Posts Tagged ‘literature’

#CBR4 Cannonball 23: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Little WomenLittle Women by Louisa May Alcott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some people might read Little Women and think to themselves that it’s outdated, old-fashioned, and out of touch. I mean, the book is basically a morality play about how to be a good, little woman and support the men, and learn how to be a real lady with manners and tact.

I enjoyed every word of it.

Maybe that makes me old-fashioned and backwards and an enemy of feminism, but I don’t care. Little Women is a sweet book about growing up and learning the ropes of life and dealing with tragedy and just loving the people around you.

Alcott used her own family as the inspiration for the characters in her books. You can see just how close she was to everyone in her family, but especially to her sisters and mother. Some people today might think that the way Alcott glorifies women in the roles of homemakers and wives and mothers is downright primeval, but I found it sweet. We’ve lost a little something in today’s culture with our constant pursuit of MORE. Look, I’m thankful to have the right to vote and work in corporate America and crack jokes in the presence of men, but I’m also a little sad that there’s so much pressure to do those things to the exclusion of making our homes pleasant and welcoming places and staying home with our kids and enjoying books like Little Women.

louisa may alcott

Louisa May Alcott

I’m not ashamed to say that I found the close relationship between the March sisters profoundly touching (esp. in light of the fact that my sister just got married, and although we both want to stay as close as ever, things are bound to change and will never be the same again). I’m not ashamed to say that I cried many tears through the course of the book (although I am a little embarrassed that most of those tears cropped up at the most inopportune times, like on the elliptical machine at the gym and whilst working the exit door at the Hurley Warehouse sale — *sob* “Thanks for coming.” *sniffle* “Bye, now.” *watery smile* “Come back soon”). I’m not ashamed to say that the romantic bits thrilled my chaste, little heart.

I loved that the March sisters occasionally bicker, but learn to forgive each other quickly. I love the lack of teenage angst. One of the things I dislike most about YA books these days is the heavy cloud of angst that obscures everything. No wonder kids are so sullen these days. Everything they’re reading (or watching on TV) is encouraging them to indulge in their angst, to become brooding and introspective and consumed with thoughts of themselves and their own problems. THOSE ARE ALL FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS, YOU BUNCH OF BABIES.

first world problems

You think the March sisters didn’t have problems? Their dad was risking his life in the Civil War, they were poor and nigh-on starving, and they lived in freezing-cold Massachusetts and had maybe TWO dresses each in their entire wardrobes. But instead of moping about and whining about how their troubles affect THEM, they try to make the best of it, and try to be cheerful for each others’ sakes. And they also find satisfaction in helping others wherever they can. Now, I know that this isn’t an antidote for everything, but it’s still better than whining.

Maybe others think that Little Women is antiquated, but I love it. I love its simple depiction of friendship, love, and family, and of many of the values idealized in it.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 20: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud

Understanding Comics: The Invisible ArtUnderstanding Comics: The Invisible Art by Scott McCloud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was never into comics as a kid. Part of that was because I didn’t have any money to spend on them, so I never had access to them. And, as I got older, I dismissed them as the trappings of pre-adolescent boys bound for lives of solitude and obesity.

I’m still not really into traditional comics, but I’ve grown a certain appreciation for graphic novels. When this post was published on Pajiba, it was right after I started using Goodreads, and I promptly added all of Seth Freilich’s recommendations to my reading list. It was a great introduction to the medium, and I’ve been steadily working through the list. I like to alternate between graphic novels and traditional novels, since it does feel a little like cheating, sometimes. It’s never taken me longer than a day to read through any one graphic novel (although I do take volumes a volume at a time).

Now that I have a few graphic novels under my belt, I’m glad that I had a chance to read Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. The book is clearly a labor of love, and McCloud uses many clever illustrations (both literally and figuratively) to demonstrate the power of combining images and words into a single art form.

understanding comics

McCloud touches on the history of comics, and then proceeds to explain and demonstrate how the mind interprets images, which makes the comic book an especially powerful medium. Some of his examples really blew me away, and it’s clear that he gave a lot of thought to how to present his material. It’s really inventive throughout, and makes me think that kids would learn a lot more about all kinds of different topics if textbooks were presented as graphic novels. Some people (like me) are just visual learners, and we remember what we see a lot better than what we hear.

