Progress report on Isabel Allende’s Maya’s Notebook (by Jill)

Maya's notebook Cover

 

I think I will look back on the books I’ve read in the past six months and the main thing I’ll remember is this: bad things happen to teenagers who end up in Las Vegas. Very. Bad. Things. Remember Theo Decker in The Goldfinch? He leaves New York City a nice kid who loves his mom, and after a few months in Vegas he’s an alcoholic degenerate. Isabel Allende’s protagonist does Donna Tartt’s one better: when she winds up in Vegas after fleeing a reform school in Oregon she ends up homeless in Vegas, trading herself for some crack or heroin or whatever she can get. Think this sounds like quite a departure for the wonderful Chilean woman who wrote one of my most favoritest books of all time (that’d be The House of the Spirits)? Yeah, I think so too.

I have slightly more than a hundred pages to go in Maya’s Notebook. It’s been going really quickly, and I’ve been enjoying it, despite the bizarre Las Vegas interlude in which I find myself currently. I don’t want to talk too much since I’m so close to the end, but I wanted to at least get my pithy Las Vegas paragraph posted today. (I’ve been trying to figure out how to organize that comparison since last night.) It always confuses me when Allende does a novel with a contemporary setting. I tend to enjoy her historical fiction much more; not that her contemporary novels are bad; I just find her historical ones so much better. Our narrator here is Maya Vidal, a nineteen to twenty-year-old girl who starts off in Berkeley, California, living with her grandparents. Her parents essentially dumped her with her grandparents when she was a baby. Her grandmother, or Nini, is a transplant from Chile, and her grandfather, or Popo, is her second husband, an astronomer. Maya’s Popo dies when Maya is fifteen, and it’s at that point that her life “goes off the rails,” as she says several times. She goes from a happy kid to one who drinks and does drugs and winds up in a reform school. She runs from there after a couple of years and hitches a ride with a trucker, who rapes her, and drops her off in Vegas. She takes up with a drug dealer, who gets killed by his own bodyguards, and that’s when she turns into a literal crack whore. Somehow her Nini finds her, and she gets shipped off to a small island off the coast of mainland Chile, called Chiloé, to stay with an old man named Manuel, an old friend of her grandmother’s.

The bulk of the novel is about what happens after all the Vegas drama, when she’s in Chiloé, which is why it’s not giving away much of the plot to mention Maya’s life in Vegas. Her time in Chiloé is much more peaceful than Vegas, and much more in keeping with the magical realism of Allende’s traditional works, though the magic here is limited to Manuel’s research on the mythology of Chiloé, though one of the ladies on the island, Blanca Schenke, does belong to a witch coven, and Maya joins, too. My primary problem with this book is the ease with which Maya seems to become an addict, then just stop being one, despite the occasional talk of how she’s always going to be an addict, and how she needs to keep away from alcohol, because that’s her gateway drug. But she generally just seems okay. Granted, this is her version of events and she admits that she may not be the most reliable narrator: “It’s complicated to write about my life, because I don’t know how much I actually remember and how much is a product of my imagination; the bare truth can be tedious and so, without even noticing, I change or exaggerate it, but I intend to correct this defect and lie as little as possible in the future (4).” So maybe there’s more going on in her head as far as her struggle with addiction than she lets on. I’ll assume that’s the case, because I really do hate to find fault with anything Allende writes.

I forgot to talk about how this book came into my life! Crap. Stupid Vegas is the devil for teenagers digression at the beginning of this post. Anyway. This book was released in 2011 in Spanish, but it took two years to get an English translation published, which surprised me a lot during that time because usually Allende’s English translations come out a lot faster than that. I am still curious as to why it took so long. It goes without saying that I got this book in hardcover, as soon as it came out in April 2013, and then it ended up sitting for a heck of a lot longer than I was planning on. I chose this book when I did because of my New Year’s resolution to plow through my hardcovers this year. I’m definitely enjoying it; Maya bounces back and forth from her past history to her “present” in Chiloé, and the past history is scandalous and suspenseful and exciting. The Chiloé sections are much more classic Allende: the meandering pace and South American setting and the eccentric, amusing, endearing characters. I suspect many folks will find the drug addict on the streets section tedious and/or disturbing; in fact, I was as much repulsed as I was compelled to keep reading last night.

