Sunday, December 2, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

The Perks of Being a Wallflower – Stephen Chbosky

Charlie is entering high school with the standard onslaught of worries, concerns, and anxieties about fitting in with general society, but he finds refuge by watching from the sidelines as others participate in life. He has a rough history following him around – the recent suicide of his close friend, a stay in the hospital after his favorite aunt died – and add to the quirks that make him obviously not “normal.” Fortunately, he runs into some other “outcasts” who gladly accept all his quirks into their circle of friends. So Charlie spends his first year of high school watching his friends come to terms with growing up and coping with the difficulties in all the standard and illicit ways, watching his family struggle and fight and ignore the same secrets they always avoid, and trying to participate in life. His status as a wallflower gives him a unique perspective for understanding the actions of others and removing himself from the situation as necessary, but attempting to participate in life brings on both the infinite happiness and unbearable suffering that comes with living.

“The Perks of Being a Wallflower” is a novel written in the form of letters to a “friend” who will “understand.” Coming from the personal perspective of letters from the main character, it is so easy to empathize with what Charlie is going through, whether discovering new friendships and crushes, providing comfort to those who are struggling, or suffering the consequences of a poor decision. As a young adult novel covering standard young adult issues, it is highly relatable. It’s is an excellent book for the intended audience (young adults), but having read it in high school and again now, I feel I understand it much better as a slightly older young adult. This book covers some very dark issues, and though the standard high school experience is generally relatable, there is a sort of wisdom and deeper understanding that comes with the maturity of having moved past adolescence, “the popular crowd,” and all that other crap. It is great to read at any point, but a little time makes a big difference.

To Kill A Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

Scout Finch leads the life of your average child in her small town in Alabama. She isn’t particularly fond of school, absolutely adores her older brother, and gets up to all kinds of shenanigans during her summer break. Her life is populated by two kinds of people: those who indiscriminately make friends and those who measure others according to their own scale of acceptability, be it family background or the color of their skin. These issues gain importance throughout the book as her father, a lawyer and local hero known for his quiet manner, prepares to defend a black man against the word of a white girl. Leading up to the big day, Scout gradually comes to recognize prejudices that lead to discriminatory behavior and even violent action, and after court is adjourned, she sees how the issues continue to evolve after public acknowledgement. Gifted with the innocence of childhood, Scout absorbs these lessons and learns how to deal with people she does and doesn’t agree with in a way that allows her to find her own values. In Smalltown, America, that is an incredibly difficult lesson and a priceless gift.

“To Kill a Mockingbird” is widely regarded as an amazing book, and rightly so. The voice of Scout stays constant throughout the story, but we see how she is growing up. Lee introduces the story by presenting us with the summertime play of Scout, her brother Jem, and their friend Dill. Lee hooks the reader by appealing to their sense of innocent fun. Then Lee introduces the sticky issues – what is best for the reputation of the family, when and how to defend the ones we love, and what qualities a hero has, not to mention the more obvious racial and social issues throughout the book. What makes this most effective, though, is that Lee manages to maintain the innocent voice and perspective of a child throughout the story, so that the novel unwinds with genuine emotional involvement rather than a strict moral lesson. We become attached to these characters and find ourselves sharing their search for understanding. Lee offers a touching and sensitive portrayal of the human spirit, of what it means to be a good person, and how to define yourself and your world when you’re not sure what to believe in.

I found this book to be sufficiently enjoyable when it was assigned for English class in 9th grade, but I obviously wasn’t paying much attention to it. This time around, I found the book absolutely amazing, and I was moved to tears on multiple occasions. It was a bit like “Dracula” in that I remembered the first part of the book, but realized, upon re-reading, that so much more happened after what I thought was the climax, and I got so much more out of the book this time around. I never remembered that “how to be a lady” comes into the story, but it subtly finds its way in there. The obvious winner is Atticus Finch, who unflaggingly believes in the inherent value of all human beings and lives with more integrity than humanly possible. Despite certain unfortunate circumstances, this is an inspiring book, offering hope to anyone who believes in the possibility of a fair world.

How Did It Begin?

How Did It Begin? – Dr. Rudi Brasch and Li Brasch

Any guesses on what this book is about? It’s the background of various customs, traditions, beliefs, and habits that we take for granted in everyday interactions, but actually have a reason as to why things are done a specific way. Whether it’s the best man (who initially helped the groom to steal his bride and then guarded her until the wedding day), how beer first came about (bread accidentally got into the concoction, and the first time beer made it into recorded history was around 6000 B.C), or how bunnies and eggs became associated with Easter (both related to fertility and rebirth, and both adopted from pagan worship), this book will tell you pretty much anything you never thought you wanted to know, but now that the subject has been brought up, it’s a very interesting story to hear.

Dr. Rudi Brasch was a researcher for “Encyopledia Britannica,” so from his lifetime of research, he came to be known as quite an expert on origins. This book is broken down simply enough – each chapter tackles a topic, like national symbols, time, and naval traditions, and discusses various sub-topics related to the overall theme. Some chapters are longer than others. However, it reads more like an encyclopedia than a novel, so I recommend taking it in small doses – no more than a chapter at a time. Very interesting conversation starter, but hard to keep up with during a two hour lull at school.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Margaret Mead and Samoa

Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and unmaking of an Anthropological Myth – Derek Freeman

In this thoroughly researched and expertly argued analysis, Derek Freeman sets out to correct all the mistakes, misunderstandings, and misrepresentations of Margaret Mead’s famous “Coming of Age in Samoa.” Freeman begins with a summary of the time at which Mead did her research on Samoa, which was a critical time for the young field of anthropology, struggling for acceptance. Anthropology found itself in direct competition with biology and the then popular field of eugenics, brought about by Darwin’s theory of evolution. After establishing the period of her research, Freeman then goes on to explain all her misconceptions about Samoan culture and way of life. Point by point, he explains what she falsely portrayed, then refuted her with both his own extensive research in Samoa and countless other written works and observations on Samoa. He shows conclusively that Mead’s research was poorly planned and executed, misled, and misinformed, yet was still accepted and venerated because of its implications for the field of anthropology.

This particular work by Freeman (I’ve still got two more of his books on the same topic in my reading queue) was mostly dense and academic, and understandably it must be. Mead’s work on Samoa was unquestioningly accepted for decades, so any refutation must be expertly researched and argued. Freeman does his work well. He takes particular care to explain the attitudes at the time Mead did her research, which also requires quite a bit of history. This was hard to follow at times, but when I caught the flow of it, I found it quite interesting. Obviously the most interesting part of the book is when he takes apart Mead’s research piece by piece, but it still had some difficult moments. Those chapters are laden with dates, names, and locations, which are important for research, but don’t help for ease of reading. He includes enough of Mead’s writings so that this book could probably be read alone and still give sufficient understanding of “Coming of Age in Samoa,” but I thought it made a great follow up after reading Mead’s work first.

I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of Freeman’s arguments. Every time he quoted Mead, I would think to myself “but I see that all the time.” Then he would follow up with his own counter-example to contradict her findings and I would think to myself “Oh, but I see that all the time too” (I remember as I was reading “Coming of Age in Samoa,” I thought a few times “Oh really? I didn’t see that before reading this.” I never had that reaction with Freeman). After mulling it over, my opinion is that Mead’s research was a surface analysis of Samoan culture, and at times it was absolutely false. Many of the things she wrote about do happen here, but that’s only if you get a really quick glimpse at life in Samoa, which is exactly what her research was based on. She makes sweeping generalizations based on limited and often wrong information. Freeman’s examples seem more substantial, and more fully show the intricacies of fa’asamoa. I think Freeman is angling for a scientific perspective in his work, meaning if one instance proves a theory false, then the whole theory is false. I say that, humanly, there are exceptions to the rule, and Mead was wrong in general, but not in everything. Conclusion: If you read “Coming of Age in Samoa,” you must also read Derek Freeman (which I was told many times as I was reading “Coming of Age in Samoa”).