This book is a must-read for comic book lovers, and for anyone who thinks comic books are derivative and childish. There are some comics that are derivative and childish, but others are quite creative and moving. Understanding Comics is one of the best ones.

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#CBR4 Cannonball 18: Emma by Jane Austen

EmmaEmma by Jane Austen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Likeable people often have the power of making you like the things they like. When they get excited about something, it makes you want to get excited about it, too. One of my pastors is a great example of this. It’s thanks to his enthusiasm that many in our church love the Lakers, Braveheart, “Band of Brothers,” and kettle corn (I am guilty as charged of liking all of these things).

Jane Austen wields a similar power in Emma. She set out to write “a heroine whom no one but myself will much like,” and made generations of readers fall in love with her.

Emma Woodhouse is “handsome, clever, and rich.” She lives on the estate of Hartfield in the town of Highbury with her aged father. Her mother died when she was young, so there was never anyone to really challenge Emma, and she became used to always getting her own way. The only person that she can’t charm into doing as she pleases is Mr. Knightley, the owner of Donwell Abbey, and brother-in-law to Emma’s sister, Isabella.

The book opens with the wedding of Emma’s former governess, Miss Taylor, who is now Mrs. Weston. Emma takes credit for having made the match and is determined to make a hobby of matchmaking. When she meets the artless and beautiful Harriet Smith, she takes Miss Smith under her wing and sets out to spark a romance for her.

emma and harriet

Emma (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Harriet (Toni Collette, who was brilliant in this role).

These days, a lot of people seem to complain that Emma is spoiled and selfish, and there’s plenty of evidence to that effect in the book. But Emma changes towards the end of the book, and what ultimately makes her a redeemable character is that she learns from her mistakes and, at the heart of it, always had good intentions despite her pride.

Mr. Knightley is also my favorite Austen hero (Mr. Darcy doesn’t even compare). He’s charming, chivalrous, clever, and, most of all, wise. He’s never afraid to tell Emma the truth, even when it hurts. He’s a faithful friend in that regard, and it’s a character trait that far too few people value in a future spouse. He’s insightful enough to see Emma’s flaws, but gracious enough to believe that she can change.

Emma is funny, touching, romantic, and really witty. It’s my favorite of Jane Austen’s novels, and I think Emma’s flaws are what make her relatable in the end.

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Cannonball 1: Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy

Another year, another Cannonball. CBR-IV is on like Donkey Kong.

Tess of the d'UrbervillesTess of the d’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ahh, there’s nothing quite like a depressing tale of ruin and social stigma to kick off the New Year.

I’d heard the title of this book many times growing up, but had never actually heard what it was about. Then, right before I started reading it, a friend told me that it was just really depressing. I enjoy a good, sad book (Of Mice and Men, anyone?), so I decided to plunge in.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles taught me that there is a big difference between good sad and bad sad. Good sad has some redemption involved that kinda makes the sadness worthwhile. Bad sad is just depressing, and even if there’s a little redemption or at least some social value, it doesn’t really make it worth how depressing the story is.

Tess Durbeyfield is a simple peasant girl who lives a simple peasant life until, one day, her alcoholic father hears from a parson that the Durbeyfields are likely the descendants of the D’Urbervilles, a noble family fallen into ruin and obscurity. Hearing that there might be some distant (and wealthy) relatives living nearby, John Durbeyfield determines that he and his family ought to get a piece of that pie and sends his pretty daughter Tess to go and collect.

What was supposed to be a golden opportunity for Tess ends up leading to her ruin (you can probably guess how. I mean, it’s a book about social stigma back in old-timey England. You do the math).

Don't hate the player; hate the game.

It was a scandalous book for its time. It involves a taboo subject, and, at the time, probably shed some light and helped people to reconsider the justice of how “ruined” women were treated. Because of this, it’s also an important work.

But, man, it’s a sad book. Poor Tess never meets a man who does right by her, from her father to her would-be noble relative, to the love of her life, to her employer. The only man in the entire book who shows her the least kindness is an old dairyman. This book isn’t really sad in a way that makes you think of noble things and want to be a better person. It makes you think of injustice and makes you despair of ever living in a world free of it.