I should finish this one pretty soon and will get some final thoughts together for you guys later this week.

Posted in Fiction - general, Isabel Allende, Reviews by Jill | Leave a comment

Some Brief Almost-Final Thoughts on We Are Not Ourselves (by Bethany)

we are not ourselves

It’s official. This is an Alzheimer’s book. I did not know it was an Alzheimer’s book before I read it; the book jacket hints but does not make this statement directly. I feel a little bit cheated. I’ve stayed away from all depictions of dementia (well, except for King Lear) in print and in media ever since my mom died in 2010, not because the topic is so emotional that I’ll become subsumed in it but because once you have personal experience with something like Alzheimer’s, the details of your experience become THE TRUTH, and it can be stressful and frustrating to read an account that doesn’t reflect that truth. I could have (and have had) a conversation on this subject with someone else – I don’t dread the idea of sharing anecdotes back and forth at all – but books are different. Most of the time I feel as if reading is a social experience, but it can be an isolating experience as well. I want to engage the authors and/or the characters directly about what it’s like to watch someone sink into dementia, and of course that isn’t a feasible option right now.

This is still a good book, and I do recommend it, but here’s the thing: Alzheimer’s Disease destroys suspense in fiction. From the time the protagonist’s husband Ed first stopped being able to calculate his students’ semester grades – quite a while before his diagnosis, not in years but in pages – I knew what was coming. I felt the same way I did when I was reading Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children, and all of a sudden it was a brilliantly blue autumn Tuesday in New York City and one of the characters was on his way to the airport. The details in an Alzheimer’s story can vary, of course, but the narrative direction can’t. Alzheimer’s is like Poseidon’s curse on Odysseus; it’s like the decree of the oracle at Delphi in Oedipus Rex. Beyond this point there be monsters.

***

P.S. I have about a hundred pages to go in this novel; I thought I would have time to finish it today, but no dice. If I want to write a full review of it after I finish it, I will – but I suspect that I’ll choose to move on to a new book. We Are Not Ourselves is very artfully written and will likely be a Pulitzer contender when that time rolls around. Its protagonist has a very tightly controlled personality, and the novel is tightly controlled as well. I would like this quality more if the novel were told only from Eileen’s point of view. Eileen and Ed’s son does not have this kind of personality, but the sections told from his point of view still have this rigid quality. But it’s really an excellent novel, and I look forward to seeing what Matthew Thomas has in store for us next.

 

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A Review of Dorothy Baker’s Cassandra at the Wedding (by Bethany)

(Cassandra at the Wedding cover image

The New York Review of Books Classics Series really is a wonderful resource for people who like to read. If you’re not familiar with it, this is a series that resurrects high-quality books from all around the world that for whatever reason fizzled out after they were published. The books are distinctive-looking, with a painting or photograph on the cover and the title and author in a square in the middle of the cover, and each book contains a foreword or afterword by a contemporary author. Coincidentally, Jill’s most recent review (of Stoner) and my review for today are both of novels from this series.

Cassandra at the Wedding opens with Cassandra Edwards turning in her final spring semester grades at U.C. Berkeley and contemplating the Golden Gate Bridge. She is about to leave Berkeley and drive to her family’s ranch in the foothills of the Sierras (the nearest large towns mentioned are Fresno and Bakersfield, if that helps to orient you) to be the maid of honor in her identical twin sister Judith’s wedding. Until a year before the novel opens, Cassandra and Judith lived together in the apartment in Berkeley that Cassandra now lives in alone. They completed their undergraduate degrees there, and then Cassandra stayed on to do a master’s degree in English and Judith went to New York to study music at Julliard. Judith is a pianist, and when she still lived in Berkeley she and Cassandra chipped in on an enormous piano that they were able to buy at a discount. With Judith gone, the behemoth of a piano still takes up most of the space in their small living room and is a constant reminder of Judith.

Cassandra’s ruminations on the Golden Gate Bridge are part of a grand tradition, which is to say that she is considering suicide. “The bridge looked good again,” Baker writes. “The sun was on it, and it took on the appeal of a bright exit sign in an auditorium” (4). We also learn that Cassandra is seeing a psychiatrist who “assures [her] that [she] is not at heart a jumper,” that she is “given to conjecture only” (4). But it’s significant that these are the thoughts in her mind when she packs her car and leaves for the ranch several days ahead of schedule.