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Hobbit

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien

Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit, a creature with a notable lack of tendency for adventure. But, Bilbo Baggins is distantly related to the Took hobbits, who do have a tendency for adventure. So when Bilbo finds himself invited to be the thief on an adventure with 13 dwarves (Bilbo makes the 14th member of the party so as to avoid any misfortune from an unlucky number), he hesitates, sleeps late, then finds himself in the middle of adventures he never could have imagined. Throughout the story, Bilbo survives encounters with trolls, elves, goblins, eagles, and a dragon. His luck and ingenuity drags the entire group of dwarves through all kinds of sticky situations, and along the way he picks some pockets, pinches food, and finds treasure as only a thief can.

“The Hobbit” is the prequel to “The Lord of the Rings” epic and makes for a nice tale itself. We hardly get an introduction to Bilbo’s comfortable life in the Shire before the adventures begin, and the entire book moves along quickly. Despite the large cast of characters (14 in the treasure hunting party, plus occasional appearances from Gandalf, then all the others friends and enemies they run into), the story still makes sense even if you gloss over most of the details and kind of let the characters blend together (as I did). The narration gets a bit confusing at times because he often refers to directions (heading east towards the mountain, disembarking on the west riverbank), but I found that the story was also simplified if I glossed over those parts. The story is written from the perspective of the narrator, but the narrator makes occasional comments addressed directly to the reader about his own observations and comments. It gives the book a light and friendly tone, which is also enhanced through an unapologetic yet effective use of clichés.

I really enjoyed reading “The Hobbit,” though I wasn’t fully expecting to. I read “The Lord of the Rings” when I was in 8th grade, and all I can remember from the books are long lists of genealogies and some episode with Tom Bombadil that didn’t make it into the movies (the movies, by the way, cleared up a lot for me about the story). I was expecting something similar with “The Hobbit,” but it was a much easier, more enjoyable and entertaining read. And I remember more about the overall story. I’m going to say that has more to do with more developed reading skills and a longer attention span on my part than different writing styles on behalf of the author. But this is really a great book. Well written, entertaining, and understandable. You should definitely read it.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Alchemist

The Alchemist – Paulo Coelho

Santiago is a shepherd in Spain who knows every last aspect of how to care for his sheep. He is intrigued by a recurring dream, though, that tells him he will find treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt. He finds a woman to interpret his dream, and she tells him he will find treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt. Then he meets a man, a King in disguise, who tells him to follow the omens in order to fulfill his Personal Legend. Those are the first omens in a long trip that takes him across the waters into a foreign land in pursuit of both his treasure and his Personal Legend. Along the way, he suffers hardships, finds talented teachers, and learns how to speak the Language of the World that will help guide him on his Personal Legend. Ultimately, he learns to live his life as a pilgrimage, instead of just the one journey to fulfill his Personal Legend.

Paulo Coelho is an international renowned author with (I’m not sure so I’ll estimate) who knows how many books in print, and probably even more honors and awards to his name, and it’s easy to see why. ”The Alchemist” is a thrilling story because it is so eminently relatable but also such a dream. Santiago drops everything he has to go on a journey to a foreign land in search of something. How many people actually have the opportunity to do that, but how many people always imagine going on a similar journey? It’s also a simple story. The wording is basic and understandable, the cast of characters is fairly uncomplicated, and the settings, although I’m not personally familiar with them, are easy to imagine. Not to mention all the quotable portions. Coelho has a magic pen that lets him write boggling life lessons in straightforward prose. It’s so easy, but so magnificent.

Absolutely, you have to read “The Alchemist.” Way back when, one of my friends recommended it to me and I was less than thrilled with it. But I reread it just a year or so ago, and loved it. And this time around, I still loved it. It’s an amazing book for thinking. It’s so easy to read that you can get through it in a matter of hours if you really want to, but if you are looking for a soul-satisfying discussion, stop and think about it a little bit. It could take you days to get through it that way, but it’s worth it. You must read this book.

She's Come Undone

She’s Come Undone – Wally Lamb

By numbing herself with television and junk food, Dolores Price makes her way through life while hiding, repressing, and ignoring the things she doesn’t want to acknowledge. Or, if she does acknowledge them, she only feels guilt, inadequacy, and failure. Unfortunately, she has a lot of crap to deal with. Following a messy divorce, Dolores finds herself living with her grandmother while her mother has a stay at the mental hospital. She finds her way through school, a personal breakdown, recovery, and her own failed marriage and once more back to stability. Her life is littered with the remnants of broken relationships, unlivable expectations, and personal grief. Afraid of happiness because of the heartbreak it brings when it goes away, she eventually finds her way back to some sense of control, which gives her enough strength to risk her heart again. The limitless depths of her personal strength help her both to survive and even thrive in the midst of insurmountable struggles.

When I told people I was reading this book, I was told it would make me cry. Many times. And it did. This book is thoroughly depressing. As soon as it seems like her life is back on track, something else happens. Personally, I felt it bordered on unbelievable at times because there was so much bad stuff happening back to back, but it also had really strong moments of personal breakthroughs. Maybe that’s the author’s way of moving away from the victim mindset. After all, he traces the life of a single woman from the time when she is a little girl through to middle age – we all go through quite a few changes and life experiences in that time. Some of the word choice felt a little awkward, but it had some great lines in there. I even laughed out loud a few times. He develops so many different characters and brings them all into the story through Dolores, showing how even when we think we have no connection to anyone or anything, we actually do if we look hard enough, or fall far enough that someone needs to pick us back up.

“She’s Come Undone” is an inspiring story showing many of the infinite possibilities for the human spirit to overcome hardship. Just when you think Dolores has lost the ability to overcome (which happens quite a bit), she finds a way to pull herself through. Sometimes I felt a little overwhelmed with all the bad stuff, and at the end of the book, I wasn’t fully satisfied with her happy ending, but it was a great read. It was hard for me to put down, which is always a good sign of a good read. I’d recommend it, but have a box of tissues or someone to hug nearby.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Siresns of Titan

The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

Malachi Constant, whose name means faithful messenger, has a rather strange encounter with a man he presumes is giving him an all-important message. That man is Winston Niles Rumfoord, who is chrono-synclastically infundibulated, meaning he exists continuously on the path of a spiral, instead of punctually as the people of Earth do. Rumfoord has the privilege of knowing that everything that ever was, always will be, and similarly that everything that will be, always has been. He can also see what happens in the future, read minds, and do other nifty tricks. He tells Constant that they will meet again on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. Constant, who is the richest, most depraved man on Earth who has the money and influence to fulfill his every whim, doesn’t know what to make of that. Then, Rumfoord tells him that he also visits Mars, Mercury, and briefly returns to Earth before getting to Titan. Although unable to imagine how it might happen, it all does, and the Constant who ends up on Titan has a lot, and a little, to think about and account for.

There was a lot I loved about “The Sirens of Titan.” I loved that it was more in line with what I normally think of as “science fiction” because it included space travel, unbelievable technology, and a wildly unforeseen and unpredictable future. Vonnegut brings out the usual wordplay dealing with time travel (particularly about existing “punctually”), which is always fun for a little mind-bending contemplation. Overall, though, I felt it was just OK. This novel was heavily steeped in religious commentary, and that’s not a topic I generally like to discuss. I also couldn’t quite follow his arguments – religion means nothing, but humans need a sense of higher purpose, so even when religion means nothing, we still need something to believe in and exist for. Or something like that.

It was a fun read though. The adventures on Mars and Mercury were particularly entertaining. One of my favorite things about science fiction is what solutions it invents for the limits of technology and the laws of physics. For example, there is no need for space suits because the society on Mars uses “goofballs” for breathing – pills that provide x amount of hours of oxygen to be absorbed through the small intestine rather than the lungs. But if you’re in a vacuum, you still need to tape your mouth, nose, and ears shut because otherwise you will die from hemorrhaging. Fun things like that. At times it was light and funny enough to remind me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (which I think is my gold star standard for science fiction), so it was fun to read, but probably not essential if you’re only going to read a few Vonnegut books.