In that way, I suppose it’s almost as important as Native Son, which was probably the best book I read in 2011. But I think Bigger Thomas was a more realistic character than Tess Durbeyfield, whose blind devotion to the man of her dreams and patience under unjust suffering make her seem rather two-dimensional to me. The way Wright wrote made me want to stand up against injustice, whereas Hardy’s book made me want to buckle under the weight of it.

I can appreciate Tess for its literary achievement, and acknowledge its social and historical importance. But I can’t say that I enjoyed reading it, or that reading it really did me any good.

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And, for what it’s worth, this is the Tom Hardy I prefer to come to mind when I hear that name in the future:

tom hardy

Cannonball 51: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My buddy David started the Cornerstone Bible Church Book Club, and things were going well… for a while. Then, he left for law school and left the club in the hands of a busy graphic arts student and a dork who’s hates administration as much as she loves books (i.e. me). And, now, the club seems to be foundering.

After nearly three months of postponements, I finally got a meeting of the David-less CBC Book Club together to discuss our last pick: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go.

Attendees: Me and my girl Bluemeday.

I suppose we could’ve postponed another week, but it’s been three months, and we needed to put this book out of its misery.

It’s really a shame that more people weren’t able to come and discuss. This book has so many levels, and all of those levels are heart-wrenching.

Our narrator, Kathy, is recounting the story of her schoolgirl days at Hailsham, an exclusive academy for “special” children. There is never any mention of parents, with good reason: (SPOILER!!) ethay idskay atyay Ailshamhay areyay onesclay edbray otay onateday italvay organsyay otay eoplepay.

The students’ purpose for existing makes them special, but it also makes their lives somewhat futile. Their ultimate purpose calls in to question the motivation behind everything they do: would Kathy be best friends with the manipulative Ruth if she knew that she could choose to live a normal life? Would Tommy have dated Ruth if he knew that he had to think about the future? Would Ruth be so conniving if she knew that changing her ways could change her life?

Ishiguro leaves those questions unanswered, which made for a lively, two-man discussion. And it also causes the readers to question what they would want if they were a special kid like Kathy: is ignorance bliss or is a fulfilling existence worth trading the rest of your life? Is that existence as fulfilling when you know that things can’t stay good for much longer?

The cruelest part of the book is that Ishiguro dangles the possibility of hope in front of Kathy and in front of the reader. You hope that love will change everything, but (SPOILER!!) ityay oesn’tday. That, in turn, raises further questions: is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Would Kathy have fallen in love if she had known that it would be doomed in this way?

My only nitpick about the book is that I found it irritating that every new scene is prefaced with Kathy mentioning a seemingly unrelated anecdote and then quipping, “Little did I know how much _____________ would mean to me in only a few short days.”

Come on, Ishiguro. You’re a better writer than that. Once or twice in a book, that convention is okay, but every single scene? Come on, man.

But that’s a tiny nitpick that I had with a stirring and thought-provoking book. All in all, I’d say that Ishiguro has my stamp of approval as a writer.

Because it means so much for famous authors to have my approval.

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Cannonball 47: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t have too high a view of modern literature, mostly because I don’t have too high a view of the modern reader. When we’ve got fully-grown adults running around declaring that the Harry Potter series are the best books they’ve ever read, I think it’s only a matter of time before the premise of the movie Idiocracy actually happens.

But it’s authors like Michael Chabon that restore my hope in the future of literature. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is epic, and it left me reeling, in a good way.

The book is set in the 1930s and 40s, just before the U.S. involvement in World War II. We follow the stories of two cousins: Samuel Klayman, a young New York Jew, and his Czech cousin, Josef Kavalier. Chabon seamlessly works the nascent world of comic books into his tale, and the cousins’ rise and fall is mirrored in the success of their flagship character, The Escapist.

Chabon clearly researched the history of comics thoroughly, and his writing shows that it was a labor of love. Every step of The Escapist’s story, from his origin story to his eventually being sold out by the comic’s publisher, is fleshed out in minute detail. Only a true lover of comics could describe that process and make it interesting to a wider audience (in this case, readers of novels). And the origin story of the character, both the character’s conception and his motivation and origin as a superhero, is cleverly crafted by Chabon. I’d read The Escapist as a stand-alone story. It’s that compelling.