The back cover of the novel tells us that Cassandra is gay. The novel itself, however, never makes this statement overtly and only hints at it two or three times. At the beginning of the novel, Cassandra refuses to answer her phone because someone named Liz Janko has been calling her nonstop for several weeks. This detail is not enough evidence to conclude that Cassandra is gay, and if the book jacket hadn’t outed her I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to Liz Janko (who does return later in the novel, but equally inconclusively). Later, though, when Cassandra is embarrassed because she accidentally chose the same dress as Judith (more on this in a moment), her grandmother says, “I’ve never been able to see anything wrong with your being – ,” and Cassandra replies, “Don’t say it. Don’t say that word.” Her grandmother’s response is “Nobody else who is one feels this way about it” (100). So you see – this is the kind of evidence I’m working with when I try to come to my own conclusions about Cassandra’s sexual orientation.

Of course, what’s undoubtedly the case is that when this novel was originally published in 1968, the book jacket did not say anything about Cassandra being gay, and these oblique references were there for the taking if a reader’s life experience and worldview made him/her open to them, but they can camouflage themselves into their surroundings if needed. Later, Judith tells Cassandra that she was terribly lonely when they lived together because Cassandra was always out doing vague things (I didn’t mark the quotation and can’t find it now, but it was the same sort of remark that their grandmother made above, something along the lines of “You were always out figuring out what you were like.”) – and, again, this is as direct as this novel ever gets on this subject.

I do want to back up a little and give you some summary, because the days and nights surrounding Judith’s wedding are just wonderfully done and also wonderfully complicated, complicated in the sense that a Shakespeare comedy is complicated. Raised on their family’s ranch in rural central California, Judith and Cassandra were never really integrated into the culture of their town. They attended the local school and were on its swim team, but at home their lives revolved around their father, a philosophy professor who saw himself as sort of a Socrates figure and always wanted to be surrounded by his disciples as he held court about classical philosophy and the nature of the soul and the universe. In his case, his disciples were Cassandra and Judith – who remember these sessions fondly – and their mother, Jane, who is now dead. Jane’s character is hard to get a handle on. We’re told in the novel’s very first paragraph that Jane died “much too young but [Cassandra is] not sure she thought so” (3), whatever that means; Jane’s death is also one source of the melancholy that surrounds Cassandra’s father, who is also an extremely heavy drinker.

Both of Cassandra and Judith’s parents refused to dress them identically when they were children, for reasons that are never clearly explained – although it seems to me that neither of these characters would be likely to appreciate “cuteness” in any form, and identically-dressed children certainly qualify as cute. Their grandmother, however, did push them to dress alike: “She loves us – she’s the soul of generosity – but there was a time – we were around eight – when she even wanted to buy us a pair of accordions and have us work up a little act. I remember she had us pretty much interested. But Jane hit the ceiling and Papa went through the roof” (100). This backstory makes it all the more complicated when Cassandra and Judith discover that they have purchased the same dress for the wedding. Here’s what happens: Cassandra goes shopping in Berkeley and chooses what she describes as a simple white dress. My own inner monologue – which is not especially well-informed about wedding etiquette but does tend to retain little snippets of things it hears – expected that this would be seen as a violation of tradition, since bridesmaids (I’m pretty sure) are not supposed to wear white. Cassandra assumes that Judith’s dress will be lacy and elaborate, and she thinks her simple white dress will complement Judith’s perfectly. In other words, she’s not up on wedding etiquette, but she did think over her choice and try to do the right thing. When we learn soon after Cassandra’s arrival at the ranch that Judith found what she describes as the perfect simple dress for the wedding, I knew what was coming, and I was right – they bought the same dress.

I really do want to keep going with this summary, but I also have to stop and tell you that the dialogue I quoted above – in which Cassandra and her grandmother talk about “what she is” – emerges out of the discovery of the identical dresses. I’m realizing now as I reread this scene that the reference to Cassandra’s homosexuality is even more oblique than I thought. The following interior monologue takes place immediately following the grandmother’s statement that “nobody else who is one feels this way about it”: “… gran said in the aggrieved voice she always uses for this particular conversation, the conversation about our condition, so to call it. I’m sorry to grieve her or deny her her pleasure, but I have to make things clear, because no one of my grandmother’s temperament and sensibilities can understand what it’s like to be bound to a way of life like ours – a situation we inwardly glory in, but one that we have to protect at every turn from a menacing mass of clichés that are thrust on us from the outside. To be like us isn’t easy, it requires constant attention to detail. I’ve thought it out; we’ve thought it out together. I’ve tried to explain to my doctor that it’s a question of working ceaselessly at being as different as possible because there must be a gap before it can be bridged. And the bridge is the real project” (100).

