Friday, May 26, 2017

Door Stop: Ulysses by James Joyce

I am just going to go ahead and start by saying that this is by far the most cryptic book I have ever read in my life. There are books that are hard to follow, and then there is James Joyce's Ulysses. There are books that include allusions to other works, and then there is whatever is going on in this one. Reading long books is something I am used to. But this...this was a different experience entirely.

The Situation: Stephen Dedalus is a frustrated artists living in Dublin, teaching history at a boy's school. He is aloof, somewhat awkward around people, and tends to exist and operate mostly inside of his own head. It is clear from the very beginning of the novel that Dedalus is still deeply affected by the death of his mother, which about a year ago. The hero of the novel, Leopold Bloom, is the opposite of Stephen in many ways, but the two also have some things in common. While Dedalus can be hard to talk to and isolated, Bloom is friendly and cheerful, though still an outsider. However, Bloom does not mind his status as an outsider, and the words and actions of others do not affect him as much.

The Problem: Bloom may be better able to navigate life than his young friend, but he is still struggling with the death of his son, as well as his wife's infidelity, though the latter has not been confirmed. Bloom manages to be mature and grounded, and can even sympathize with others despite his own struggles. Meanwhile, Dedalus becomes harder to talk to as the novel progresses, though that could be attributed to the fact that he also becomes drunker, and his thoughts are less represented. Between the two of them, they encounter many different characters and situations as they go about their lives in early 20th-century Dublin.      

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel set in Dublin, Ireland in the early 20th-century. At first, the novel primarily focuses on Dedalus, with the character of Bloom being introduced in the fourth chapter, though the two men will not physically cross paths until much later in the book. Ultimately, the focus stays mostly on Bloom as he serves as the Irish everyman, and Dedalus fades further from the reader's view the drunker he gets. Joyce's story is highly allusive and structurally more or less follows Homer's Odyssey: Bloom represents Odysseus; his wife, Molly Bloom, represents Penelope; and Dedalus represents Telemachus. The novel is broken up into three parts and eighteen episodes, with each episode corresponding to a character in Homer's Odyssey. Although the original text did not include the Homeric titles, Joyce later produced them when helping a friend of his understand the structure of the book. As a whole, the novel is hard to follow, but some parts fare better than others as the structure can change from episode to episode, or even in the middle of one. Its cryptic nature is one of the main things the book is known for, as well as its history of censorship and prosecution for indecency.

My Verdict: Oh my goodness this was difficult. I have never had such a hard time finishing a book in my life, and I doubt I will ever have so much trouble again. At least I hope. Usually when I read a door stop, even if it is one I did not like, I still have some measure of accomplishment and joy when I finally finish. Turning over the final page of Ulysses gave me absolutely no sense of joy or completion. I did not get anything out of the story or connect with any of the characters. I will not be able to choose a favorite moment or a favorite character because, honestly, I do not feel like I understood enough of what happened in order to do so. Sure, Bloom seems like an okay guy, but there could have been some hidden abhorrent action that he committed that I completely missed because of my lack of understanding of what I was reading. Truly difficult stuff. Not for those who lack patience or determination.

Recommended Reading: For a door stop that is a bit more accessible, my first recommendation will always be Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. But if you wish for something a bit more modern, I will recommend Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Young Adult Fiction: Caraval by Stephanie Garber

Stephanie Garber's Caraval was one of those books that I felt like was all over Goodreads and everyone was reading it, except me. Honestly, for the most part, a book being plastered all over Goodreads usually does not have much influence on me, as I have encountered both good and bad books that way, not to mention countless mediocre ones. But because it is YA, and because the synopsis did grab my attention, I decided to pick it up, knowing that I was potentially getting myself caught up in a brand new series that may go in a direction I won't care much for.

