Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ooooooo, Pretty!

I have to warn you that this blog might become YA Central for a while. Let's just attribute it to the fact that I'm trying to get ready to head back to school, shall we (I go back unprepared...)?

Anyhoo, I came across this lovely book through goodreads, and after reading the premise, finding out about the series as a whole, and poking around on the author's website, I must say I am quite intrigued and excited by A Breath of Eyre, by Eve Marie Mont. This book is strongly connected to Jane Eyre (hooray!), the second is connected to The Scarlet Letter, and the third is connected to The Phantom of the Opera (huzzah!)! They sound very clever, and the author seems lovely. You should definitely check her out!

In other, non-book related news, I think I'm about to succumb to Dr. Who. I've been hearing so many good things about for a long, long time, and I think the time to give in has come (plus I just finished Friday Night Lights *sob*). Anyone have any suggestions as to where to start in the Who oeuvre?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Tris and Izzie: Oh, I'll Be Honest...

I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley

I'll admit two things: I was pretty excited when I saw Tris & Izzie, by Mette Ivie Harrison listed on NetGalley; I had seen it mentioned on both Angie's and Steph's blogs and found the cover just breathtaking. Secondly, I am not familiar with the fairy tale Tristan and Isolde, but I do know of the opera story, and I saw the surprisingly un-terrible movie from a few years agao.

All that being said, I was pretty disappointed. Some of that may be because I don't know the fairy tale, but the weaknesses in the plot and writing and characters went far beyond any lack of knowledge of the original on my part. I was expecting a story of star-crossed lovers who loved and lost, but I got a poorly structured, ridiculously magical, over-the-top (and not in a good way) adventure story instead.

Izzie has everything she wants: a great best friend, a super popular boyfriend, and a mom who does her best to provide for her and love her in the wake of her father's death when she was five. Things start to change (quite quickly) when Tris starts to hang out with Izzie's boyfriend. Turns out Izzie and Tris are destined to love each other, fight evil, and use their magical powers together to slay Gurmun, the demonic, seemingly (but not really) immortal serpent terrorizing the magical kingdom of Curvenal.

As I read, I kept thinking about Harry Potter. I don't know if this was intentional on Harrison's part or not, but everything from Izzie not knowing of her magic right away to the way she decides to sacrifice herself and the whole process she goes through to come to that decision came across as watered down Potter magic. Add to this the fact that none of the major plot developments have a sense of inevitability or reason for happening, and the story really falls flat.

What probably drove me the most crazy about this book, however, was the characterization of Izzie, Tris, Mark (Izzie's boyfriend at the beginning), and Branna (Izzie's best friend). None of these characters are terribly compelling and much as they try, none of them are dynamic either in the literary sense (they change and grow) or the personaltiy sense (you care and want to know what happens to them). Reading the book was like watching cardboard cut-outs being moved around a stage. They lacked depth and any sort of logic or reasoning behind their interactions with each other: Izzie and Tris fall in love and it's not because of the love potion? why? Mark feels very little about Izzie breaking up with him despite supposedly loving her deeply? why? Izzie has no problem with Mark and Branna getting together about 30 seconds after she breaks up with Mark? why? Mark easily and completely falls in love with Branna 30 seconds after Izzie breaks up with him? why?

There was one thing that I liked about this book: the cover. It is beautiful and haunting but doesn't really give an accurate impression of what the book will really be about (and it helped contribute to my confusion about why there was a giant evil serpent in a story that I thought was about a pre-Romeo and Juliet Romeo and Juliet). Sadly, the story didn't live up to its gorgeous cover.