Can anyone make sense of this? Is this a paragraph about Cassandra (and some other person or people that she refers to as “us”: her lover? gay women in general?) being gay? Or is it about Cassandra and Judith being identical twins? Does the pronoun “one” (in boldface above) refer to “lesbian” or to “an identical twin”? I have no idea! But this is how complicated this novel is – complicated in a very, very good way (and I haven’t even gotten to the use of the word “bridge” in this passage – how interesting it is in the context of Cassandra’s earlier meditations on a certain bridge). I don’t think it’s an accident that Cassandra’s identity as a gay woman and her identity as an identical twin are the elements that are conflated here. Cassandra is clearly not comfortable about being gay, and it’s suggested (though never stated) that Cassandra hopes that being a twin will offer her a “free pass” out of being gay – i.e. it will let her opt out of the female routines of courtship and marriage without leaving her in solitude.

So anyway… Cassandra comes home a few days earlier than expected, and on her first night home, she and Judith and their father stay up late drinking and reprising their roles as philosopher and disciples. Eventually their father goes to bed and the sisters go to their room, where they continue drinking and talking. This scene is not narrated in the novel: we learn about it as a result of its consequences the next morning, when Cassandra wakes up believing that Judith has agreed not to get married. Cassandra insists that she persuaded her sister that the only way they can both be happy is to be together – that they are somehow different from other people and are spiritually yoked to one another. The plan, according to Cassandra, is that she will pick Judith’s fiancé, Jack, up at the airport later that day and explain to him that the wedding is off. Judith remembers some details of this conversation but insists that she fell asleep before Cassandra did and Cassandra only thought she had agreed to this plan. Both exhausted and hung over, they have a terrible fight, of course, and Judith leaves to pick Jack up at the airport, and they sit down to eat in a café and Judith tells Jack everything that happened. Knowing all the awkwardness that awaits them at home, they decide to go to the courthouse right then and get married. That way, the deed will be done and Cassandra (whom Judith seems to find almost irresistibly persuasive) will not be able to say or do anything to prevent their marriage.

While Judith is gone, however, Cassandra attempts suicide: she takes a large dose of the sleeping pills she is prescribed for anxiety and settles back on her bed to die. When Judith and Jack return to the ranch, they find the twins’ father and grandmother frantically trying to unlock Cassandra’s door from the outside because she is not responding to their knocks and calls. Jack is a doctor, so when they open the door and find Cassandra naked and unconscious, he takes over and begins life-saving procedures. But let’s think about this scene for a moment: it’s Judith and Jack’s wedding night, even if no one knows they are married except for the two of them, and since they did not have sex before marriage this night should be a true “consummation” of their marriage and their love. Instead, Jack spends the night performing artificial respiration and other hands-on medical procedures on a naked woman who is the identical twin of his new wife. How awkward and tense and yet strangely hilarious can a scene be? This novel is a great one to study if someone wants to learn about comic plotting – it’s flawless.

I’ll end the summary here – this is not where the book ends, and there’s a lot I’ve left out. I highly recommend this novel – it’s quick and lively and engrossing, and even though Cassandra isn’t the most likeable of protagonists, I sympathized with her strongly and found her a lot more appealing than Judith, who on any objective level is the “victim” in this novel – the reasonable one who just wants to be married to someone other than her sister. Dorothy Baker is smart and funny and highly aware of how comedy works, and I am grateful to the New York Review of Books Classics Series for bringing this novel back from obscurity.

Posted in Authors, Dorothy Baker, Fiction - general, Fiction - literary, Reviews by Bethany | Leave a comment

Final thoughts on John Williams’ Stoner (by Jill)

John-Williams-Stoner

I think Stoner is my favorite book of 2015 so far. Yes, I know I’ve only finished three books so far and am about a third of the way through my fourth. But one of my favorite books of 2014 was T.C. Boyle’s When the Killing’s Done, and that was the first one I read last year.

