Sunday, May 27, 2012

The Hunger Games, etc. by Suzanne Collins

Okay, I spent the weekend reading The Hunger Games trilogy and I have to admit I couldn't put them down (not even for long enough to publish separate posts).  They're intended audience may be young adults but they impressed this more than young adult reader.  They're well written, gripping adventure stories, horrifying at times but a complex love story too.  I'm not even a big science fiction fan but this glimpse at a post-war future was close enough to our world at times I almost forgot it wasn't.  The basic premise is that North America has deteriorated into 13 districts and the Capitol following a rebellion by the districts that are being punished by the Capitol so they're not tempted to rebel again.  The punishment is an annual culling of two teenagers (one boy, one girl) from each district who are put in a televised arena to literally fight each other to death until there's only one survivor.  All for the entertainment of the privileged folk in the Capitol while their relatives in the districts are forced to watch (when they're not toiling away to produce goods for the survival of the Capitol).

The main character is Katniss, a 17 year old girl from District 12, who steps in to replace her younger sister whose name is picked for the annual Hunger Games.  It's great to see such a strong female character - she's torn between the love of two boys but really only relies on herself.  Her relationships with her family, the boys, the other "tributes" (as the teenagers in the Games are referred to) and the various adults who surround her during the Games and at home are fascinating to watch.  The sick satire on reality television is also interesting.

I recommend these books for anyone looking for an easy reading escape - even if you don't think they're really your kind of book.  I didn't.

Friday, May 25, 2012

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

Now this was a fun book!  Especially after struggling through The Tiger's Wife.  It reminded me a bit of Jonathan Franzen, without the pompous monologues, and a bit of Tom Wolfe.  The novel focuses on 5 characters - Henry, a college baseball phenomenon destined for the big leagues until a bad throw shakes his confidence, his gay roommate, Owen, who gets involved with the wrong guy, Mike Schwartz, a big brute of an athlete who puts coaching Henry ahead of his own success, Guert Affenlight, the 60 some odd college president who falls in love with the wrong person at the wrong time, and Guert's daughter, Pella, who returns to her father's home after a failed marriage and interacts in an interesting way with all of the others.  Now I like baseball, but I think even non-fans would get caught up in the baseball team's transformation from perennial loser to champion - with both Henry and Owen playing a big role, both under Mike's tutelage.  But just as interesting are the relationships - Guert and Pella, Pella and Mike, Pella and Henry, and especially, Mike and Henry.  I highly recommend this book for an easy baseball season read.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

Maybe by admitting I didn't really like (or understand the point of) this book I'll reveal myself as a shallow reader of allegory.  But I do like other writers of magical realism (e.g. Allende) and somehow this book didn't hold my attention.  I only finished it because I hoped to find some point to the two loosely related allegories (those of the "deathless man" and the "tiger's wife").  The straightforward part of the story is about a young female doctor and her friend from the "City" - probably the author's native Belgrade - who travel across the new border following the Balkan war to inoculate orphans.  En route her grandmother calls to say her beloved grandfather has died alone in an unknown village to which he's travelled when he said he was planning to meet up with his granddaughter.  The granddaughter is the only one in the family who knows he was dying of cancer but she did not know he was planning to meet her (and does not believe he really was).  She finds out that he died not far from where she is and sets out to retreat his belongings.  While inoculating the orphans she also encounters a strange group of "diggers" who are digging up a vineyard to find the remains of a dead relative who was abandoned there during the war as they think he is cursing their children with illness.  This story, strange enough on its own, is interwoven with tales of her grandfather's encounters with the nephew of death who has been "condemned" to eternal life for saving a lover from death.  Her grandfather had shared these stories with her over the years.  In addition there is the story of the tiger's wife in the village in which her grandfather was raised which she pieces together on her own, in part to explain his obsession with tigers in the zoo and carrying around the Jungle Book in his coat pocket for his whole life (which book is no longer with his belongings after his death).