The College Girl

College Girls – Lynn Peril

The college girl has endured many labels and multiple manifestations since women began attending institutions of higher education in the mid-19th century. Advances in science and medical understanding of human functions, and social mores about what women can and cannot do lead to grudgingly wider acceptance of women in universities. At first, women could only attend finishing schools, designed to make them better housewives. Slowly they were accepted at universities, though with curriculums specially tailored to their “delicate constitutions.” Eventually, women were able to pursue any degree they wanted, though some were more difficult than others, play sports, and live in dorms without the supervision of house mothers standing in for their real parents. Despite all the generational differences and advances in technology, the main argument about women in college remained the same, although dressed in different disguises. Ultimately, it is bad for women to go to college because men don’t want to marry a woman who is smarter, more well-rounded, or in any way better than they are. This reasoning has been amazingly persistent over the years.

“The College Girl” is a thoroughly researched history of women in college starting with the earliest recorded schools, the finishing schools, designed specifically for educating girls. Although the writing is dense at times, the topics discussed are quite interesting. She breaks her chapters into sections on what kind of education women received, what to wear, how sports came into the picture, rules and rule-breaking, and the importance (or not) of husband hunting. She also includes many, many pictures from past yearbooks, magazines, and countless advertisements about what was most important to the college experience. The different experiences shown over the course of generations makes for an illuminating read about what the world used to be like.

Although I found parts of this book interesting, it was also rather heavy reading. This would normally be assigned reading for one of my classes, and though I generally enjoy assigned reading, it’s still assigned reading. I learned a lot of interesting tidbits from this book, though. For example, pushing and shoving used to be part of the hazing routine in fraternities. Groups of boys would gather on staircases or other small, enclosed spaces, and push and shove until it was the last man standing or someone decided it was over. Overall, though, it’s quite academic. Interesting, but only to a limited audience.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Zen in the Art of Writing

Zen in the Art of Writing – Ray Bradbury

Another book I’m not entirely sure how to review, so I’ll just give you an overview. This is a collection of essays from Ray Bradbury about writing. What inspires writing, what good writing feels like as you’re writing it, and what to do with the result (mostly re-write and re-write and re-write again). I was amazed as I was reading it. I’m a fan of Fahrenheit 451, but haven’t read much of his other works, and his writing is amazing. Not only is his writing amazing, but the voice and tone are so different between his essays and his stories that I never would have guessed he wrote both of them. In fact, halfway through the first essay, I went back and scrutinized the table of contents because I thought he had compiled the essays instead of writing every one of them himself. The essays in this book are equal parts entertaining, inspiring, and enjoyable. He has a playful tone and approaches his work from a position of love and fun, and it shows in his writing how much he enjoys doing it. Moreover, he achieves his goals. By writing about how to write well, he made me want to write well. I wasn’t even looking for inspiration to write, I just thought it would be a good read! It was all of that and more. I would recommend taking it an essay at a time so you have space to digest the ideas in each essay – not the best for reading between classes at school, but still great.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Songs in Ordinary Time

Songs in Ordinary Time – Mary McGarry Morris

Life in the 70s in little town Atkinson, Vermont is basically a snapshot of life in Smalltown, America. Although the Fermoyle family is at the center of the story, everyone is connected to everyone else in a small town, so we meet them all. We have Marie Fermoyle, who is defiantly raising three children on her own after divorcing her alcoholic husband 10 years ago. Her three children all struggle through adolescence, fight for independence, and all seek their own version of the “status quo” through different pursuits. The various uncles, sisters-in-law, neighbors, friends, and local clergymen all come into the story, adding their own secrets, new perspectives, and fresh problems. Out of nowhere comes Omar Duvall, a travelling salesman who has plenty of stories about what the future might hold, but is oddly reticent about his past. Stories add to stories, add to stories, until reality becomes so obscured by half-truths that everyone ignores it until the consequences are too big to avoid. But whether it’s pain, anger, deceit, or love, it’s always the same old story.

I would not call “Songs in Ordinary Time” a heartbreaking novel. It’s more like a slow pain that steadily builds throughout the book. Morris crafts a believable town with realistic, relatable characters. They are relatable because they all try their best – to make ends meet, to make others happy, to present the world with a happy, successful, “together” family – but something always goes wrong. The characters are hindered both by their own shortcomings and their misunderstanding of others’ behavior. By staying within their own perceptions and assumptions, they miss somebody else’s reality, which usually results in self-blame or confrontation. The two main motivations for actions in the book seem to be “I did it for you” or “I did it for me,” but somehow neither one actually achieves the desired outcome. It’s a painfully real novel about balancing personal desires with real-world demands while trying to come up with what you think everyone else wants. But when you focus too much on this, that, or the other, the stories take over reality and all you have left is that hollow feeling that nothing is just right.

I really enjoyed “Songs in Ordinary Time.” The theme of “maybe next time I’ll get it right” hits that spot in my heart that really wants to see everyone successful and happy all the time. The continual failure is distressing, but the continual effort to keep on with business as usual is admirable. Life doesn’t stop just because it isn’t going the way we wanted it to. I find myself wanting to give advice to the characters in the book, or at least to comfort them. The hardest part about reading this book, though, was all the characters. The complete cast includes more people than I can count on my fingers and toes, and although eventually I remembered most of them, it was really confusing at the beginning. This book has lots of layers, which makes for excellent reading, but getting through those first 100 pages is the biggest struggle. Stick with it, it’s worth it.

Monday, October 1, 2012

The Choice Effect

The Choice Effect – Amalia McGibbon, Lara Vogel, and Claire A.Williams

Each generation is slightly different from that of its parents, hopefully in a different-better way rather than a different-awful way. Throughout the 20th century, each generation grew up with more and more choices, opportunities and freedoms until we ended up with us, generation Y. Generation Y, having been told in their informative years that they are capable of anything and can do and have it all if they just put their mind to it, is now paralyzed by choice. Our choices cover everything from what do to for a living, where to live, how to live, and who to live with, and moreover, we want it all to mean something. If we’re not entirely happy, what’s the point? Find the next choice that might bring you something better. The biggest impact this life of whims has is on significant and long-term relationships. Everything gets pushed back and taken less seriously because “choisters” (as the authors refer to generation Y) make the ultimate sacrifice in closing off their choices by picking one thing. However, after some research, some less-than-concrete polling, and several conversations full of anecdotes, it seems that the choisters, despite wanting everything in a slightly different way than their parents, still end up in the same old story line – steady job, spouse, kids, property, etc. They just don’t get there til later in life.

“The Choice Effect” is a pop psychology/sociology book looking why a specific population segment (women in their 20s and 30s) acts the way it does. Although they do discuss everything from job options to living arrangements (not only type of housing but also the international location) to nail polish colors, everything always comes back to the significant other, which is a fair point considering something like 96% of Americans end up married, so it is heavily impacted by the “choister” lifestyle, but I still felt rather sheepish taking this book off the shelf with the subtitle “Love and Commitment in the Age of Too Many Options”. I was surprised by how well I related to the book overall (do you think you’re special? Do you want it all? Do you have trouble setting priorities because everything is equally important?), and was constantly thinking of my mom telling me to “stop looking for the best peanut in the bag!” Fair point. But I was a little disappointed that they didn’t give me some magical solution for all my indecisiveness. Glad to hear it should settle down by the time I’m 40, but what to do in the mean time? Have another adventure, I guess.