*Tris & Izzie will be released October 11, 2011*

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rabbits, Rabbits, Everywhere: Of Mice and Men

So far in my reading life, Steinbeck has been something of a mixed bag for me. I HATED "The Pearl," which was my first encounter with him, but that could very well be because my eighth grade English teacher made us read it three or four times over the course of studying it, which I did because I was a good little rule-follower. Again, this loathing could be misplaced and not Steinbeck's fault, but I do so detest "The Pearl." But I digress. My second encounter with Steinbeck was much better. The Grapes of Wrath was assigned as summer reading before my senior year of high school. At that point, I had a terrible track record with summer reading (despite being a rule-follower), probably because I was too busy reading what I WANTED to read during the summer rather than all the assigned reading which I diligently, and almost religiously, read during the school year. Imagine my surprise, then, when The Grapes of Wrath became not only the first summer reading book I ever actually finished but also was a book I rather enjoyed despite it coming from the same author who produced the oh-so-reprehensible "The Pearl." A while back (possibly years? my, time does fly), my book club read East of Eden. I didn't know quite how I felt about the novel and decided to reserve judgment until I could read it again over a shorter period of time.

When the Classics Circuit announced a Steinbeck tour, I knew I had to participate. While contemplating what book to choose, I will admit to being heavily influenced in my selection by Lost; ultimately I chose Of Mice and Men because of Lost (if you want to know how Lost is connected to the novel, you can go here. But be warned: there are spoilers for the novel and, depending on how you see it, the show itself.).

If Of Mice and Men is about anything, it is about dreams. Specifically, it is about the dream that George and Lennie have to own their own piece of land that they can work, control, and belong to. This dream of owning their own farm is really a thinly veiled desire for home and belonging, and it is their dream as a representation of home and belonging that becomes so appealing to other characters in the novel (especially Candy, an old, soon-to-lose-his-usefullness farmhand and Crooks, the ostracized Black stable hand). In typical Steinbeck fashion, however, this dream is not easily achieved, and many, many obstacles stand in the way of George and Lennie getting their farm.

Ironically, Lennie, who thinks about and clings to this dream more than anyone else in the novel, himself is probably the biggest and most consistent obstacle to achieving the dream. He longs to have rabbits he can care for, he is constantly telling George how he can't wait to live off the "fatta the land," and he is very, very strong, but Lennie has the mind and understanding of a child and often finds himself in trouble without knowing why. George, for reasons left unrevealed to the reader. takes care of Lennie, tries to protect him, and, ultimately, shows him kindness and love, but even he can't keep Lennie from destroying the possibility of achieving their dream.

I was reminded of two other works of fiction while reading Of Mice and Men: The Heart is a Lonely Hunger, by Carson McCullers, and East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. George and Lennie's relationship made me think about John Singer's friendship with Spiros Antanopolos; there's not really much of a comparison there, but this friendship from McCullers' novel popped into my mind several times as I read Of Mice and Men. It was the character of Crooks that reminded me of East of Eden. Like he does with Lee in East of Eden, Steinbeck writes Crooks to directly contradict many of the racial stereotypes and prejudices that would have been prevalent in the 1930s. Both Lee (a Chinese man) and Crooks (a Black man) are atypical according to stereotype, and I wondered while reading about Crooks, as I did while reading about Lee, what Steinbeck was trying to do with these two characters. I'd love to read more about it, so if you know of some resources, please let me know!

Overall, I really enjoyed this novel, which makes my Steinbeck experience more positive than negative or ambiguous. I think this would be a great introduction to Steinbeck (unlike "The Pearl"...okay, I'll stop complaining about "The Pearl" now): it showcases his writing style (there are some truly beautiful descriptions), it is set in California, a place he comes back to again and again, it deals with the struggling working American man, and many of the themes and ideas touched upon in the novel are expressed and fleshed out in Steinbeck's longer works.

Yes, Please!

My review of Of Mice And Men will be up a bit later today, but I simply had to share this bit of loveliness with you:

Book Snob is hosting a readalong of Persuasion in September. Given the fact that Persuasion might be my favorite Austen, I will definitely be joining in the festivities! Plus, the button is just to die for!

If you want more details, go here. Hope to see you there!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Testament of Youth, Testament of Pain

Out there, we've walked quite friendly up to Death, —
Sat down and eaten with him, cool and bland, —
Pardoned his spilling mess-tins in our hand.
We've sniffed the green thick odour of his breath, —
Our eyes wept, but our courage didn't writhe.
He's spat at us with bullets and he's coughed
Shrapnel. We chorused when he sang aloft,
We whistled while he shaved us with his scythe.

