Friday, July 29, 2016

Door Stop: East of Eden by John Steinbeck

For whatever reason, I have decided to cover John Steinbeck's East of Eden, and eventually I will also revisit The Grapes of Wrath as well. Most of us who grew up in the U.S. were forced to read a Steinbeck novel at some point in high school. Usually it was Of Mice and Men, but for me it was The Grapes of Wrath, and unlike the majority of my classmates, I actually enjoyed it. Despite its considerable length, I was rarely bored with it and found the story to be interesting and emotional, so I hoped the same for East of Eden.

The Situation: On the surface, Adam Trask's life is fairly simple and straightforward. After being raised mostly by his father, Adam initially joins the military, and then wanders the country once he is discharged. After returning to the home where he grew up, which was then being run by his younger half-brother, Charles, he marries a girl he knows nothing about, only to be abandoned by her after they have moved to California and she has given birth to their twin sons. Now, with the help of a Cantonese servant named Lee, Adam does his best to raise his sons, and hopefully have neither of them repeat any of the mistakes he himself had made as a young man. He comes to be a respectable member of the community of Salinas Valley, California, and also quite wealthy due to the inheritance he receives after his father's death. With the assistance of both Lee and the Hamilton family, Adam raises his sons as World War I becomes harder to ignore and U.S. involvement becomes imminent.

The Problem: Unfortunately for Adam, his life is not really all that straightforward as a look at his overall family history makes it seem like they are all doomed to repeat the story of Cain and Abel, with one brother being jealous of the seemingly heavily favored brother, and eventually causing him great harm because of it. First it was Adam and his brother Charles; and then it seems it is his sons, Aron and Cal, who are going to repeat the story yet again. There are also the mysterious circumstances regarding Aron and Cal's mother, as the boys are told that she died, while the rest of the town seems to know the real truth, but it isn't spoken very often. This truth would most likely crush Aron, who grows up to value purity and righteousness, but Cal sees it as more of a weapon; something to be used at just the right time to cause someone great hurt and distress, most of all his well-loved brother. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel initially published in the early 1950s, set in the early 20th century, and eventually ending with the oncoming conclusion of World War I. Adam was raised on a farm in Connecticut, but will eventually move west to California with his wife Cathy. This is where he meets the Hamiltons, and Lee, and will live out the rest of his life. Steinbeck's primary inspiration seems to be the story of Cain and Abel, and there are many similarities between what happens in the Bible, and what Steinbeck writes in his novel. Not only are there similarities with the names (as Steinbeck stuck mostly with names that begin with either 'C' and 'A'), but both Charles and Cal end up being more violent than their brothers; they are both farmers in some capacity; and both feel rejected by their fathers, whether that rejection is real or imagined. But going beyond the parallels with the Bible, East of Eden also explores the themes of guilt, freedom, self-destruction, self-control, self-hatred, and even free will. Published in 1952, Steinbeck admitted to this book being what he felt like he had been practicing for all along. The public loved it, while critics weren't so sure about it. Either way, it is an enduring classic and is considered one of Steinbeck's best novels.

My Verdict: This book may be long, but there are books out there much longer. The thing about East of Eden is that it actually feels like it is 600 pages long, which is not something I could say for Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (though I know there are people out there who would argue with me on that point...Mom, I am looking in your direction). I enjoyed it a great deal and was not at all disappointed by it. Even so, I felt like it took forever to read. I even took a break from it at one point and read something else in between. But the struggle was worth it, and I recommend it to anyone looking to explore some of the classics. Just be ready to take a long and somewhat exhausting journey through early 1900s America.

Favorite Moment: When Adam confronts his estranged wife and finally sees her for who and what she is.

Favorite Character: Lee is one of those characters who automatically makes the reader feel better about a tense or awkward scene the moment they show up. His presence brings wisdom, peace, and understanding. And most of all, he is incredibly helpful and willing to tell the truth.

Favorite Quote: "There are no ugly questions except those clothed in condescension."

Recommended Reading: The Grapes of Wrath is still my favorite Steinbeck novel, but it is long. So if you are looking to ease yourself into Steinbeck slowly, I recommend Of Mice and Men.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Contemporary Fiction: Shelter by Jung Yun

Once again, a big thank you to Goodreads for letting know about Shelter by Jung Yun. Ultimately, books that really interest me are the ones that ask those hard to answer questions. In this case, the questions is what obligation, if any, does an adult have to the parents who abused him as a child, now that they need his help?