I felt that “The Choice Effect” was a little heavy on the pop and not so much on the psychology. The entire book read like a slightly polished journal entry (something that could be printed for guilty pleasure in “Cosmo” or some magazine like that), and I was expecting a little bit more academic writing from a researched book. They made so many pop culture references (it was printed in 2010) that I didn’t recognize everything (although Ross and Rachel are timeless), and the tone was so conversational that I think it would have been easier as an audio book rather than reading it. Still, I really enjoyed reading it – I love that they sympathize about how hard my life is because I have so many options! Not many other people will take pity on me for that 

Thursday, September 20, 2012

I Have in my Arms Both Ways

I Have in my Arms Both Ways – Adrienne Jansen

Partly because I’m not sure how to review this book and partly because I’m not feeling particularly verbose, I’ll keep this short. “I Have in my Arms Both Ways” is a collection of stories from 10 immigrant women living in New Zealand. Although it was put together in 1990, it’s not dated; their stories are still relevant because they are history. Each woman spends a long time reflecting on growing up in her home country before briefly addressing the challenges she has faced in New Zealand. The differences in the stories offer touching and sentimental expressions of childhood against the background of class struggles, warfare, or political upheaval. I particularly enjoyed reading this book at this time because it is so relevant to me. The struggles of trying to make a home in a country outside the one where you grew up seem to have some universal difficulties, including the interminably slow language-learning process and the inability to find the comfort foods you grew up with (it’s actually really reassuring to know that food and lack of what is familiar seems to be one of the biggest problems with migration in general – I’m not crazy for still missing macaroni and cheese!). I also loved this book because it was a strong but nonjudgmental reminder of how culture is so ingrained that we don’t notice it when we are living in it. The women tell their own stories, share their own beliefs, and comment on how it differs from the New Zealand culture they now try to call home. The difficulties of trying to adjust and adapt to a new culture while simultaneously trying to create a life are things that you would never think about in daily life, but show the strength and resilience of the human spirit. It may not be the most professional writing, but the occasional lapses in perfect English make these stories all the more personal, which is exactly what you would want when reading immigrants’ stories. This book was so good that instead of putting it back on the library shelves, I passed it straight on to another person.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

East of the Sun

East of the Sun – Julia Gregson

Viva Holloway, who, despite a lifetime of experiences, is barely an adult, hires herself out to chaperon three other people, barely adults either, on a voyage from England to India. Viva undertakes the journey with the mixed motivations of running away, finding home, and facing the past in order to move into the future, and doesn’t question the sensibility of chaperoning these three other young adults. It results in a little scuffle onboard, and rippling consequences once they all arrive in India. Though they all go their separate ways – one to get married, one to find a husband, one to find trouble, and one to find home – but they all remain connected by the relationships they built on the ship. Having spent her childhood in India, Viva finds herself on familiar yet unknown territory, but her charges are all new to the country. As they settle into their new lives, they find that they are able to build relationships and homes despite the uncertainties that come with a foreign language, land, and culture.

There were a couple things I really liked about “East of the Sun.” It had lots of quotable lines (I actually wrote some of them down), it covers the thrill of making home out of a foreign land, and of course the danger and romance needed to put it at that almost-fairy-tale level of real life that we all want to live in. It was a fun book, but it felt a little flat at times. Some of the descriptions were magical, but many were just descriptions. Similarly, the emotions the characters went through were relatable enough, but they didn’t come off quite as charged as I would imagine them. Despite the flat moments, though, it was still a good read. The normal lessons of learning to trust others, learning to let go, and learning to ask for help are emphasized because it happens in the context of a foreign country, but it also reminds us that even under the most normal circumstances, life always requires navigating uncertainty.

I could get really nitpicky about the details. Some of the sentences were awkwardly ordered and required a thorough reading instead of being glossed over in a quick reading. There were a few typos. And she wrote the weather wrong. According to her novel, it snows at Christmas in India, as it does in England, instead of being the hottest season of the year as it actually is in the southern hemisphere. Maybe my geography is bad – I know there are parts of India that actually stick up really far into the northern hemisphere and there are plenty of areas that get tons of snow, but surely it doesn’t snow everywhere in India at Christmas. But that’s being really nitpicky. It’s a romantic, nostalgic travel story that makes me want to go to India, and it’s entertaining enough to be fun and engaging throughout its almost 600-page entirety.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

A Confederacy of Dunces

A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole

Ignatius J. Reilly intends to publish a brilliant work of writing that will influence minds everywhere so that everyone will behave according to the laws of theology and geometry. Unfortunately, his inspiration comes in spurts of a page or two every few weeks or months, so his brilliant ideas, though well-articulated, are only semi-complete. In the meantime, he has to work, which interferes with his worldview in so many ways, least of which is because it inflames his valve. Although finding a job happens easily enough, keeping the job is the harder part. Incensed by an old girl friend (it’s hard to say whether she is a girl friend or a girlfriend, you can decide for yourself) who is constantly seeking a cause in order to make the world a better place, Reilly attempts to outdo her revolutionary actions, using his various workplaces as his causes. The resulting shenanigans, misunderstandings, and general problems show how even the best of us can end up on the wrong side of a situation – or is it that the worst of us cause our own trouble by being stubborn and short-sighted?

“A Confederacy of Dunces” is a hilarious and disgusting satire. Reilly, an articulate character with the only correct worldview in the wrong century, is overweight and unwashed, and thoroughly delights in the sin of gluttony (although I doubt he would call it a sin). At some points as I was reading this book, I found myself blanching at descriptions of his actions. But more often, I found myself laughing at his critique of all the fools in his life, which of course includes everyone else in his life. When describing his girl friend’s latest protest movement, he says that “her logic was a combination of half-truths and clichés, her worldview a compound of misconceptions deriving from a history of our nation as written from the perspective of a subway tunnel.” A very original insult and bitingly accurate if I do say so myself. Toole takes the best of intentions and sets them against the worst, broken down, most disgusting, and horribly human of backgrounds. This result is a book that emphasizes human error, stupidity, prejudice, optimism, idealism, and compromise in order to create a life that one is happy with.

I loved this book. I laughed out loud so many times while I was reading it. I was also grossed out by a few more graphic descriptions of bodily functions, but I’m sure someone in the audience will love the bathroom humor. The ending threw me a little bit, mostly because the story could have easily continued from where it cut off, but it was an excellent read. You should definitely pick this one up.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Fifty Shades of Grey

Fifty Shades of Grey – EL James

In a pinch, Anastasia Steele fills in for her roommate, the editor of the college newspaper, to do an interview for the last edition before they graduate. Although she knows the name of the person she is interviewing, millionaire Christian Grey, she knows nothing else about his company, his beginning, or his background. After stumbling through the interview, shy, socially awkward, and innocent Anastasia finds herself somehow enraptured by Grey, though she can’t quite say why. It is only after he starts pursuing her to the point of stalking that she realizes she loves him. Having never had a crush before, much less a boyfriend, Anastasia finds herself thrown into chaos as she slowly realizes she loves Grey. But can she love him? Grey, a dominating control freak in every sense of the phrase, is slow to share himself with her. He keeps his secrets about his business, his background, and his past, and Anastasia knows that she wants “more” from him. Both struggle to overcome their self-imposed restraints and limits to be what the other wants and needs them to be, but can they really make it work? Among all the firsts and lessons than Anastasia learns with Grey, she also learns that love may not overcome every obstacle to unite you with the object of your desire. Oh ya, and there’s lots of kinky sex.

“Fifty Shades of Grey” could be the textbook for one of the classes I took in college. Not even kidding – the class was “Social Construction of Sexuality” and I’m willing to bet my professor has already added it to her list of readings without me telling her that she needs to do so. James writes excellent characters and puts them through all kinds of situations and negotiations that I think would happen in an ideal relationship. Hear me out because this comes with caveats – I’m not saying that everything that happens in the story is perfect. Grey is the strong, silent type, always brooding about something or other and never fully sharing himself with Ana. Ana finds herself doubting herself, her love for Grey, and their relationship together, and constantly unsure of what she wants and what she can give. But the negotiations that come with their relationship are amazing. They discuss all kinds of limits, what is comfortable and what is unacceptable, and how to handle the mixed emotions that may arise from such encounters. I have plenty of reservations about a guy like Grey given my background in sexual assault work, but the level of open and honest communication that surrounded the activities in general is what I would like to hold up as exemplary.

This is a plain old fun read. When things aren’t hot and heavy, they’re fun and playful because the millionaire boy loves his toys and knows how to work hard and play harder. We still get plenty of emotional meltdowns from Anastasia suffering through the mixed emotions of loving someone when she can’t be everything that he wants and needs, and although it’s annoying at times, it seems to be required in every story ever. Easy to read, a fairly well-developed and believable plot, and fun. I’ll leave it at that.