Oh, Death was never enemy of ours!
We laughed at him, we leagued with him, old chum.
No soldier's paid to kick against His powers.
We laughed, — knowing that better men would come,
And greater wars: when each proud fighter brags
He wars on Death, for lives; not men, for flags.

--"The Next War," by Wilfred Owen

I have been listening to Benjamin Briton's War Requiem and had to pretty much stop everything to just listen when I heard these lyrics. Briton wrote War Requiem in memory of three friends who died in World War II, and he used many of Wilfred Owen's poems as the text for the requiem. Owen was a poet who wrote about his experiences in World War I, which, of course, is why I'm listening to Briton's Requiem.

I have been quite haunted by Testament of Youth. I've already mentioned how the memoir has set me off on a bit of a WWI fixation, but in all honesty it is more than just a desire to learn more about the War (although there is that as well); I want to understand what happened and see how in the world what Vera Brittain experienced could ever have occurred. In Hew Strachan's introduction to The First World War, he explains that in the purely statistical, economic, historical sense, there was no Lost Generation: populations were rebounding and those lost in the War and the Influenza Epidemic had, numerically, been replaced. But in the emotional, pyschological, and spiritual reality of post-War life, Strachan points out, there very much was a Lost Generation that left behind wounded, devasted lives who would have to reconcile themselves to living while bearing all they had lost.

Vera Brittain was one such life.

If ever there was someone unprepared to live the realities of war (not to mention modern war), it was Vera Brittain at the beginning of the War. Brittain grew up at the very end of the Victorian era, and Vicatorian ideas about propriety, manners, relationships, and a woman's place in the world were still very much in place in the provincial town where Brittain grew up. Her desire to study and go to Oxford baffled, confused, and even angered her parents, and she was left largely on her own to prepare for her exams, apply to Oxford, and navigate actually getting to Oxford. A bright, motivated spirit was not exactly in high demand in the future wives of Great Britain! Brittain was so sheltered as she was growing up that going to Oxford to live in a dorm was shocking and eye-opening, so the reader knows from the beginning that training as a VAD, nursing, and serving on the front will be a seemingly unbearable, horrible, and shocking experience for Brittain.

Given how hard Brittain worked and how important going to Oxford was to her, it is truly impressive that she gave up Oxford after her first year. Her brother, Edward, and soon-to-be fiancé, Roland, enlisted as soon as war was declared, and Brittain felt she must do something to help the war effort.

Brittain makes it very clear that she had no real desire to nurse; she volunteered because she needed to do something on the same scale as Edward and Roland. She also makes it very clear that these three, like thousands of others, felt a patriotic duty to their country and so gallantly, yet foolishly, joined the war effort with very little understanding of why the war was being fought and how their participation would affect the outcome of the war. This blind allegiance and youthful optimism are portrayed in a painful, poignant manner as Brittain details the story of her war experience. We know things will end badly, she knows things will end badly, yet her writing is so skillful that each battle, each letter, each waiting, each turn is painful and heartwrenching; we experience everything along with Brittain. There were moments I couldn't breathe because Brittain had so keenly portrayed her hope, her fear, her anger, and her mourning.

Brittain wrote her Testament almost seventeen years after the war ended, and I think her older, more mature understanding of the world (and perhaps even her ability to see the rumblings of another war on the horizon) serves her memoir well. Brittain very much condemns the War to End All Wars, and like Owen finds it despicable that men, including her men, fought "Death" for "men" and "flags" rather than "lives." Brittain became a pacifist as a result of her experiences in World War I, which is not terribly surprising. But she was a pacifist not just because she had seen the individual and personal destruction that war had brought; she also saw the historical and economical uselessness of war. Several years after the War ended, Brittain and her good friend Winifred Holtby actually toured the parts of Germany and France that were most affected by the War, and Brittain came to understand that this war had cost everyone, and though the Allies may have been named the victors, no one really won.