The Situation: Seventeen year-old Scarlett Dragna lives on the Conquered Isle of Trisda with her father and her younger sister Donatella, or Tella. Ever since she was a little girl, Scarlett dreamed of being invited to Caraval, a game filled with magic and wonder, where you can either observe, or decide to become a player, and being too swept away in the events is a real possibility. Year after year she has written letters to Legend, Caraval's mastermind organizer, only to never receive an invitation, or any indication that the games will come to Trisda. Now Scarlett is 17 and engaged to be married, believing that her chance to attend Caraval has passed. That is until she finally receives a letter from Legend inviting her, her sister, and her fiance to the games. Despite the invitation, Scarlett still believes her chance has passed. With her wedding only days away, Scarlett does not want to miss what she believes to be her only opportunity to escape life with her cruel father. But Tella refuses to let her sister settle for unhappiness as a trade-off for safety, so she hatches a plan that will get them to the games, and maybe even win.

The Problem: It is hard enough for Scarlett to think of what her father, the Governor of Trisda, will do to either her or her sister once he realizes they have escaped. If he finds them, the punishment will likely be more severe than anything he has ever inflicted upon them. Of course, Scarlett is also worried about missing her wedding; her one chance of truly escaping life with her father. And then there is Julian, the mysterious stranger whom Tella has enlisted to help in her plot. Handsome, charming, and completely untrustworthy, Julian is instrumental in helping Tella put her plan in place. When Tella disappears once they reach Caraval, Julian is the only person Scarlett can lean on as she tries to track down her sister and leave Caraval in order to make it back home in time for her wedding. Unfortunately, Legend seems to have a plan of his own, as he kidnaps Tella and makes her and Scarlett a part of the game. And if Scarlett does not win, she may lose her sister forever.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fantasy novel set in a fictional world. Scarlett and Tella reside on the Conquered Isle of Trisda with their cruel father, the Governor. Later, they will travel to Caraval, a place that Scarlett had always dreamed of being invited to, though when she finally is, the timing could not be worse. Throughout the sisters' entire time at Caraval, the line between what is real and what is only part of the game is continually blurred, almost to the point where Scarlett is nearly driven to despair. There is no one she can fully trust, and when she does it almost always proves to be a mistake. No one and nothing are as they seem, and while there are rules to the game, no one plays fair, and everyone is only out for themselves.While Scarlett has to constantly decide who she can trust, and what she can believe to be real, she also must decide how much power she gives other people over her actions and her feelings. Her father had always manipulated both daughters as a way to control them, and the people of Caraval are proving to be no different. Ultimately, Scarlett must be stronger and smarter than ever before, while understanding that things may not be as they seem.    

My Verdict: I have mixed feelings about this one. For the most part, the story is interesting, complex, and with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing as to what is really going on. The reader ends up just as confused and lost as Scarlett, especially when it comes to who to trust and who to avoid. But sometimes - often actually - there are just a few too many twists and turns, and the mysterious characters are almost too many to count. Plus, for Caraval to be such a supposedly magical place, all that I could imagine it to be was an amusement park that was geared more towards adults rather than children and families. Also, there has to be a healthy amount of suspension of disbelief applied in order for the story to come through completely, but I suppose that can be attributed to the more fantastic elements of the story. And as far as protagonists go, Scarlett has to be one of the most naive and annoying ones that I have come across in a long time. Sure, her situation is crazy and confusing, but there is only so much  I can take of someone constantly being surprised when people do not turn out to be who they say they are.

Favorite Moment: Honestly, I am not sure. Possibly whenever Julian proves to be more trustworthy than initially believed.

Favorite Character: Except for Scarlett, no one is as they seem, or as they present themselves, including Tella. But Scarlett annoyed me too much for me to pick her. So instead I choose Julian. He is both helpful and deceptive, but ultimately more helpful.

Recommended Reading: Despite having an ending I take issue with, I choose The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern.


Friday, May 12, 2017

Graphic Novel: Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

So far, 2017 has been a good year for me and graphic novels. Normally, I am doing well to get in one graphic novel a year. Today's selection will actually be the fourth one I have covered this year, and it is only May. When I found out Octavia E. Butler's Kindred was going to receive the graphic novel treatment, I do not think I could have been more excited. After reading Kindred in graduate school, I remember being so happy when I was done reading it, not because it is a bad book or because it is badly written (it is neither of those things), but because the material was so hard to deal with and the situation was so tense and difficult. I felt bad for the protagonist and just wanted her to be safe and happy, knowing that neither of those things were going to happen quickly or easily. But despite any hesitation I may have felt due to past experiences with the novel, I was excited for this adaptation and hope you would be too.