The Situation: Kyung and his wife Gillian are in a place they never wanted to be financially. During their five years of marriage, the couple have made a string of terrible decisions and their bad spending habits are finally catching up with them. And now that they are attempting to sell the house they really could never afford, the market is not on their side, and the house needs several costly repairs. Their financial troubles could easily go away if Kyung were to make one phone call to his parents, who only live a couple of miles away in the nicest part of town. But there is no way Kyung is going to call the father who used to beat up his mother when he was a boy. He has little contact with his parents as it is, and to take their money to cover his own mistakes is just not an option, no matter how much he needs it to continue supporting his own small family.

The Problem: The day that Kyung and Gillian have the real estate agent over to their house is the day that Mae, Kyung's mother, shows up in their backyard completely naked and covered in bruises. All plans regarding the house are immediately put on hold when it is discovered that both Mae and Jin, Kyung's father, were victims of a brutal home invasion, the details of which makes it one of the most scary and horrific crimes to happen in the area in recent memory. After their release from the hospital, Mae and Jin begin living with their son, but everything that happened when Kyung was little is not so easily forgotten. Even what his parents recently went through does little to soften how he feels towards them. Despite how good Jin is with his grandson, and his willingness to help with the finances, tensions remain high, causing Kyung's previously mediocre existence to tip over towards chaotic.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in the present day New England area. The town where Kyung and his family live is the small community of Marlboro, which is near Boston. Kyung is the son of Jin and Mae Cho, two immigrants from South Korea who moved to the U.S. when Kyung was only four. After obtaining his Ph.D, his father became a professor in the U.S, bringing his wife and child with him. It is revealed fairly early on in the novel that Jin used to abuse Mae, who in turn would abuse Kyung. The abuse is a major factor as to why Kyung is the way he is: cynical, a bit aimless, bitter, judgmental, and generally unsatisfied with his life, even though he has a wife, child, job, and home. Kyung can never forget what his parent's did, which makes their presence in his house even more uncomfortable than most family gatherings tend to be anyway. Kyung oscillates between wanting revenge on the people who committed these horrible crimes against his parents, and wanting said parents to be exposed for the people they really are, not for the people they pretend to be. But almost as soon as Mae shows up in his backyard, Kyung cannot seem to do anything right, making himself the one everyone wants to shut out of their lives.

My Verdict: This is a story. Initially I was afraid that reading about the abuse and the home invasion would often be too uncomfortable, and while it wasn't exactly easy, Yun describes the events in such a way that made me want to know more. Not more details necessarily, but just more about the history of the Cho family, and what really happened in their house, and what caused them to act the way they did, and they way they still do. There is tension from the first page, with Kyung and Gillian confronting the situation with their finances. And then Mae shows up, and the tension continues to build as more information is brought to the reader, and to the different characters. With Kyung trapped between the awful events of the past and terrible events of the present, Yun is able to depict how all of that negative energy has nowhere to go, except onto the people close to him. I would be willing to call this a literary thriller, because even with the third person narrator, the reader has access to Kyung's thoughts, and the story keeps the reader guessing as to what really happened, even when we already know who committed the crimes.

Favorite Moment: When Kyung (drunkenly) stands up before the entire family and says exactly what everyone pretends didn't happen.

Favorite Character: Gillian's father Connie is probably the most level-headed and helpful person throughout the entire novel. He may not care all that much for Kyung as a son-in-law, but he makes sure everyone does what they are supposed to and is willing to help his in-laws as much as he can. He even keeps Kyung from doing some stupid stuff, and tries to keep him from doing others.

Recommended Reading: I actually recommend The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. It is a different kind of novel, sure, but the sense of suspense was close to the same, at least for me. And both books gives the reader a chance to be in the head of a main character who can't seem to do anything right. 

Friday, July 15, 2016

Young Adult Fiction: Thanks for the Trouble by Tommy Wallach

Since I had picked up and enjoyed Tommy Wallach's We All Looked Up back in October, it was easy to decide to read Thanks for the Trouble. This time however, there would not be an immediate threat to the entire planet. And the only lives that may be in any sort of danger are the ones of the two main characters.

The Situation: Parker Santé is not a model high school student. In fact, on Halloween, where his story begins, he skips school and instead decides to hang out in a hotel where he will people watch, write in his journal, and most likely steal from an unsuspecting tourist. But despite his terrible grades, spotty class attendance, criminal record, and the fact that he doesn't talk, Parker is still applying to college, and the story we are given will serve as his answer to one of the many required essay questions, "What was the single most important experience of your life?" Of course that means the answer will go well over the 500 word count limit (by about 60,000 words or so), but what the admissions review board gets is an incredible story that all takes place during one incredible weekend. And it all starts when he meets Zelda, a silver-haired girl sitting in the hotel lobby.