Brittain struggled for many years (which she documents in her memoir) to find purpose and to understand how her life could have any meaning without Edward, Roland, and other beloved friends she had lost. She details her darkest times and explains how alone she truly felt. Slowly, she starts to move on, and, eventually, contemplates a completely different kind of life with a man with whom she does not share the War (at least not in the same way that she shared the war with Edward, Roland, and others). Towards the end of her book, however, she finds some reconciliation with what had happened, at least in terms of herself:
"If the dead could come back, I wondered, what would they say to me? Roland [her fiancee]--you who wrote in wartime France of 'another stranger'--would you think me, because I marry him, forgetful and unfaithful? Edward [her brother], Victor, Geoffrey, would you have me only remember you, only dwell in those days that we shared so long ago--or would you wish my life to go on? In spite of the War, which destroyed so much hope, so much beauty, so much promise, life is still here to be lived; so long as I am in the world, how can I ignore the obligation to be part of it, cope with its problems, suffer claims and interruptions? The surge and swell of its movements, its changes, its tendencies, still mould me and the surviving remnant of my generation whether we wish it or not, and no one now living will ever understand so clearly as ourselves, whose lives have been darkened by the universal breakdown of reason in 1914, how completely the future of civilised humanity depends upon the success of our present halting endeavours to control our political and social passions, and to substitute for our destructive impulses the vitalising authority of constructive thought. To rescue mankind from that domination by the irrational which leads to war could surely be a more exultant fight than war itself, a fight capable of enlarging the souls of men and women with the same heightened consciousness of living, and uniting them in one dedicated community whose common purpose transcends the individual. Only the purpose itself would be different, for its achievement would mean, not death, but life.

To look forward, I concluded, and to have courage--the courage of adventure, of challenge, of initiation, as well as the courage of endurance--that was surely part of fidelity. The lover, the brother, the friends whom I had lost, had all in their different ways possessed this courage, and it would not be utterly wasted if only, through those who were left, it could influence the generation, still to be, and convince them that, so long as the spirit of man remained undefeatable, life was worth living and worth giving. If somehow I could make my contemporaries, and especially those who, like myself, had once lost heart, share this belief; if perhaps, too, I could have children, and pass on to them the desire for this courage and the impulse to redeem the tragic mistakes of the generation which gave them birth, then Roland and Edward and Victor and Geoffrey would not have died vainly after all. It was only the past that they had taken to their graves, and with them, although I should always remember, I must let it go. '...Under the sway / Of death the past's enormous disarray / Lies hushed and dark.' So Henley had written: and so, with my eyes on the future, I must now resolve."

Testament of Youth is so many things: it is a condemnation of the choices leading up to and continuing World War I, it is a plea for pacifism and alternative conflict resolution, it is an expression of grief and mourning, it is an example of healing, but most of all it is a labor of and testament to love: yes, Brittain mourns the men she lost in the War, but she also brings them to life, pays tribute to them, and records them so their memories may live on.

I owe a huge debt to Laura for bringing my attention to this book (you can check out her review of the book here). This is one of those books that changed my life, and I know it is a book that I will come back to again and again. As an American, my working knowledge of World War I was fairly vague (as I think is fairly typical for most Americans with only a high school understanding of World War I). The emphasis had always seemed to be on World War II, and the US doesn't have any sort of observed day of remembrance and acknowledgment for World War I, probably because the country became involved in the conflict rather late in the game. This book gave me new respect, appreciation, and feeling for all those who fought and sacrificed in World War I. Thanks to this book, you will not be forgotten.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Scorpio Races

Maggie Stiefvater is one of my favorite young adult novelists; I've read all her books, and I would say she is probably the writer that brought me into the young adult reading fold. I adored Shiver, really loved Linger, and almost couldn't talk after finishing Forever.

So when I had the chance to meet Stiefvater a few weeks ago and get my copies of the Wolves of Mercy Falls signed, I jumped at the chance. She was funny, warm, and so kind; Stiefvater is an artist in so many ways, so hearing her speak about her experiences as a writer, artist, and musician was very enjoyable. Stiefvater mentioned that her next book, The Scorpio Races, was her favorite of all her books. I was familiar with the premise and was already excited for the book, but that pretty much sealed the deal, and The Scorpio Races became a must-read.

I mentioned that Stiefvater is an artist and musician; what I didn't mention is that she makes her own book trailers for her books. Here is the trailer for The Scorpio Races; Stiefvater did all the artwork and composed and played the music in the trailer. Cool, huh?