The Situation: Dana is a struggling writer living in 1970s California with her husband, Kevin. Suddenly - without warning and seemingly without reason - she is transported from her living room, to a plantation in the pre-Civil War south. After rescuing a young white boy from drowning, Dana is rebuked by what has to the boy's mother, and after the father points a gun in her face, she transports back to her home where Kevin is waiting for her. To Kevin, she was only gone for less than a few seconds, but the time she spent with the little boy and his family was at least a few minutes. No one knows what happened, least of all Dana. What is worse is that no one can predict when it will happen again. Each time Dana is transported back, more time has passed on the plantation, and the little boy, Rufus, grows up bigger and just a little more dangerous.

The Problem: Time travel is trouble enough. Time travel to pre-Civil War America is something else entirely. And time travel to pre-Civil War America as a black woman who is used to living in the late 20th century is an adventure that no one would ever sign up for. If Dana were white, her adventures on the Weylin estate would go very differently. No worries about being captured and sold as a slave; no worries about being beaten just because of the color of her skin; life in general would be much easier. It is on her second visit that Dana realizes she is not being transported to just any slavery plantation, but apparently one where her ancestors lived, and Rufus is one of them. Without her help, Rufus will get himself into enough trouble that he will endanger her entire family line. But in order to save her family's history, she has to help him do the unthinkable, during a time in America's history where the unthinkable was not only allowed, but expected.  

Genre, Themes, History: As I mentioned before, this is a graphic novel adaptation of a science fiction novel written by Butler. Kindred was first published in 1979, and is probably Butler's most studied work, so it is not surprising that it would be the one to be adapted into a graphic novel. As is probably obvious, slavery is a prominent theme. The peculiar institution is both straightforward and not, managing to always benefit those in charge, while taking from those who already have nothing. No matter what work you are given to do as a slave, or what position you hold, at the end of the day you are some one's property and will be treated as such. Even any claims to freedom as a black person are tenuous at best; having the proper papers and documents can help, but nothing is guaranteed. With each trip back in time, Dana not only learns a little bit more about the people and operations of the Weylin plantation, but also about how to survive as a black woman out of time in a place where black people knowing how to read and write is frowned upon. And if Rufus is selfish and destructive as a little boy, then he is manipulative, entitled, and downright sociopathic as an adult. Dana must navigate the laws of the antebellum south in order to save herself, in more ways than one.

My Verdict: The novel was tough to get through. The graphic novel moves a little quicker due to the nature of the format, but still, it was hard to keep turning the pages at some points. With that being said, this adaptation does not disappoint and is a fantastic tribute to Butler's work. There are certain parts of the book that I remember being incredibly powerful, and for whatever reason they just did not come through as well in this version of the story. The impact of most of the harsher moments were softened, thankfully. But that also means that the moments whose power you wish to keep were also softened, taking away from the overall effect of the story. Still, Butler's story about the institution of slavery from the viewpoint of a 20th century black woman still comes across in all of its complexity and power, and with full color pages to help depict Dana's harrowing story and journey.

Favorite Moment: When Dana makes the decision that Rufus has broken whatever agreement they had between them, and decides to act on her own in order to return home.

Favorite Character: I don't know if Kevin is my favorite character, or if I just feel bad for him. He has to watch his wife go through something that no one would be able to logically explain, much less help with. And at one point *spoiler alert* he even gets stuck in the past when Dana transports without him. 

Recommended Reading: For more Octavia Butler, I recommend Fledgling. For another graphic novel, I recommend Habitat by Simon Roy.       

Friday, May 5, 2017

Historical Fiction: Before the Rain Falls by Camille Di Maio

Last year I had the pleasure of speaking with San Antonio author Camille Di Maio about her first book, The Memory of Us. Her follow-up and the focus of this post, Before the Rain Falls, is set to come out Tuesday, May 16th. I am extremely grateful that she thought of me and offered to send me a copy. Due to the nature of the blog, it is rare I can cover a book before it is available to the public, so this is a nice treat.