Friday, August 3, 2012

When Water Burns

When Water Burns – Lani Wendt Young

In the second installment of the Telesa series, Leila is just starting to get familiar with things just in time for the rest of her world to fall apart. She understands more about her gift of fire, and is getting familiar with the life of fa’a Samoa, but nothing else stays the same. Her grandmother passes away, revealing a secret about Leila’s father on her deathbed which shatters Leila’s tenuous understanding of her family background. Back in Samoa, her recently deceased mother leaves Leila everything in her will, and although Leila would rather leave it alone, she has to fight for it against one of her mother’s “sisters.” On top of all that, she’s starting school at the National University of Samoa, failing miserably at cooking her own food while living with a roommate, and struggling through relationship problems and miscommunications with her boyfriend. New boys and friends enter the scene, creating more relationships, more complications, and more threats. Leila struggles to control her own situation while also trying to protect all those she cares about, who are put in danger by her mere existence.

In many ways, “When Water Burns” was much better than “Telesa,” and in many ways, there was no improvement. “When Water Burns” still holds strongly to the teen angst that has Leila constantly questioning herself and whether she is worthy of her boyfriend. The foreshadowing is about as subtle as a neon sign. And the overall plot feels like an exact copy of young adult series’ everywhere, complete with the temporary separation, temptation of some other person, and beautiful reunion of the protagonist and their significant other. Nothing new in terms of the genre, but the second book felt more mature and developed than the first. It tackles tougher issues – domestic abuse, rape – and it expands on the Samoan and Telesa myths, giving more information that makes the story more interesting in its differences.

My recommendation remains the same as the first book. The writing isn’t the best, the story is horribly predictable, and the girl is annoyingly whiny. But I love it because it is real to life. It talks about real things and locations (I don’t even know what instagram is, but I know it’s a recent pop culture development and most fiction books avoid referencing real things. I like that this obviously incorporates real life). And it’s set in Samoa. I would say it’s worth all the annoyances to read these books. Despite it all, it still closely resembles Twilight, and Twilight sucks you in, you can’t deny that.

An Atlas of Impossible Longing

An Atlas of Impossible Longing – Anuradha Roy

Through a strange and unexplained set of circumstances, a family of eccentrics ends up paying the orphanage fees for a baby boy that has no connection to their family. Six years later, they officially adopt the boy into the family. At this time, the grandfather who originally started paying the fees has long since passed away, the grandmother can’t stop herself from shouting obscenities and so is locked in her bedroom all the time, and it is the widower who has been absent from his family and daughter for years that officially adopts the boy. The orphan and his daughter develop a close bond due to their similarities in age and status, although she always has a higher standing in the family because she officially belongs, while he is hardly given more privileges than a servant. As the children grow towards the age where their friendship causes speculation and rumors, the boy is again orphaned, though he is officially sent to a boarding school in Calcutta, far away from the rural village where he grew up. The story continues years later as the boy enters adulthood, a career, and a family of his own. After attempting to put up emotional barriers to protect himself from the pain of his previous “family,” he can never really remove himself from the past. It returns to him, both in memory and person, and smashes any semblance of peace he had achieved for himself. But with the past comes the opportunity to remove regrets, and he finds a chance to build the life he always wanted.

“An Atlas of Impossible Longing” is set in India around the time of WWII and the partition (I would like to be all smart and fancy and tell you which parts of India were separating and where the Muslims and Hindus were forced to move, but my Indian history isn’t so great). The story is slow to get into at first because not a lot is explained. We get a long (what’s the word when you introduce characters and setting? I can’t remember), and it doesn’t seem very compelling or important at first. Even after reading it, I didn’t understand why it was so important because the grandpa dies and the story focuses on his son and his son’s kids – his biological daughter and the adopted orphan. But the culture is beautiful. Although it focuses mostly on family structure and relationships within the family, it also touches on the hierarchy of society, imperialism, racism, and corruption. There are so many layers to read, and also to read between.

It was hard to get into, and not the easiest or most compelling book I’ve ever read, but it really made me think and I love books that make me think. It made me think about family, interpersonal relationships, individual relationships, personal choices, and how one action can reverberate across so many social spheres. My favorite part of the book was that the orphan goes into the business of evicting other people from their homes. The homeless making homeless out of others. The symbolism of houses and families set against the background of the partition and worldwide strife is absolutely beautiful. It’s worth a read.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Coming of Age in Samoa

Coming of Age in Samoa – Margaret Mead

Long hailed as one of the most prominent anthropological voices in recent history, Margaret Mead made her start by visiting Samoa for her first fieldwork study on the raising girls. Looking at how education and relationships influence the experience of adolescence, Mead studied when and how girls develop their “adult” knowledge and compared it to the conflict-filled and frustrating adolescent experience in the States. Mead discusses personal awareness, interpersonal relationships, sexual relationships, and how all these relationships and the education of girls is ultimately defined by the family. And as a good anthropologist, she neatly summarizes her results and compares them to US circumstances. She finds that Samoa presents a simpler lifestyle with no protections about what information is fit for young children to learn (concerning life, death, sex, birth, and so on), giving children broader knowledge from which to make choices, although their choices are limited because of the structure of the society. In contrast, children raised in the heterogeneous US culture of nuclear families tend to have strong emphasis on specific relationships, protected and guilty knowledge, and more difficulty in making choices because the choices are broader and more heavily weighted than choices in Samoa.

Take all of this with a grain of salt. Margaret Mead went to American Samoa in the 1920s when she was 23 years old, and this is the resulting work. I actually feel that my personal experience in Samoa relates fairly well with what Mead describes. From what I’ve seen, Samoans grow up in large, extended families that are constantly shifting depending on who has what responsibilities, who gets married, who is fighting, etc. Most everything seems to be based around the family structure. Funerals and births are more frequent, and although every single one is a fa’alavelave, it isn’t as big a deal in Samoa as it is in the States. It’s not protected information. Obviously the school system in Samoa has changed and become more formalized since writing this, and the church now has a much larger influence on Samoan life than it did at the time of writing this. I wasn’t entirely sure what the point of her book was – she says frequently that she is looking specifically at the education of girls and how it compares to that of the US, but she covers a lot of other topics as well. I was often confused by the people she talks about for specific examples. Instead of following two or three girls throughout the course of the book, she interviews several girls and draws on specific situations to illuminate her theories. But I suppose that’s how it’s supposed to be – it’s not a case study or a direct comparison; she is looking for a general analysis.

The other thing I ran into with this book was a lot of criticism. Every time I told someone I was reading Margaret Mead, I was always told I had to read Derick Freeman when I finished her. Apparently Derick Freeman came onto the anthropological scene later and showed how all of Margaret Mead’s research was wrong, specifically in Samoa. I’d love to read his book because I did find most of the material in Mead’s book relatable – I could see the origins of Samoan society today, at least from my palagi perspective it seems really similar. I could also detect a lot of her personal opinions in the material – an emphasis on sexual freedom, personal choice, looking forward to more tolerance instead of maintaining the status quo or moving backward. I’m really interested to see more research on Samoa and how his experience was supposedly more authentic. To sum it all up, I found this book incredibly interesting because it relates so well to my personal experience, but I’m not sure I would recommend it for general reading. The language is a bit dense at times, the examples are hard to keep up with, and it goes into a lot of details that probably don’t seem relevant to a Western experience. But if it counts for anything, I loved it.


Heartwood – Belva Plain

Laura, the one daughter among three brothers, manages to keep everything together. She solves all the problems, settles all the disputes, and manages to bring everyone together, especially when it matters most. Above all, she has a precocious daughter, loving husband, and thriving self-started catering business. Unfortunately, this is the late 1970s and not everyone, especially her husband, is thrilled with her ability to be the breadwinner and juggle family and work responsibilities. Her mother watches from the sidelines, comparing her daughter to herself, and the both of them to her own mother, whom she has always idolized for her perfect marriage. As Laura loses patience trying to buoy her husband’s ego while growing her own business, the image of perfection begins to shatter. Laura finds support from another man, her mother discovers the affair, and generations of family secrets threaten to tear everything apart. Through their own personal journeys, Laura and her mother discover that the ability to love and forgive form the foundation of any solid relationship.