The Problem: While Zelda may be incredibly pretty, outgoing, self-assure, and pretty free with the ridiculous wad of cash she is carrying around with her, she also has an unbelievable story about herself and who she is. And as soon as she receives an important phone call, she plans to jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge and end her life. Parker isn't sure he can believe her story, especially when she asserts that she is over two centuries old. And he definitely does not want to believe she will kill herself. But over the rest of the Halloween weekend, Zelda and Parker do more than talk about suicide plans, the death of his father, and the reason he can't talk. It is truly an unforgettable weekend that effectively changes the entire direction of Parker's life, and hopefully Zelda's as well.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel set in present day San Francisco. Parker is a Hispanic high school student still dealing with the loss of his father, and the irrefutable fact that high school ultimately sucks. He hasn't spoken an audible word since the car accident that took his dad, but he manages to communicate by writing in spiral notebooks, and uses sign language with those that understand it. And while Zelda may look like she is around Parker's age, with the exception of the silver hair, she claims to have been born in Germany in the year 1770. She talks and acts like a much older person, and carries around a wad of cash. Also, for whatever reason, she decides to essentially take on Parker as a project - buy him clothes, accompany him to a Halloween party, buy his friends booze and a limo ride - and spend time with him until she receives her phone call. In other words, she is more or less your typical manic pixie dream girl, and Parker falls hard. From the start he is dubious about her story, but her energy and assertiveness keep him going along for the ride. Plus, he wants to do whatever he can to keep her from killing herself. 

My Verdict: I wanted to like this book much more than I did, mostly because I liked Parker so much and enjoyed watching him change as the novel went on. But Zelda's manic pixie dream girl act was just a little too much for me. And Parker, being a teenage boy, totally fell for the whole whimsical act of someone who is possibly delusional, definitely manipulative, and admittedly suicidal. Zelda makes inane but bold assertions that only manic pixie dream girls can get away with making, and she drags the hapless Parker all over San Francisco, altering his life in small ways at first, with new clothes and a night out, and then bigger ways, with an epic fight with his mom and applying to college. I just don't buy it. I also didn't care for how Parker's unique voice seems to fall away around the middle of the novel. But what I do like is how Wallach plays with the idea of Parker being an unreliable narrator. The guy likes to write stories, and is actually quite good at it, which Parker proves at various points in the novel. So who's to say that Zelda isn't another one of his characters, created as part of a story to tell to a college admissions review board.  

Favorite Moment: When Parker realizes his new skinny jeans actually fit Zelda quite well.

Favorite Character: I definitely grew to like Parker after the rough introduction we get of him as a truant and pick-pocket. 

Most Ridiculous Zelda Quote: "There are no bad guys. Only in bad movies." Yeah, she says nonsense like that.

Recommended Reading: I liked We All Looked Up a lot better. Then again, I have a weird interest in stories and movies where the world actually ends, so there's that.    

Friday, July 8, 2016

Not Looking for a Debate

“It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”
―  Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

I'm not the most vocal person - never have been, never will be. In fact, often those that are incredibly and consistently vocal make me tired. And the kind of people who are always ready to talk politics or debate an issue, I often find exhausting.

Part of my preference for silence comes simply from not enjoying the spotlight or extra attention. But I also understand that words are powerful. And for whatever reason, when people like myself, or my mother, do finally decide to speak, people make often it a point to listen because it happens so rarely. So great power and great responsibility and all that.

But I will say this...

Law enforcement officials have a job to do, and the ones responsible for the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile did theirs poorly. Even though both men had guns on them, the situation should have been handled differently, and certainly should not have resulted in death. There are people who have committed greater offenses and have been granted infinitely more patience. And to those of you ready to defend the officials, not all of you are coming from a biased or malicious place. But please understand that for those of us with black fathers, brothers, uncles, cousins, and sons, it is hard to witness someone defending these officials and not feel hurt and/or disappointed. It may not be entirely fair, but it is where we're at right now.

It is thoroughly senseless that there were five killed and more wounded in Dallas last night. The answer to death is not more death, nor hate to more hate, or violence to more violence. These snipers have solved nothing, and instead have made things unnecessarily worse. They took (from what I have gathered) a peaceful gathering for an already terrible situation and brought the whole thing even further back into a sickening place. To anyone wanting to defend these killers, there is no justification that makes any of this okay and I cannot imagine how someone could try to offer one.  