But The Escapist’s story is more than just a loving homage to comics by the author. It also reflects a lot of the character of its creators. Like Joe Kavalier, the character hates evil and oppression. Through The Escapist, Joe is able to land the right hook on Hitler’s jaw that he longs to throw, even as he waits in New York, virtually helpless to assist his own family.

And, like Sammy Clay, Tom Mayflower (The Escapist’s true identity) had a childhood history of physical weakness. But Sammy is able to give The Escapist a power and courage that he thinks he lacks.

The friendship and love between the cousins is just beautiful; one of the most moving friendships in literary history. Sammy doesn’t literally die to save Joe’s life, but he sacrifices his life for his friend all the same.

What makes The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay so amazing is not that their actual exploits are so incredible, although some of them do border on the fantastic. But it’s the fact that Chabon is able to weave the common threads of the human experience — life, love, loss — into his story that makes it truly remarkable.

And he does it all with a beautifully nuanced prose that puts hacks like Nicholas Sparks to shame. Michael Chabon is not just an author. He’s a writer.

I loved this book for all of its beauty and despair and ugliness and loneliness, but I have to warn my more conservative friends that it’s definitely rated R. There’s profanity and sex up in the hizzy. I didn’t find it to be crass or thrown in just for shock value, but it’s definitely there, so be forewarned.

This is a beautiful, beautiful book, and I absolutely loved it.

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Cannonball 17: Echoes Down the Corridor by Arthur Miller

Echoes Down the Corridor Echoes Down the Corridor by Arthur Miller

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
When I started taking the train to work, I was really excited about how much reading I was going to get done. I happily imagined a future in which I’ve read every book I’d ever wanted to read — and all thanks to the LA Metro! People would talk about the classics and I’d airily reply, “Why, yes, I’ve read it.” I’d get a forward asking me to check all of the books I’d read, and I’d be able to check all 100 books on the list. I would be so well-read!

Well, the reality wasn’t quite what I’d imagined it to be. I do still read a heck of a lot, but it’s what I’m reading that was unexpected.

I don’t have a lot of money to spend on books, and I also don’t have a lot of time to go to the library. As a result, I ended up borrowing books from friends here and there, borrowing lots of children’s lit from my sister, who’s a teacher, and the kids at my church. Mostly, though, I ended up reading books that have been sitting on my shelf that I never got around to reading.

Most of those books were on the shelf for a reason. I hadn’t had any sort of burning desire to read them in the past. Most of them were okay. But none of them were too terribly well-written or compelling. It was a nice way to pass the time, but that was about it. It was getting so that I’d almost forgotten that I’d ever been moved by anything I’d read in a book.

Then, one day, I thought I’d hit rock bottom. There was a book on my shelf that I’d read part of the way through, but that I couldn’t really remember at all. It was given to me as a gift from a friend. She asked me to let her borrow it after I was done, and I never lent it to her because I never finished it.

It was a collection of essays by Arthur Miller. I figured I must not remember it because it wasn’t that interesting, but I wanted to get it under my literary belt, so I chucked it into my bag and headed for the train. And then I opened it to this:

Nobody can know Brooklyn, because Brooklyn is the world, and besides it is filled with cemeteries, and who can say he knows those people?

That is the first sentence of Echoes Down the Corridor. I read it and was instantly transported to Brooklyn. And then back in time to the Brooklyn of Miller’s own childhood. I devoured the essay greedily, savoring his descriptions of the colorful characters of the Midwood section. I could hear the children shouting in the streets, the housewives gossiping in line at the grocery store, the honking of horns. He doesn’t describe any of these noises, and yet, somehow, they automatically popped into my mind as he described his neighbors and relatives. That is the power of Miller. He’s conjures.

As soon as I was done with the first essay (“Brooklyn is a lot of villages. And this was one of them.” *SIGH*), I dove breathlessly into the next one. And then the next one.

Something about his writing grabbed hold of me. About halfway through the book, I realized what it was. It was good writing.

In all of the books I’d been reading since I started taking the train, I’d read a lot of interesting stories and fascinating histories. But I hadn’t enjoyed reading really good writing for so long that I didn’t even realize that I was yearning for it. As I read on the train for those three days, I drank deeply of Miller’s words — a veritable nectar to my parched literary soul.