”Heartwood” is an easy read. It’s simply written, the language is understandable, and the characters feel relatable. It’s fairly engaging right from the beginning, and although it feels predictable at points, it keeps you reading until the end. And it doesn’t tell you everything – some family secrets are still a secret by the end of the book, although you can probably guess what they involve. It’s told from a third person perspective, so we get varied coverage of the main characters, but I got confused by this a few times. While most of the story centers on Laura, it does change to other characters every once in a while and I was a little slow to catch up when this happened. The timeline also isn’t consistent, so occasionally we jump to long reminiscences or short memories, then jump back to the present. Those are only small things, though. Above all, this book is readable and relatable, delving into personal, interpersonal, and family relationships, and how to weigh the responsibilities of duty against the desire and need to make decisions and mistakes.

I would call this book pop lit, and I’m not always a fan of pop lit because sometimes it feels boring because it’s overdone and superficial because it’s cliché. However, pop lit is also a guilty pleasure for me when I find something I like, and I did quite enjoy “Heartwood.” I liked that the family was Jewish, the main character was a woman struggling with claiming independence in the “post-feminist” era, and occasionally I like to get caught up in the swept-away-by-love thing. It had some great lines giving insight into how to fully live, how to love and forgive, and how to relate to others and yourself. This was a fairly substantial pop lit book because I found things in the story that made me stop and think a bit, and any book that does that it worth reading.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – Seth Grahame-Smith

Abraham Lincoln is known for many things, but until recently, it was not known to what degree his life was influenced by vampires. Lincoln’s mother died while he was still a boy, but Abe didn’t hear the full story about the cause of her death until a few years later when his father was drunk enough to tell him the truth. A vampire was involved. From then on, Lincoln dedicated himself to hunting down every vampire in America. Vampires would also later claim the lives of his sweetheart and children, making him even more determined to drive them out of the country. His passions led him to politics, and his connections led him to the White House, and there he led a war that was not for men, but would be fought by men. Yes, the Civil War was actually a war of vampires, fought by their human puppets and partners. This biography, relying heavily on Lincoln’s secret journals as its source of information, gives us all the truth that “Honest Abe” didn’t tell.

“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” is a fun book. After you make it through the intro (which I found to be slightly confusing and not entirely relevant), it is a quick and entertaining read. Grahame-Smith writes it as if it really were a well-researched historical biography. It has proper block quote format for the extended journal excerpts, and it even has footnotes about other sources and relevant information! The one problem with all this is that the story comes loaded with dates, locations, and people that I didn’t think were exactly necessary. I was reading pretty quickly, so I always skipped over places and dates, and if I couldn’t pronounce the names, the people didn’t matter much either. It didn’t hamper my understanding or enjoyment of the book. And just in case anybody cares, the vampires in Grahame-Smith’s book seem to stick to most of the rules for vampires set forth in “Dracula,” not so much like the shimmery “Twilight” vampires, except that there are good and bad vampires.

I’ve only read two books by Grahame-Smith (the other was “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) and I have to say I’m a pretty big fan of his. His ideas are hilarious (let’s update a classic novel with a few random and completely disconnected zombie attacks thrown in), and his writing is easy to understand, making for joyously light (or dark, depending on how serious you take his subject matter and metaphors) reading. Definitely worth picking up, especially if you haven’t read a Lincoln biography before. I don’t know much about Lincoln’s life, and I’m not sure how much more I really know now, but I’m sure at least one or two things in there are actually true.

World War Z

World War Z – Max Brooks

The Zombie War, or World War Z as it is frequently called, was truly a world war that affected every single person on the planet. From the depths of the ocean floor, to the farthest reaches of northern Canada, every person was scared of, impacted by, and fundamentally changed because of the zombie plague. Ten years after nations began declaring victory against the zombies, author Max Brooks has put together a collection of oral histories from survivors of World War Z. He talks to anyone and everyone, from the man who patented the “cure” for “African Rabies,” to a militant teenage Zionist (I think, it was early in the book and I can’t remember for sure) who hates his family’s decision to move to Israel as part of a quarantine plan, to a Russian priest who takes it upon himself to shoot those who have been bitten by zombies so they do not have to commit suicide. Everyone was impacted by the Zombie Wars, and Brooks brings all the difficult decision and personal struggles together in a chilling recollection of a time of worldwide disaster.

Fantasy is an excellent genre for critique, and Brooks leaves out no perspective. While the bulk of the people he “interviewed” are involved in military campaigns, Brooks does an excellent job at including people you wouldn’t normally think of. He writes about the people who trained the K-9 recon team, what it was like to take out zombies on the ocean floor, and the transporters who snuck people in and out of countries before boundaries became impassable. It even comes complete with footnotes. It is an utterly believable account of the Zombie Wars. At first, I focused on the critique, but I quickly got caught up in the experiences of the war and what led some countries to focus on themselves and others to join an international effort. Then, being me, I got stuck on how the zombies functioned. Supposedly, the only way to kill a zombie was to destroy its brain, but it doesn’t seem to function like a human brain because humans can’t survive on the ocean floor. Also, although zombies are in a continual and escalating state of decomposition, which makes it absurdly easy to pull of limbs, they are monstrously strong. How does that work? Maybe he explains it in his other book, “The Zombie Survival Guide,” which I have yet to read.

I highly recommend this book, if only because it is so brilliantly original. Instead of talking about the great zombie plague, he talks about the repercussions. He crafts so many different and believable characters through his interviews, and covers all the topics and nuances that the average citizen probably wouldn’t even consider in a war effort. He has done very thorough research. I didn’t quite get a haunting feeling from the story of how to survive without understanding the basic needs of life, the perpetual fear of an indomitable enemy, and disaster choking out life on all sides, but I enjoyed the book for plenty of other reasons, largely because it is so creatively and thoroughly planned. It’s a great read; you should definitely pick it up.

Friday, June 29, 2012


Telesa – Lani Wendt Young

Leila Pele Folger was raised by her father, an RPCV from Samoa, where he met Leila’s mother. However, since she was only raised by her father, Leila has almost no information about her mother or her family history. After her father dies when she is 18, she plans a solo trip to Samoa to seek out information about her background. What she finds is an aunt and uncle who limit her travel in Samoa to church, school, and home, a beautiful boy, and a strange woman who claims to be her mother although she had been told her mother died when she was a baby. Suddenly, and without obvious answers to her huge list of questions, Leila enters the world of Telesa – women gifted with powers from mother Earth. Although her mother is a Telesa with the powers of matagi – atmosphere and storms, Leila quickly inhabits her gift from Pele, the goddess of fire, to move the Earth and control volcanoes. But the secretive world of Telesa comes with many risks, and lacking information and training, Leila isn’t sure if she wants to join her mother’s sisterhood or follow her heart to the enchanting, beautiful boy.

Telesa (pronounced teh-lay-SAH) is entertaining, but it’s not stellar writing. I often found myself annoyed by the repetitive, yet also unusual, word choice. I always got tripped up by the typos, and more often than not found myself thinking “this is not the voice of an 18-year-old.” The book felt a little awkward and gangly, especially when it came to awkward moments like kissing scenes. But I guess it fits the audience it is designed for – young adults. The closest thing I can relate it to is Twilight, except I found this female protagonist more whiny and annoying that I found Bella (which is hard to do). Leila is stubbornly stupid in many of her actions, and it gets old pretty fast.