Stoner is the story of William Stoner, who leaves his home in rural Missouri to go to college. The plan is for him to get a degree in agriculture and come home to work on the family farm. And everything goes along just fine until Bill takes a survey of English literature class taught by Archer Sloane, the man who will become his mentor. He finds himself struggling in this class, and yet also finding something in himself that he didn’t know was there. He drops his science classes and changes his major. He wanders the stacks in the library, “among the thousands of books, inhaling the musty odor of leather, cloth, and drying page as if it were an exotic incense. Sometimes he would pause, remove a volume from the shelves, and hold it for a moment in his large hands, which tingled at the still unfamiliar feel of spine and board and unresisting page. Then he would leaf through the book, reading a paragraph here and there, his stiff fingers careful as they turned the pages, as if in their clumsiness they might tear and destroy what they took such pains to uncover (15-16).” Stoner loves books; it’s a pure and true love and Williams does this amazing job of showing us that in this passage. Aren’t writers supposed to show, not tell? Isn’t that a thing? He does it here in spades. When Stoner is a fourth year student, he goes to see Archer Sloane, and Professor Sloane recommends he stay at the university and go to graduate school. The thought had never occurred to Stoner before, but when Sloane says to him, “ ‘But don’t you know, Mr. Stoner? Don’t you understand about yourself yet? You’re going to be a teacher (20)’” he seems to know who he is for the first time. That’s how I felt when I figured out I wanted to be a veterinarian. That may have been my favorite part of the whole book, with one exception much later on in Stoner’s life.

The early twentieth century happens, but Stoner remains blissfully apart from the worst of it: the United States joins World War I, but Stoner elects to remain behind, much to the dismay of his friend Gordon Finch. Archer Sloane, however, is philosophical about Stoner’s decision: “’A war doesn’t merely kill off a few thousand or a few hundred thousand young men. It kills off something in a people that can never be brought back. And if a people goes through enough wars, pretty soon all that’s left is the brute, the creature that we—you and I and others like us—have brought up from the slime. The scholar should not be asked to destroy what he has aimed his life to build (36).’” That sentiment is pretty pretentious, I guess, but it seems to be a philosophy that Stoner lives his life by. The Great Depression and World War II also seem to go by with nary a mention though classes do seem more empty during WWII. I guess life did go on as usual during these times, much as my day-to-day life has not been altered significantly by the War on Terror. My last exposure to a history class was high school: in my mind, during the Depression everyone was sitting around barefoot with no food and dust storms were blowing through the streets; and during WWII everyone was working in munitions factories, and all the men were fighting in the war. I am very aware that this is a childish worldview, but I only recently figured out that not all Germans were Nazis during WWII. Please don’t judge me!

Stoner’s life is hardly an idyll of academia and reading, much as I wish it were. He marries a strange woman named Edith, who, were she alive today, would probably be on several antidepressants. They have one daughter who Stoner loves very much, but their relationship becomes strained as she grows up due to forces out of his control. And by this I mean Edith. She seems to resent the closeness Stoner and their daughter, Grace, have, and sets out to usurp it. Neither Grace nor Stoner seem to know what to do about it, so they just let it happen. I found the Stoner family incredibly tragic. First, Edith is so unhappy. I don’t think she ever wanted to marry anyone, but feels that she has to, and Bill doesn’t seem awful, and he wants to marry her. But once they’re married neither of them knows what to do. And heaven forbid that anyone actually speak frankly in the 1920’s. This book is third person limited and we only have Stoner’s thoughts. I would have loved to have known what was going on in Edith’s head, especially when she sets out to separate Grace and Stoner.

And Bill Stoner’s work life is filled with the drama that is typical of a bunch of academics working together. Archer Sloane dies at his desk and his eventual replacement as head of the department doesn’t love Bill, especially after he figures out that the head’s graduate student protégée is something of a charlatan. There is this awesome scene during said graduate student’s qualifying exams for his doctorate, in which Stoner systematically reveals how little the student knows about literature. After this incident, however, Bill gets relegated to teaching lower division composition classes. Eventually this is rectified after Stoner decides to start teaching one of his sections of freshman composition as if it were his former medieval language and literature upper division/graduate seminar that was taken away from him when he and the department head (named Lomax) went to war. This little revolt on our protagonist’s part was wonderful to read. I was cheering for him on the inside and smiling the whole time.