The Situation: Della Lee has returned to her hometown of Puerto Pesar, Texas after a long absence. Everything seems to have changed, except that the small town remains small and has very little going for it. Even the name of it translates into "Port of Regret," a name that fits Della's situation perfectly. And while her return is not exactly met with a parade or a party, she is not at all surprised. Even 70 years later, everyone in Puerto Pesar knows the story of Della Lee, the woman who was sentenced to prison for the murder of her sister, Eula. To look at her now, it would be hard to believe the 90 year-old woman would have ever committed such an act. Paloma Vega is also making a return to her hometown, but under much different circumstances. Having grown up in Puerto Pesar, Paloma now resides in New York City where her career as a doctor is primed and ready to begin. Her brief visit to help take care of Abuela and see her younger sister will not only bring her back into contact with the people who raised her, but also a reporter from Boston wanting to know more about a well-known painting in Puerto Pesar that appears to be crying. 

The Problem: Only three people know what really happened the day that Eula was murdered, and two of them are dead. Della is not exactly interested in visiting the details of the day that would send her away for seventy years. Mick, the reporter from Boston, initially came to the small Texas town chasing a story about a picture that appears to be crying. But after learning that the picture is in the likeness of a Eula, the sister of the woman who recently returned from prison, Mick sees an opportunity for a different kind of story. Suddenly, Puerto Pesar does not seem to be such a boring place anymore. Of course, the incredible food, and the assistance of the beautiful and smart Paloma, certainly help with this realization. But he has a life in Boston, while Paloma has hers in New York, and a place like Puerto Pesar could never compete with cities such as those. But still there is Della and the story she has yet to tell, and the night of the murder is only the beginning of it. 

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set in modern-day Texas, specifically in the small fictional town of Puerto Pesar. While the town may not be real, I can assure you, as a native Texan that was often subjected to long road trips to tiny towns that were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, that there are places like this all over the state. Oppressive heat, a desperate need for rainfall, lack of industry and jobs, fantastic Mexican food...yeah, that is small border town Texas. When Della was growing up, her father's cannery provided many jobs to the town. But after he died, the cannery was sold, and then closed, and many of the families were left hurting. And during the 70 years she was incarcerated, it seems little has changed. Paloma certainly left as soon as she had the opportunity, leaving her with a guilt over leaving Abuela and her younger sister, Mercedes, behind. But while Puerto Pesar may be the primary setting, the secondary one of the Goree State Farm for Women is just as important, and is where most of Della's story takes place. It is what happens there, just as much as what happened to put her there, that will lend to the rest of the novel. The narrative switches between Puerto Pesar today, and Della's story in the 1940s. And it is not until near the end of the novel that her entire story is realized. Suffice it to say that the words "the truth shall set you free" certainly apply to this novel.

My Verdict: This is a well-written story that succeeds in being about more than one thing or one person. It is not only about Della and the events that put her in prison, much less what happened while she was in there. And her story by itself would probably be enough to fill an entire book. But Di Maio also decided to include the story of someone else who left Puerto Pesar, but for very different reasons, allowing the reader a view of the small town from a younger perspective. And then there is Mick, the complete outsider, who only shows up to get a story, and ends up with something else entirely. There are parts that are not entirely believable, such as how quickly the story is able to wrap up after the big reveals (yes, there is more than one). Or even how quickly Mercedes is able to get past her feelings of abandonment towards her older sister. But overall, this is a well-done novel.

Favorite Moment: When Mick, someone unfamiliar with good Mexican food, has a churro for the first time in his life. 

Favorite Character: Arturo, the owner of a local Puerto Pesar cantina, is the perfect mix of helpful and slightly overbearing. He is the local every visitor needs to visit, and not only for the potential of free margaritas and loaded nachos.

Recommended Reading: Naturally I recommend Di Maio's first novel, The Memory of Us. However, I will also recommend Welcome to Utopia by Karen Valby, a nonfiction account of small town Texas life according to a visit by an outsider.