All the little annoyances aside, I would still recommend Telesa for reading (unless you consider yourself a literature elitist, in which case you can just skip it). I liked it for many reasons. For one thing, it’s a niche in the market. How many books do you read that directly relate to the experience of a South Pacific teenager? She references real locations, and the school uniform really is that hideous combination of colors. Second, I personally like the experience of a palagi coming to Samoa for the first time because it’s exactly what I went though when I got here. Also, the legends of telesa are real Samoan legends. Although I still haven’t heard anything about them and had never heard of telesa until I read the book, I am told that they are Samoan legends. I like it because it mixes reality with fantasy, while also covering your standard prince-charming/dysfunctional-family story. In other words, it’s average young adult reading, but I like it because it’s about Samoa.

The Inferno

The Inferno – Dante Alighieri

In the first stage of a three-part journey with the ultimate goal of reaching heaven, Dante must descend through all the levels of hell. The poet Virgil serves as his guide. His journey begins normally enough at the base of a hill, but to get to hell, he must go underground. Dante and Virgil descend through the nine levels of hell, some of which are sub-divided into as many as seven layers. Each level is reserved for a particular type of sin, the least offensive at the top levels of hell and the most offensive punished at the very center of the earth. The punishment inversely corresponds to the sin, so, for example, those who sinned by denying God and their love for God are forever frozen in hell because their hearts were so cold in life. Various demons and imaginative, disgusting punishments sprinkle the levels of hell, and Dante encounters all of them right down to Satan himself at the very center of the earth where his journey through hell finally ends.

Although I wouldn’t consider “The Inferno” to be light or easy reading, it had it’s moments and each canto went by fairly quickly. The poem is written as 33 cantos, and each canto is around 120-150 lines long, and I had to read it one canto at a time because I don’t often get the opportunity to devote a huge, uninterrupted chunk of time to reading. In the version I had, each canto also began with a brief summary of what would happen, and ended with notes about the specific references within the canto. Again, this did not make for easy reading, but it really helped to explain the poem, especially since I’m not so familiar with Virgil or 13th century Italian politics. What else helped me was a tip I got from some English class somewhere – when reading poetry, read to the punctuation, not the line breaks – so instead of pausing at the end of each line, pause at the commas and periods so you get full thoughts instead of just rhyming words.

Overall, I enjoyed “The Inferno.” It was incredibly imaginative and read like a classic epic poem. It was a good mix of Aristotelian philosophy, Ptolemaic astronomy, and Greek mythology with a heavy dose of Christian morality. Dante was very informed, very strong in his opinions, and very clever in his rendering of hell. It felt a bit dated though since his conception of hell applied specifically to his time in Italy, so I kept thinking how interesting all the updated versions might be. Instead of Dante’s Inferno, we could have the Buddhist Inferno or Paris Hilton’s Inferno or something like that. If you’re up for it, I would definitely recommend reading it, but it’s not a book you can just pick up and put down after a few minutes. It needs undivided attention.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Everything is Illuminated

Everything Is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

Worlds collide when Jonathan Safran Foer hires guides from a local tourism company to help him locate the shtetl where his grandfather lived during WWII. The older of his two guides is the driver, but he insists he is blind, so he also brings along his seeing eye dog, Sammy Davis, Junior, Junior, who happens to be a girl. The younger of the two is the translator. In a quick journey through the remote Ukrainian countryside, the four of them search for the woman in Foer’s picture, Augustine, who saved his grandfather during WWII. Between hilarious recounting of misadventures and mistranslation, we also read letters from the younger of the guides to the author. The letters have been written after the trip, so they recount the journey and critique Foer’s story as it is being written. Additionally, we have the story Foer is/was writing – the history of Trachimbrod, the shtetl where his grandfather lived. These three separate narratives create a heartbreakingly beautiful story about what you need to take or leave from your past in order to move into a better future.

Foer is a musician and his instrument is the word. His word play is genius and all the more hilarious because it is so simply presented. Whether it is the “pygmy allowance” that Alex is “spleening” his mother about, or whether he feels “premium,” “second-rate,” or “melancholoy” about what just happened, the English translations in the story create a sort of alternative English that serves two functions. It makes a semi-accurate language that is more accurate than standard English because of the mistakes, and it also emphasizes the inadequacy of language to explain everything. He also makes art out of his words, altering his writing style to incorporate different stories, characters, and written works throughout his novel. My one problem with Foer’s writing is that it is not always entirely clear what is going on. His other novel that I love,”Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close,” also incorporates multiple storylines and perspectives, but it usually takes me half the novel to figure out each of the different stories. He always brings them together beautifully at the end of his novels, but it takes a lot of perseverance to get to the point where you can find and appreciate the beauty amongst the discord.

Did I mention yet how hilarious Foer’s writing is? I couldn’t read this book on the bus because I laughed at every other sentence, and I already do enough strange things on the bus. It is hard to get through the first time because it doesn’t make sense, but give it a chance. Give it four or five chances, actually, because I guarantee you will want to read this book at least that many times. He writes with light-hearted poignancy that “illuminates” the human experience in a way that is different from any other author I’ve read. He earns a spot on my top five all-time-favorite books (sometimes “Extremely Loud” is my favorite of the two, sometimes “Everything is Illuminated” is my favorite of the two, but Foer makes the list for sure). Read this book, then read it again, and again, and again…

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

This Perfect Day

This Perfect Day – Ira Levin

After Unification, everybody lives peacefully, cooperatively, and according to schedule. Thanks to monthly treatments, nobody has aggressive or selfish urges, and any member of the Family could substitute for any other member because they are all genetically engineered and chemically modified to be just like everyone else. Of course there are the occasional exceptions of skin tone slightly paler or darker than normal, or one brown eye and one green eye, such as Chip has. Chip frequently gets the sense that something is a little off about life in the Family, but it takes him a while to figure out how “freedom from” differs from “freedom of.” As he struggles with “sick” ideas, alternating between receiving overdoses and underdoses of treatment, Chip comes to the realization that life under strict computer control is not necessarily the best way to live. But in a world controlled by a supercomputer, can anything happen outside the scanners and medicenters, or do the treatments always come just in time with just enough dosage? Can anyone outwit Uni?

I’ll keep it short because this has been done before. “Brave New World,” “1984,” “Fahrenheit 451” or any other in a long line of dystopias that feature protagonists struggling against the sense that some ultimate power might not be letting me live as good of a life as I thought I had. I didn’t feel that this novel added anything particularly fresh to the genre. In fact, I was often confused by it. Locations are renamed with numbers, and while the more important locations are eventually referred to by their “pre-Uni” names (like Argentina or Majorca), I still want to know where Afr17022 is. Books like this tend to leave out a lot of background information, assuming that you’ll catch on as you go (oh, “fight” and “hate” are bad words in this world), but sometimes I would have preferred a simple explanation earlier rather than guessing about the exceptionality of breasts 100 pages into the story. I also got particularly annoyed by the multiple surprise turns in the story. You can see what’s coming from a mile away, and it happens, but wait, then something else happens. OK, I know this storyline too…there it is. But wait, something else! Here we go again. It’s alternately mind-numbingly predictable and absolutely blindsiding. You had no idea that was coming, but now that it’s happened, you know exactly what’s going to happen next. It stopped making sense after a while and felt more like someone was trying to mash storylines together. And the ending was downright absurd. If you read this book, you’ll have to let me know what you think, because even as I was reading it, I couldn’t believe that the story went where it did. Stick with the classics; they’re classics for a reason.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Hocus Pocus

Hocus Pocus – Kurt Vonnegut

Eugene Debs Harte (named in honor of the Socialist and labor organizer Eugene Debs) is writing his life story from a college library that is serving as his prison. It’s complicated. After a spectacular failure at his high school state science fair, Eugene gets recruited by West Point. Four years and a “B.S. degree in Physics” later, he finds himself serving in Vietnam. When “the excrement hit the air-conditioning,” he returns home like all other veterans – misunderstood, jobless, and verging on a destructive outburst. Fortunately, his former-commanding-officer-turned-college-president offers him a teaching position and a place to live at the university. He spends quite a few undisturbed years teaching, philandering, and hiding his insane wife and mother-in-law from the rest of the world. Then he suddenly gets fired, and just as quickly finds a new job as a teacher at the prison across the lake from the college. A few more years pass, then the convicts pull of a mass prison break and take over the college. In the next few days, Eugene finds himself dubbed Mayor, Brigadier General, Warde, and, finally, prisoner at the same college where he spent so many years teaching. With not much else to do besides read books that nobody will ever read again, or probably never read in the first place, he writes his life story on scraps of paper.