All of the guilty in both instances will be held accountable. I am not saying that all will be brought to justice by us here on Earth. Most of us know enough and have seen enough to know that may not happen to all of our satisfaction. But I believe they will ultimately be held accountable, which is why I started this post with the quote from Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. After hearing about Alton Sterling, I have been repeating John 14:1 to myself where Jesus says "Don't let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me." The reality is that cops committing violence against black men isn't a new thing in the US. Because of camera phones and social media, there is just evidence of it that can quickly be spread to a large audience. So instead of being stuck in an unbearable heartsickness that is all to easily to fall into - especially while reading comments sections (which I do not recommend) or just general Facebook posts (it's best to be cautious with these too) - or just a general paralyzed feeling of helplessness, I choose to keep my eyes on God. He is certainly up to something, and he would not want those who choose to live in fear to steal the joy of those who refuse to.

Anyway, I think that is enough from me. As the great Daria Morgendorffer once said, "I'm not much for public speaking. Or much for speaking. Or, come to think of it, much for the public." So I'll go back to my books and journal now, hoping for a peace it is often hard to see coming.

Historical Fiction: Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon

Most people are somewhat aware of the story of the Hindenburg. For the majority of us, we only know that it was a blimp and it exploded, causing someone to say the words "Oh the humanity," as the entire structure went up in flames, killing many people aboard. Flight of Dreams by Ariel Lawhon not only goes beyond just the sparse details that many of us have been with content with, but it also provides a story to some of the real-life passengers, as well as offering a theory as to what actually happened to cause the great airship to go up in  flames.

The Situation: It is May of 1937, and the Hindenburg is making its journey from Frankfurt, Germany, to Lakehurst New Jersey. Filled with 97 people, and hydrogen, the great airship lifts into the air and begins its three day journey across the Atlantic. On board are a collection of crewmen and passengers from various walks of life. Everyone has secrets, but some on this flight have more reason to be cautious than others. As the first woman to be a part of a crew on any airship, Emilie plans to do her job as she always does, hopefully not bringing any unnecessary attention to herself as she has plans of her own once the ship lands, and those plans aren't even her biggest secret. And Edward Douglas, one of the few Americans on board, is on a mission that must be executed to perfection as it involves both revenge, and the desire to keep the Nazis from being the world's leaders in air travel. Other key players such as Max, the navigator, and Gertrud, the journalist, will end up having their own part to play in the drama on board, all leading up to the disastrous explosion that will bring down the Hindenburg for good.

The Problem: In 1937, the world is done with World War I, but quickly gearing up for the second one. And while most of the people on board the Hindenburg are German, not all of them are loyal to the party who swastikas are emblazoned on the sides of the giant vessel. Gertrud is certainly one of them, and the suspicions surrounding her and her husband are what has cause German officials to force her to leave her son behind while the couple take this trip to America. And while it would be easy for Gertrud to focus on how much she misses her son, she soon realizes an adversary in the American, Edward Douglas, who clearly has some nefarious scheme of his own, and is insistent on stirring up drama and tensions among almost anyone he comes across. Meanwhile, Emilie must stay focused if she wants to carry out her own plans, but the navigator Max seeks her out at every opportunity as he has fallen for the stewardess and makes his intentions clear. He is certainly not part of Emilie's plan, but she also can't deny she has feelings for him as well. Life continues on inside the vessel more or less as it would on the ground, and no one realizes the danger that awaits them once they reach New Jersey.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in 1937 aboard the German airship, the Hindenburg. And while Lawhon provides a reason for the explosion that took down the blimp during the course of her novel, officially, we do not really know what happened to cause it to ignite in flames the way it did. The people that Lawhon includes also existed in real life aboard the Hindenburg, but the story she gives them is almost completely fictionalized. So there really was a stewardess named Emilie, and a navigator named Max, and a cabin boy named Werner. But we don't know if Max and Emilie were romantically involved, or if Emilie really did have a massive secret that she must keep hidden at all costs. While the story is told by a third-person omniscient narrator, the perspective shifts between five different passengers/crew members: Emilie (stewardess), Max (navigator), Gertrud (journalist), Edward Douglas (American), and Werner (cabin boy). Almost all of them come into contact with the others at some point throughout the book, and the reader becomes privy to all of their thoughts, intentions, and opinions about everyone else on board. Almost each one has some thoughts about Nazi Germany and the state of the world as it was in 1937. It was a tense time, even for those aboard a luxurious airship.