The most common complaint I read in negative reviews of Stoner on amazon and goodreads was that “nothing happened!” Of course nothing happened. This is the story of a life of a pretty ordinary man whose one great love is literature. What kind of excitement does one expect in the life of a college professor? He isn’t Indiana Jones, for heavens sake! The language is beautiful in its simplicity, and Williams created this character, William Stoner, who I just loved. I’m not sure how good a teacher he was, or how good a husband and father he was, but I know he loved his work and loved his daughter, and loved his wife at the start. He was a man ahead of his time, quite possibly. I definitely recommend this book, with the caveat that it’s not very plot-driven, though things do happen, and they happen in a linear fashion, which is always nice. I once thought that I would want to be on a college campus for my whole life, like Stoner, but that didn’t end up being my life plan. I do miss that environment, though, and it was nice to go back there for a time. I found myself imagining the UC Davis campus as it was when I was an undergraduate, all the buildings I spent time in, all the classrooms. And then I remembered all the classes I hated, and all the long nights studying. I was less nostalgic after that. But it is a time in my life that is over, that I’ll never go back to. It’s funny to think about—I spent so many years of my life in school, and I’ll never be in school again. At least not that I’m planning on. My husband used to say that there was no way I’ll ever be done with school. He was convinced I’d end up back at the university, but I really don’t think it’s going to happen. I think that going to continuing education is going to be enough for me—there I get the fun of learning, but no tests and no studying. It’s the best of both worlds. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you guys should give Stoner a try. I think it’s a special book. It’ll take you back to college.

Posted in Fiction - general, Fiction - Historical, Fiction - literary, John Williams, Reviews by Jill | 10 Comments

Thoughts on the First Third of Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves (by Bethany)

we are not ourselves

I am reading several books at once, as I often do, but I am not feeling frantic and stressed about finishing them, as I sometimes do. Without that stressed feeling, reading lots of books at once is great. It’s like mingling at a party, except that it’s much better than mingling at a party because it requires very little contact with actual fellow humans. Plus at parties it is often so difficult to park.

I’ve been feeling under the weather yesterday and today. I can’t figure out if I’m sick with something infectious, but I had a fever last night and this morning and have had a terrible headache, and I feel so tired I can barely get out of bed. I slept just about all afternoon, and when I woke up, I started Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, thinking that if I read nonstop I might be able finish it in time to review it tonight (it’s very short). Nice idea, sure – but my headache wasn’t having it, so I had to cut the activity short. I’ll tell you about Cassandra at the Wedding on Sunday or Monday, but for now I thought I would check in about Matthew Thomas’s We Are Not Ourselves – a new release that made headlines a few months ago by earning its author a record-setting seven-figure advance from his publisher. So of course I had to check it out and see what a million-dollar book is like (or, more correctly, what a million-dollar book that doesn’t involve Hillary Clinton is like).

We Are Not Ourselves is a lovely novel. I don’t have any complaints about it, but I do have a few – well – concerns. In some of these cases, I think the novel may resolve them, and in other cases I think the fault may lie in me as a reader rather than in Matthew Thomas as a writer. So if you’re looking for the very short version of this review, here it is: it’s a good book. Read it if you so desire.

This novel spends more time “telling” as opposed to “showing” than is usually allowed in contemporary fiction. The point of view is omniscient – in that many different characters are given the chance to tell the story – and Thomas spends a lot of time summarizing internal monologue. This is sort of a risky thing to do nowadays, which is why it stands out to me – but I don’t dislike it.

There is something fishy going on when it comes to the novel’s placement in time. For the first hundred pages or so I felt as if I were reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – same tenement life with no frills, same hard-drinking but good-natured Irish immigrant father, same smart, determined young female protagonist. This is not a bad thing, and I do love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – but then the protagonist (Eileen) gets married and all of a sudden it’s the mid-seventies. I honestly think this is my own failure as a reader. I latched on to the comparison to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn early on, and then my mind kept on filling in all the empty places with details from the turn of the century. What’s that called in psychology – the completion of a gestalt?