Miller touches on subjects from his childhood to politics to personal anecdotes — Miller lived about as full a life as anyone could hope for. He wrote about the arts and world events and even his own plays. I’d laugh out loud at one essay and then turn a page and be in tears. Whether laughing or crying, I was always thinking. I was thinking about the myriad topics that Miller chose to write about and how such a varied collection of works could come together into such a cohesive volume.

What brings them together is Miller’s life. These are his experiences, his thoughts. What holds them together is his poetic prose. Arthur Miller lived for these words, and he made these words live for him.

After I finished the book, I was a little depressed for a while. Reading writing that good made me despair a bit of ever aspiring to similar heights of genius. Who am I to try and write when works like Miller’s already exist — and go unread on people’s bookshelves for ten years?

But that, to me, is the ultimate beauty of this collection. Despite feeling sharply my inferiority to Miller’s genius , I couldn’t resist the desire to write. Miller had inspired me. And that is the greatest gift that a writer can give: inspiration.

I may never write as prolifically or as insightfully or as beautifully as Miller. But it’s to his credit that he has made me want to try.

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Olive Yu: Chapter 8

Thank God for Google Maps. Looking at a map of the first leg of my trip changed my game plan and, hopefully, the added chapters in the new location will help to push me over 50,000 words!

Chapter 8 is all yours.

Life is a Mystery: The Busman’s Honeymoon

Busman's Honeymoon Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Confession: I’m not into mystery.

I’m not just talking about handsome, brooding men with a secret past (although I’m not really into that, either. Except maybe the handsome part. Secret pasts and brooding, though: no, thank you). I’m talking about the literary genre.

To be fair, my lack of enthusiasm has more to do with my lack of exposure to the genre. I refused to read science fiction until a coworker forced me to read Ender’s Game, which is now one of my favorite books of all time.

A friend that I know, love, and trust is a huge Dorothy Sayers fan, and she happened to have an extra copy of The Busman’s Honeymoon. Apparently, a “busman’s holiday” is a working vacation, more or less. I’d never heard the term before this book.

Lord Peter Wimsey has just been married and whisks his bride off to her childhood home in the country for a secluded honeymoon. Things take a turn for the worse when the previous owner of the home is found dead in the basement.

The mystery part of this book was decent – I think I’ve been spoiled by too many plot twists, which is de rigeur in both lit and film these days. But the dialog was clever, and the cast of characters is tons of fun.

It did take awfully long to get to the mystery, though. I counted over a hundred pages before the body was finally discovered. If (like me) you haven’t read the series from the beginning, you might find this part a wee bit dull.

The book was a solid train read, but I do kind of wish I’d read the other Lord Peter Wimsey books before reading this one. There’s kind of a huge spoiler in the beginning, which takes away half the fun. But if you’re looking for a gentle introduction to the mystery genre, then I’d say that this series is a solid pick.

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A Simpler Time is Still the Same: To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
To Kill a Mockingbird is a book about growing up, civil unrest, racism, hatred, love, friendship — it’s about life. It’s a classic that most kids read in high school. I had a friend who refused to read fiction, but he read and liked this one.

Perhaps it’s the way that Lee lays bare not only the thoughts, but the very heart of a young girl growing up in the Civil-Rights-era South. It’s remarkable how reclusive Harper Lee was able to so perfectly capture the voice of young Scout Finch.

Told from the perspective of a young tomboy (the aforementioned Scout Finch), the book is by turns funny, maddening, and heartbreaking. It’s a complete picture of Scout’s life — everything from acting out the stories about neighborhood mystery Boo Radley to the trial of Tom Robinson and the toll that it takes on the entire town.

It’s a great reminder that, although times are different now, people are essentially the same, families are essentially the same, friendship is essentially the same, and growing up is essentially the same. Whether you learn from television or from events unfolding in your own hometown, there comes a point where you realize that the world can be a cold, unfair place, and there’s no going back to the way things were.

But the book ends on a hopeful note — the world can be pretty harsh, but if you have people who care about you and that you care about, you’ll be okay.

Seriously. Must read.

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