city attitude, amongst many other things that teenagers face at Emaline's age. Also, anyone who has ever worked in a family business will probably be able to relate to Emaline's frustration and aversion to changing the way things have always been done.

My Verdict: Well, this is my second Sarah Dessen book and I must say that I am now officially a fan. However, I really didn't start to like The Moon and More until I was about 75% into it. For some reason, the entire beginning of the book just didn't work for me. Part of it was that the introduction of the characters seemed choppy and not well thought out. The other issues I seemed to have was how chaotic Emaline's family was, but that was more my issue than the book's. The three daughters just seemed to be able to get away with way too much, so I had a hard time with many scenes where members of Emaline's family had to interact with each other, especially at the family business. But then things seemed to take a turn and the book moved in a direction that seemed to give Emaline some more control over her own life, instead of her just kind if sitting back and having to accept things as they happened. Dessen paints a picture of that time between high school and college and not only how important it is, but how confusing it can be, even if you do have concrete college plans in place. All of the characters have choices to make and Dessen accurately portrays how making them is no small thing.

Favorite Moment: When Emaline's mom begins to actually act like a parent and call her daughter out on her behavior. For most of the book it feels like the daughters have all of the control while the real authorities sit back and mediate.

Favorite Character: I want to say Mrs. Ye, but she really isn't in the story enough. So I pick her daughter, Daisy. Mrs. Ye is a first generation immigrant with her own business that her daughter works at. Daisy is Emaline's best friend and is honest to a fault, which means she is not afraid to tell her friend the harsh truth. The reason I would prefer to pick Mrs. Ye can be explained in this quote: "My mom, battling with my sisters and me throughout middle and high school, once asked Mrs. Ye how she managed to keep her kids so in line. She just looked at her. 'They are children,' she said. 'You are adult.' It was just that simple."

Recommended Reading: I've only ever read one other Sarah Dessen novel, and that is What Happened to Goodbye. I actually like it better than The Moon and More, so I definitely recommend checking it out. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

Contemporary Fiction: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

As recently promised, I am posting on Khaled Hosseini's most recent novel, And the Mountains Echoed. Earlier this year I tackled both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns in anticipation of Hosseini's third novel. Once again, this book promised to deal with life in Afghanistan, past and present, and the choices people can make when it comes down to survival.

The Situation: Abdullah and Pari are brother and sister living in a small town in Afghanistan with their father, stepmother, and younger half-brother, Iqbal. Anyone who knows them would describe their relationship as close, almost unnaturally so. When Pari was a baby, it was Abdullah who got up and went to her in the middle of the night, as their mother had died during Pari's birth, and their father was seemingly too burdened to care. Over the span of more than 60 years, their story, and the stories of those around them, will be told by uncles, caretakers, adoptive parents, neighbors, doctors, and distant relatives. And they are stories about family, and what it takes to be one, and how fragile that relationship can be.

The Problem: Sometimes even those closely related to you can be the ones to hurt you the most. Sometimes it is out jealousy and anger, sometimes it is out of pure selfishness, and other times it can be due to someone being oblivious as to how their actions affect those around them. Other times the hurt and betrayal are only perceived, but the wound is still there. The real tragedy in this book seems to be that the healing for most of these people seems to come much too late, or not at all. And it doesn't help that Afghanistan is almost always under the oppressive rule of one regime or another, so people are constantly moving in and out, and the cities are always being rebuilt after being torn down. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a contemporary fiction novel that, much like Hosseini's previous books, has been categorized as historical fiction. The biggest theme throughout the entire novel seems to be that of family and the things that can keep people together, or tear them apart. Many times in this book, it seems the choice comes down to either sacrificing for the ones you love and being resentful and bitter about it for the rest of your life, or living your life the way you want to and feeling guilty for leaving everyone else behind to suffer. It is almost as if every major character in the book has some sort of savior complex and the survival of at least one other person is up to them. Other characters don't see it as a sacrifice at all, but more of a punishment or a penance for past behavior. I'm not sure if maybe it is a cultural thing, but it shows up a lot across the different stories, which range from 1949 to 2010. 

My Verdict: This is probably my favorite of Hosseini's three books. I love any novel that takes several different stories from different characters, from different points in time and across generations, and weaves it into one larger story, if it is done well. And Hosseini does it all extremely well. And while there are parts of the book that are incredibly painful to read and imagine (there is one part involving a dog bite that I am sure will make anyone wince), I didn't feel the same apprehension and pain as I did with both The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of heartbreak and tough circumstances, but Hosseini handles it all so well. And despite the many different story lines, the book never becomes too confusing or hard to follow. If anything, they cause me to be incredibly eager to continue the story, as each chapter revealed a little more of the puzzle and gave a little more insight into this complicated history.