I’m on page 216 (out of 620) of the novel, and all is not well in the Leary family (which consists of Eileen, husband Ed, and son Connell). Eileen is hard-working, rigidly disciplined, and determined to be upwardly mobile; she would fit in well in an Alice Munro story or an Updike novel, though in Munro she would be the heroine of the story and in Updike she would be the antagonist. She hates their current house and believes (for reasons both racist and non-racist) that the neighborhood is going sharply downhill. Ed, who has never cared much about possessions and drove his wife crazy roundabout page 120 by turning down prestigious jobs at chemical companies and prestigious universities in order to teach at a community college in the Bronx. He refuses to even consider moving, and for the past 60 pages or so the only thing he ever does when he is home is listen to music on headphones, so Eileen has made 14 year-old Connell her ally in her determination to buy a new house in the suburbs. Eileen hasn’t put two and two together yet, but there have been several incidents that suggest to me that Ed is showing signs of early Alzheimer’s or some other serious neurological problem, and as I read I keep whispering to Eileen, Don’t do it. Stay in your house – it’s not that bad. Pay attention to Ed. Very, very, very bad things will happen if you don’t.

I am not usually one for talking to fictional characters, and when I do, it’s a pretty clear indication that the book is a good one. More later.

Posted in Authors, Fiction - general, Matthew Thomas, Reviews by Bethany | 2 Comments

Final Thoughts on Veronica Roth’s Divergent (by Jill)

divergent_hq

I love dystopian young adult fiction. Its major downside is that it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to intelligent discourse and discussion. I finished Divergent last Friday and have been trying to figure out what direction to take my review in since then. My final decision on that was basically this: keep it simple because if you say too much now you’re not going to have anything to say by the time you get to the end of the third book in the trilogy.

I talked a bit about the plot of Divergent in my last post. Basically Tris Prior (who changes her name from Beatrice when she leaves her faction, Abnegation, for Dauntless) is going through initiation at Dauntless. There are three stages to initiation in Dauntless: the first is physical training, teaching the initiates how to fight, since the “job” of Dauntless members is defense of the city of Chicago from whatever threat may lay beyond the gates. No one really knows what that is anymore, but I suspect we’ll find out in the next two books. Tris doesn’t do well in this first phase of initiation because in Abnegation there isn’t much need seen for learning to fight or how to throw knives or shoot guns. The second phase, however, is different. The second phase is mental training, or teaching the initiates how to face their fears. They are injected with some sort of medication and put into “simulations” that detect their fears and force them to face them. Over and over again. You don’t get out until you successfully face all of your fears, and everyone has a different number. Four is the person who monitors this training, and we learn where he got the nickname “Four.” Apparently he only has four fears, which is an unprecedentedly low number. When Tris is able to get out of the simulations in less than half the time it takes her fellow initiates Four knows that she is Divergent. It’s hinted at that he is also Divergent, but Tris doesn’t find out for sure that he is until much later.

It goes without saying that Tris’ rank in her initiate class begins to climb steadily once they start phase two and the kids who used to taunt her and call her “Stiff,” the other factions’ nickname for Abnegation members, start to be quite intimidated, once even going so far as to try to kidnap her and throw her down into the chasm. This is a high, sheer cliff in the middle of Dauntless that ends in a very unsafe river. Dauntless members go here when the want to kill themselves, or apparently, intimidate other members. Four rescues her, and this is when it becomes obvious that he likes Tris. I knew before this, of course, because I’ve seen the movie. So here is my first major fault I’ve found with this book. Roth does an amazing job of creating stress and tension and action. But romance is not her strong suit. The budding romance between Tris and Four is adolescent but I didn’t feel the chemistry between them. The actors who played them in the movie did a really good job of making the feelings believable. I tried to convince myself that it was just because it’s a book aimed at young adult readers, but when I think about The Hunger Games and the triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, I remember that I felt Katniss’ conflict in my bones. Maybe I’m exaggerating. But even Stephenie Meyer did a better job than Veronica Roth at conveying the angst and supreme feelings of teenage romance. I hate to say that because generally Roth is far superior a writer, but she needs to work on the love stuff a bit.