Maybe one day I'll hear about this at a book club and understand it better but for now I'm left shaking my head and trying to figure out what I've just read.  Feel free to explain if you got it...

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides

I'm not sure I loved this book but I guess the fact I read all 400+ pages in less than 2 days means I was intrigued by it.  It certainly wasn't as good as his Pulitzer Prize winning Middlesex.  The story starts on graduation day at Brown.  It focuses on three graduates, Madeleine, an upper class English student whose father was President of a small college in New Jersey and the two guys in her life, Leonard an intense, brilliant but troubled lower class boy from a troubled family in Portland and Mitchell, a half Greek, half Irish boy from Detroit who's been friends with Madeleine but wants more.  It follows Madeleine and Leonard's move to Cape Cod where Leonard has a biology fellowship and Madeleine tries to provide support as she also deals with her family who don't like Leonard and tries to get into graduate school.  At the same time Mitchell travels to Europe and India seeking out religion and trying to get Madeleine out of his head.  Some of the exploration of various religious and literary theories, by Mitchell and Madeleine, respectively, gets a little tedious but the relationship between the three main characters (and some minor characters around them) is fascinating enough to keep the book moving beyond these slower parts.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Weekend Reading

The Virgin Cure by Ami McKay

Actually I started this before the weekend, but I'll count it as a weekend read since I finished it today.  The narrator is a twelve year old destitute child, Moth, who lives in Manhattan in the 1870s.  Her father abandoned her and her gypsy mother when she was a toddler.  Her mother scrapes together a living telling fortunes, selling her meagre goods and trading herself for rent.  She shows little affection for her daughter and drowns her sorrows in drink.  When Moth is 12 she sells her to a cruel woman as a lady's maid and then disappears herself.  With the help of a kind, though self interested, butler she escapes.  To avoid a life of begging for pennies on the street she joins a brothel which specializes in selling virgins to men willing to pay a suitable price.  At first she's taken in by the soft bed, regular meals and false friendship of the madam and the other girls.  During her training period she's happy and taken under the wing of a woman doctor who looks out for the girls.  But soon she sees the cruelty of the other girls, the dangers of rape and syphilis (including the myth of the "Virgin Cure" - the belief sex with a virgin could cure a man of syphilis) and the horror of her first experience with a man - though through this experience she does exact a measure of revenge against the cruel woman who'd employed her as a maid.  In the end she turns to the doctor for redemption.

The author based this story on her great-great grandmother who was one of the first graduates of the Women's Medical College of the New York Infirmary for Indigent Women and Children.  Originally intending to write the novel from the doctor's perspective, she claims that the voice of Moth came to her as she wandered the streets of the Lower East Side.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

A short rather unusual book but intriguing enough to read in an afternoon.  It's written from the perspective of a divorced man in his 60s looking back on his high school friends and his first college girlfriend.  He feels used by and inferior to the girl and her brother and father though has a strange bond with her mother in their only meeting.  After they break up the girl hooks up with one of his high school gang with unfortunate results that the narrator only pieces together in his old age.  I won't give away the ending that completely surprised me but it's worth the read to piece it all together even though at times the writing gets too philosophical and long winded for my taste.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

The book is long so it was a bit daunting at first, and frankly hard to get into.  But it really picked up when it reached Jobs' return to Apple in the 90s, his rebuild of the company from the brink of bankruptcy and his ultimate fight with cancer.  At times it was hard to take as he really wasn't a nice person - at least if this portrayal is accurate.  His (and Apple's) success came at the expense of cruel honesty toward co-workers and others who did not meet his perfectionist expectations.  He also was not a great father to any of his three daughters though he did seem to have a respectable relationship with his only son.  No question he left an amazing legacy - all of the successful (and unsuccessful) Apple products bear his personal stamp and taste (minimalism, simplicity, the intersection of art and engineering...)  The biography itself is well researched (the author lists dozens of people he interviewed over a two year period) and written.  Worth the read if you're at all interested in the history of Apple.