Favorite Moment: One of the characters takes a short road trip with her dying mother to San Francisco and the way she describes the scenery and the places they visited makes me want to visit that city again and see what they saw, even though I've already seen it.

Favorite Character: While she has her flaws, my favorite character was Markos' mother, Odie. She is the one who has the courage to march her disfigured adoptive daughter into the school and challenge any of the students to make fun of her. 

Recommended Reading: If you can stomach And the Mountains Echoed, then I suggest starting at the beginning with Hosseini's first book, The Kite Runner. It is the book that first caused Hosseini to be a household name, and after reading it, you will understand why.  

Friday, August 9, 2013

Historical Fiction: The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Painted Girls is one of those books I tried not to be intrigued by. And then one day I saw it at Half Price Books, didn't buy it, but then I went back the next day looking for it, and of course it was gone. Live and learn.

The Situation: Antoinette and Marie van Goethem live in late 19th century Paris with their mother and youngest sister, Charlotte. Their father passed away, and their mother works as a laundress, but has a serious codependency on absinthe. With the landlord showing up at the door and threatening eviction over late rent, it becomes necessary for both Marie and Charlotte to join Antoinette in the work force. With pointers from their older sister, both Marie and Charlotte gain entrance into the Paris Opera, while Antoinette stays on as an extra. As she starts earning a reliable wage as a dancer, Marie also catches the eye of Edgar Degas, the French impressionist painter. With all three girls working and Marie showing promise for a career as a ballerina, it looks like the van Goethem sisters may manage to keep a roof over their family's head.

The Problem: While Marie has gained the attention of both Degas and a wealthy gentleman who frequents the opera, Antoinette has caught the attention of a potentially dangerous young man. Soon she is lying and losing precious wages that would have been incredibly useful to the family. With their mother's drunkenness, Antoinette's growing selfishness, Marie's ever increasing anxieties, and Charlotte's pride, it looks like the van Goethem sisters may have a harder time escaping their poverty than they ever imagined. It isn't as simple as earning a wage doing honest work. Being a ballerina is more competitive than Marie had imagined, and Antoinette's mouth and attitude keep getting her into trouble.

Genre, Themes, History: The Painted Girls is a historical fiction novel that involves real people from late 19th France. The main theme seems to be the lack of opportunities available to poor young women in Paris society. Finding honest work to support their family is very difficult for the van Goethem sisters, but it is incredibly easy for them to turn to something like petty theft and prostitution. Marie and Charlotte van Goethem were dancers for the Paris Opera in real life, and Antoinette worked as an extra. Marie also modeled for Edgar Degas and was the subject of many of his drawings, paintings, and even one of his sculptures. Also, Emile Abadie, the troubled young man that Antoinette becomes involved with, was tried for three different murders at the same time that the van Goethem sisters were working as dancers. There is no evidence that they ever interacted or that their paths actually crossed - that part of the story was completely of Buchanan's invention. And the newspaper articles, court transcripts, and critiques that Buchanan placed throughout the novel are faithful to the tone to the original documents. In fact, some of the content is the same as the original documents.

My Verdict:If you're looking to read historical fiction high in drama, almost so much so that it is a little overwhelming and unbelievable, then this novel is for you. Most of the story is incredibly well done, but there are parts that I was just not fully convinced some of the connections between events just weren't there. Some of the emotions that the characters were experiencing just didn't seem believable to me. For instance, I had a hard time believing Marie was as anxious as she was, and I couldn't quite believe that Antoinette was as attached as she was to a man who is clearly dangerous and treats her terribly. However, it is an excellent study of life for young Parisian girls in the late 19th century, and also of the work of Edgar Degas. And even though the story is high in drama, it is not so much that it becomes exhausting. The author kept me interested and invested in the lives of the characters, no matter how ridiculous some of them get.

Favorite Moment: It would be a tie between the moment Antoinette realizes the truth about Emile Abadie, and the moment Charlotte understands what it means to put someone else's needs before her own.

Favorite Character: This is one of those situations where pretty much every character is or becomes pretty detestable. I would pick Alphonse, the sweet baker's son who gives Marie a part-time job in the bakery, but he is in the book so little that I really don't think I know enough about him to label him as a "favorite."