My Verdict: I picked up the book because I was excited to learn more about the Hindenburg and the disaster that was its explosion in May of 1937. The problem with picking up a fictionalized account of the event is that I was pretty much simply tolerating most of the story until I could get to the explosion. The characters were interesting enough, and the drama that Lawhon invented for them was suspenseful and kept me reading. But for the most part, it felt like the story leading up to the explosion was dragged out for a little too long, especially the closer it got to the devastating climax. And while the "theory" Lawhon offers is plausible enough, I have to say that it was strange having the American be the antagonist on a Nazi blimp. For people like me who are more interested in the fire that ultimately consumed the Hindenburg, it may serve them better  to read nonfiction accounts of the disaster. But if you're better able to appreciate a good story and separate it from the actual historical event, then you'll probably enjoy Flight of Dreams a great deal.

Favorite Moment: When the great explosion finally takes place, and the narrative shows how it effected each character differently. 

Favorite Character: I think I am split between Gertrud the journalist and Werner the cabin boy. One is a ballsy woman afraid of very little and willing to confront anyone over anything, no matter how much trouble it gets her into. And the other is a young 14 year-old boy at his first job who proves to be both hard-working and loyal.

Recommended Reading: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume covers three other air disasters, all of which also occurred in New Jersey, and gives fictionalized accounts surrounding those events.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Graphic Novel: Patience by Daniel Clowes

I am always on the lookout for graphic novels to cover that are not part of a series, and since I am familiar with Ghost World, I decided to check out Patience by Daniel Clowes. Those that are more familiar with his work than myself seemed to have mostly good things to say, so I was excited to flip through 180 pages of full-color artistry.

The Situation: Jack and Patience have just found out that they are soon to be parents. They are at both incredibly excited, as well as scared out of their minds. In other words, they are feeling and behaving like most soon-to-be first time parents. Patience's anxiety comes from their financial instability, plus any leftover issues she has from her difficult childhood and adolescence. Jack's anxiety also stems from money, as he has been lying to Patience about his current job situation, and for some reason felt the need to take the lie further, telling her about a better position that may become available to him. After resolving to tell Patience the truth, Jack comes home to find Patience has been murdered. This will change the trajectory of his entire life as he never gets over her death. Only after a chance conversation with a prostitute when he is much older does he finally come upon a plan to get his life back.

The Problem: The plan involves time travel. Incredibly complicated, dangerous, and risky time travel. Not only could Jack potentially mess up things for the future, even more so then they already are, but he could also get the mechanics wrong and end up stuck in a different time, and still without Patience. Even worse, he could end up stuck nowhere...somehow slipping between the fabrics of time with no way out. But Jack is determined to keep Patience from getting killed, giving his baby a chance to actually be born. At first his plan is pretty straight forward, but because he cannot seem to be able to keep his temper in check, and after learning things about Patience's past that are beyond unsettling, things become complicated quickly, his cover nearly gets blown, and things begin affecting the future in ways he never considered.

Genre, Themes, History: As I already mentioned, this is a graphic novel. And because it deals with time travel, I have also given it the label of science fiction. Even decades after Patience's murder, Jack is still obsessed with finding the killer, even if the only brand of justice the killer will get is whatever Jack can administer on his own. And since Jack never does catch the guy, his obsession, bitterness, and rage cause him to adopt time travel as a way to stop the murder entirely. All the rules of time travel that we have heard and read about are mentioned at some point, whether explicitly, or through Jack's actions and consequences. He mentions not wanting to touch anything for fear of affecting the future, but then things keep happening that are too big not to affect something major down the road. But Jack's grief continues to push him forward despite all of the evidence that this whole endeavor mostly has a chance of going incredibly wrong, and possibly making the future even worse. Clowes explores the power of grief and its ability to cause someone like Jack to ignore the seriousness of time travel.

My Verdict: I would certainly recommend this book to any Clowes fan, but also anyone interested in time travel, or even just graphic novels in general. The somewhat heartbreaking story of Patience's life will surely affect most readers, and Jack's determination to rewrite history for the woman he loves and his unborn child is something I am sure many people can relate to. But the gruesomeness of the reality of what Jack must do becomes a different kind of reality check when it is drawn out in full-color pictures as opposed to just words on a page. Having the crimes Jack must commit in order to be successful presented in color with minimal dialogue make for a very different experience than with a traditional book. If anything, the experience of reading this graphic novel makes it worth picking up, even if you have zero interest in time travel.

Favorite Moment: When Jack risks exposure and takes on three guys attempting to take advantage of and humiliate a young Patience.

Favorite Character: Everyone in this story has their issues, but Jack's sheer determination is enough for me to pick him.

Recommended Reading: The only other book I have read by Clowes is Ghost World, so naturally I recommend that. But I will also recommend Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, in either novel or graphic novel form.