So, Tris has many adventures in her training: there’s the capture the flag competition that she wins for her team; Four takes her into his “fear landscape” to teach her how a true Dauntless would approach her fears; they kiss a few times; and then she has her final test: she has to go into her own fear landscape with all the leaders of Dauntless watching. She does it right and passes with flying colors. But then the real world encroaches. Even before Tris went to Dauntless, there had been rumblings of dissatisfaction with the leadership of Chicago. Abnegation, since time immemorial, has been the faction in charge of government. This was so because their selflessness made them incorruptible. The Erudite has lately begun to find fault with this system and has been slowly sowing the seeds of doubt in the minds of the other factions about whether or not this is the best way for Chicago to be. Somehow they have gotten Dauntless on their side, which is a good move, because how are all these scientists and people really supposed to stage a coup without the military arm of the city? On initiation night all the members of Dauntless are injected with a “tracking serum,” that’s actually some kind of mind control simulation that puts all Dauntless in a highly suggestible trance, except the members who are Divergent, of course. How convenient! I’ve mentioned before that the Divergent are seen as dangerous, especially to a faction that operates in a “follow orders so no one gets hurt” sort of way like the Daultness. So the people who don’t seem to be affected by the serum are rounded up and killed or something. Tris realizes what’s going on, as does Four, and they play along. They discover that they are going to Abnegation’s part of town to stage a hostile takeover of the government. When they get there, they drop the act and are captured.

Tris’ mom appears and rescues Tris, but Four has already been taken elsewhere. They are running to meet up with Tris’s dad and brother and several other members of Abnegation when they are almost caught again. Tris’s mom sacrifices herself so Tris can escape. During this whole scene we learn that Tris’s mom was originally a member of Dauntless, and also Divergent. When Tris gets to her remaining family and Abnegation members, they launch a plan to attempt to rescue Four. (Oh, by the way, Four’s real name is Tobias, and he is the son of Abnegation’s leader, Marcus. He left Abnegation to get away from his dad, who was physically abusive. This is one of the stories that Erudite leaked in their efforts to usurp Abnegation; the difference between this one and all the others is that it’s actually true, because it’s in Four’s fear landscape.) Long story sort, they rescue Four, and wake up the other Dauntless members, but Tris’s dad is killed. At the end of the book, Tris, Four/Tobias, Marcus, Caleb (Tris’s brother), and several others are riding the train to the end of the line, not sure where they are going to end up. I know, though. They’re going to Amity.

There are many more characters who were introduced in Divergent that I didn’t get a chance to mention in my review, mostly other Dauntless initiates, both friends and foes of Tris. This book definitely has a cast of thousands, and I know it’s only going to get worse as the trilogy progresses. This is hardly a complaint; I love books with lots of characters and plots and subplots. But it makes for long reviews!

I really liked the final paragraph of the book, and I’m going to include it here, so you guys have an example of Roth’s lovely prose: “Abnegation and Dauntless are both broken, their members scattered. We are like the factionless now. I do not know what life will be like, separated from a faction—it feels disengaged, like a leaf divided from the tree that gives it sustenance. We are creatures of loss; we have left everything behind. I have no home, no path, and no certainty. I am no longer Tris, the selfless, or Tris, the brave. I suppose that now, I must become more than either (487).”

I am very much looking forward to what happens next in this trilogy. Divergent is far from perfect, but Roth has potential. I think this dystopian Chicago is a very interesting place. I suspect in the end I will have enjoyed The Hunger Games more, but the Divergent series raises a lot of interesting questions about what kind of people should lead, and how best to organize a community. The idea of dividing people based on primary personality traits but also allowing choice is really interesting. What would bring about a change like that? I hope I get to find out. That was always disappointing about The Hunger Games. We never really learn what caused the United States to turn into Panem and the Districts. Veronica Roth will earn points if she tells me her dystopian world’s origin story.

Posted in Fiction - Dystopia, Fiction - general, Fiction - Young Adult, Reviews by Jill, Veronica Roth | Leave a comment

Yarn Along

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If you think it looks as if I am still working on holiday knits, you’re right. These green and cream sweaters are going to be lovely when they’re done, but I’m ready to move on to something else. My schedule is completely open next weekend, and I sense that a long session of movies, coffee, and finishing these sweaters will be in my future.

I’m reading Unbroken. It’s okay.

I’m a woman of mew words today, but I’ll be back soon with more. Happy Wednesday!

Yarn Along is hosted by Ginny on her blog, Small Things.

Posted in Yarn Along | 7 Comments