Recommended Reading: I will actually recommend a book that is completely different from this one in that it is a humor novel and not at all serious. Christopher Moore's Sacre Bleu is also about artists and their struggle to create great works of art. Instead of being high in drama though, Moore takes a humorous look at the lives of struggling artists and how easily they are distracted by a pretty face.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Nonfiction: The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo

I became interested in Roseanne Montillo's book mostly because of the full title, The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece. Anyone who has read Frankenstein knows what a harrowing and fascinating, although surprisingly hard to follow story it is. And the common story about how a young Mary Shelley came up with the idea only adds to the story's powerful presence. I was curious to know a little more about the scientific discoveries being made during the time Shelley wrote her story, and also about her own life before and after she created her masterpiece.

The Situation: The book begins in the late 1700s when scientist start to earnestly look into the reanimation of corpses. The experiments start will small animals, but soon curiosity, as it usually does, leads scientists to test their theories out on dead human beings. It would soon become common practice in London for a criminal to be sentenced to death by hanging, and then for his body to be used for public dissection or experimentation. And other scientists as well as medical students were not the only ones interested in seeing these public dissections or reanimation experiments. Just as people would crowd around the gallows and watch criminals be executed, they would also attempt to crowd lecture halls to watch them be cut open and/or experimented upon. It would be these sort of practices that would find themselves in the pages of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

The Problem: As these sorts of experiments and demonstrations grew in popularity, it became harder to find suitable corpses, and competition between medical and academic professionals was fierce. This soon led to body-snatching, a practice which was, of course, illegal. But those willing to risk robbing graves for fresh corpses found it to be an incredibly profitable endeavor, as scientists and doctors were willing to pay quite well for their next subject. All sorts of methods were employed to keep the graves of loved ones from being violated, but the best body-snatchers always found a way. To make matters worse, in the early 1800s, one pair decides to skip the grave-robbing part altogether and began killing people themselves in order to sell the bodies for profit, and they wouldn't be the only ones. The public wanted to see the latest experiments and dissections, and the scientists wanted to perform these acts for them, but how were they to keep up a supply of bodies without resulting to body-snatching?

The book also provides an in-depth exploration of Mary Shelley and the people around her, and she wasn't without her share of problems. For most of her life she remained estranged from her father and stepmother (her birth mother died in childbirth), as she was the mistress of Percy Shelley for a number of years, and her family didn't approve. Mary and Percy would have married if he wasn't still legally joined with his first wife and mother of his first two children. Throughout their life together the two would travel all across Europe looking for a place to settle, and scandal would follow them. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a nonfiction book that not only tells of the life of Mary Shelley with a focus on the creation of Frankenstein, but it also goes into great detail regarding the scientific discoveries of the time, particularly those involving dissection and reanimation. Scientists and doctors were very interested in the idea of bringing something that was once dead back to the land of the living, and it is this idea that becomes the base storyline for the now classic literary tale. Chapters switch focus between Mary's life, and the advances of science, giving almost equal focus to each. And as the reader learns about Mary, it is natural to also end up learning about other notable literary figures such as her eventual husband, Percy Shelley, as well as Lord Byron, who became an intimate friend for a great while. 

My Verdict: This is an incredibly well-written book that ends up being part biography and part research paper. At first I feared that the stories about the dissections and experiments were going to bore me, but once Montillo introduces Mary Shelley's story and how it intertwined with what was going on in the world of science, the book becomes incredibly interesting and, at many points, quite fascinating. I was mostly just interested in learning more about how a young girl came up with such an idea for a book, but I was given much more than that and am glad for it. Montillo gives the reader a peak into the life of times of a girl that is much more troubled than I had even imagined. And while there is body snatching in Frankenstein, I had no idea that it was as big a problem in Mary Shelley's Europe as it actually was. Anyone who has read Frankenstein or is at all interested in the scientific practices of 19th century Europe would most likely enjoy this book.

Favorite Moment: It is hard to pick a favorite moment when much of the book speaks of Mary's unhappiness, or the gruesome practices of scientists and doctors with dead corpses, but I did enjoy any part that gave a glimpse into Mary's real character, particularly her lack of patience and mood swings. It just wasn't how I imagined the creator of Frankenstein to be.

Favorite Character: Again, this is hard, because most everyone is unhappy or just detestable. For instance, Lord Byron is a fascinating man, but he was a womanizer and incredibly vain, and didn't care when people thought or assumed the worst of him. But as I said, he is fascinating, and the parts of Mary's life with him in them were probably the most interesting.

Recommended Reading: It almost goes without saying that Mary Shelley's Frankenstein is my recommendation for this week. Be warned though: it is one of those books that is only a little over 200 pages long, but for some reason takes as long to read as a 400 page novel. The language is just so dense and the epistolary format is so exhausting that it takes true effort to get through every page.