The quirk about “Hocus Pocus,” on top of all the usual quirks of a Vonnegut book, is that Vonnegut positions himself as the editor. The story was written by Eugene Debs Hartke on scraps of paper he finds in the library, and Vonnegut says he has compiled them to put the whole story together. The different pieces of paper are distinguished in the book by lines, so each section of text, sometimes almost a whole page, sometimes only one word, represents each supposed scrap of paper the author wrote on. My mind made a big deal about this in the first few chapters, but eventually I pretty much stopped seeing the lines altogether.

This is the second time I’ve read “Hocus Pocus” in less than a year, and it only got better. Largeley because I understood it more. In case you missed it, go back and read my summary. It’s a complicated plot to follow, especially when the narrator skips around between history and present day. The other reason it got better is because this is a truly fantastic book. Vonnegut comments on everything from the institutions of war, education, and prison, to racism, to the ability to guess at what the future holds. Though his view of the world is only cynical, he points out human short-comings so blatantly that the only option is to laugh at the stupidity of it all. His statements range from politically incorrect to harsh-realities, but he doesn’t shy away from topics others would generally ignore in an effort not to offend. Scathing, hilarious, and brilliant. Must read.

The Places In Between

The Places In Between – Rory Stewart

In a trek across southern Asia (including Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal), Stewart returns to Afghanistan in January of 2002 to complete his journey. Due to visa restrictions, Stewart was unable to walk across Afghanistan when he first reached it, so after leapfrogging it to complete the rest of his journey, he returns to Afghanistan 18 months later to finish his last route. Walking from Heart to Kabul, west to east, Stewart literally follows the footsteps of Babur, an emperor who conquered the region centuries earlier and trekked the same route across Afghanistan in winter. Relying on the hospitality and compassion of villagers, Stewart spends a month walking hundreds of kilometers through mountains, valleys, and snow to complete his journey. Along the way, he encounters everything you would expect – no electricity, sickness, all kinds of people with guns – and many things that get lost in the places in between – ancient ruins undiscovered until the middle of the 20th century, then abandoned again, remote villagers who know more about European geography than most Europeans, and a part wolf/part dog who makes for a surprisingly faithful travel companion. He is accommodated, hosted, escorted, assaulted (both verbally and physically) and quietly observant the entire way.

Having walked across southern Asia for months, Stewart is relatively fluent in many of the languages spoken in the region, varying from Dari, Pashtun, and Urdu, although he does not speak Arabic. He has an intimate knowledge of the region and culture, and knows what to expect of the people he meets. He knows how interactions will play out on the surface, but is familiar enough to know the truth lies underneath. Familiar with cultural customs, he knows how to enter a village, how to request accommodation, how to approach people for personal knowledge and history, and how to walk away from tense situations by literally just walking away. Overall, Stewart gives us what feels like an accurate picture of post 9/11 and pre-invasion Afghanistan. By talking to villagers without preconceived stereotypes about which ethnic groups are welcoming, cruel, or should be avoided altogether, he draws attention to the unnoticed lives of Afghans lost in the middle.

Stewart’s writing is calmly reflective. He somehow manages to get in the exciting information while still drawing attention to the beauty of footprints in the snow, particularly drawing attention to the way the snow feathers out behind the heel of a footstep. He brings out the quiet beauty of solo travel, showing how walking really can be meditation, and subtly observes his interactions with others without making many judgments. The book is calm, relatable, and well-informed. He inserts footnotes throughout to clarify names, histories, documentation, and occasionally add his own slightly sardonic opinions. An excellent read, and much more informed and observant than “The World From Islam.” This is what I was looking for.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver

In the global upheaval of the 50s and 60s, a zealous Baptist missionary moves his family – his wife and four daughters – to the Congo. While they were only contracted to stay in the Congo for one year, the Congolese push for independence and subsequent US-backed overthrow of the new government, the contract is thrown out the window, and along with it any support from the Baptist missionary service. Apart from the eldest teenage daughter, the family willingly throws themselves into this new and foreign lifestyle, encountering all kinds of problems that they could never have predicted. In attempting to come prepared for a year in Africa, they find that their cake mixes don’t survive the weather, precious clothes are worn to shreds, and even a hammer is useless against mud walls. Slowly, the mother and daughters adopt a new lifestyle and learn the ways of the jungle, but the father keeps pushing his will against the world, causing continual problems for himself and his family. As the mother quietly fights for herself and her daughters, they each fight their own demons, find their own identities, and take away the indelible lessons of jungle life. Ultimately, the wild, continual motion of Africa triumphs any effort to maintain one position, and everything gets moved along, willingly or not.

The bulk of the novel is narrated alternately by the four daughters, with the mother providing a reflective preface at the beginning of each chapter. Kingsolver expertly creates unique voices for each character, and grows with them throughout the story as they learn, struggle, and overcome – or not, depending on the character. Although it is a work of fiction, Kingsolver did thorough research on the era and the particular situation of the Belgian Congo, which became Zaire after the US stepped in, and in her preface, she admits that her story is largely influenced by the novel “Things Fall Apart,” by Chinua Achebe, and it is easy to see how. It is a beautifully crafted work of historical narrative that shows how the personal is political as the characters find their voices, their position, and their own story against the backdrop of a churning nation that is doing exactly the same thing.

Absolutely beautiful. That is the only way I can describe the book. It is one of my absolute favorite books, and I brought it with me to Samoa knowing that I would want to read it while I was here, and it was fantastic reading it as a Peace Corps. The lessons about attempting to prepare for a completely unexpected life, only to arrive in a foreign country and realize that nothing you could have possibly thought of would have actually helped you are so familiar I could have written it myself. Their struggles adapting to a less-than-luxurious life also resonate, and they take on a new relevance now that I have experienced the same thing. Despite being thoroughly exhausted from Mother’s Day dance practice, I found it practically impossible to put this book down, and even at the end, I desperately want it to keep going. There is so much more she can tell about the story! I had a hard time choosing another book to read after I finished this one – what could possible come close to being as good as The Poisonwood Bible? You must read it.

The World From Islam

The World From Islam – George Negus

In the aftermath of September 11th, the world was stuck on the idea of radical Muslims engaging in terrorist acts against “The West.” In an attempt to uncover the differences between Islam as a culture vs. Islam as a religion and how much extremists adhered to Muslim principals, George Negus set out on a journey around the Middle East to find the opinions and attitudes of everyday, “normal” Muslim. Negus, a famous Australian media personality known for his news reporting and travel pieces, embarks on his travels in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, then follows up two years later after Saddam Hussein had been ousted from Afghanistan. Armed with a list of references from friends and his own journalistic ability to talk to strangers, he has conversations with everyone from oil millionaires, sheikhs, lower class businessmen, and nomadic Bedouin about their religion, what it will take to get the Muslim and the non-Muslim world to interact peacefully, and how to settle the chaos that has consumed the region for as long as anyone can remember. He discovers a mixed world, almost a culture clash between a modernizing global world taking root in the midst of strong religious tradition. Ultimately, he finds that every Muslim he encounters is nothing other than your average human being, looking for a balanced life of spiritual fulfillment and worldly fun and rooting for peace and against suicide bombers. Curiously, there is basically unanimous agreement among the people he talks to about the solution to the Middle East chaos: a two-state solution to Israel and Palestine.

I was not a fan of this book. After reading A Thousand Splendid Suns, I was looking for something with more information on the region, but despite the title, the book did not provide that. Negus has strong journalistic credentials, which he doesn’t hesitate in sharing in the book, but this didn’t feel like an investigation of Islam. His other renowned book, The World From Italy, was apparently an excellent travelogue on the life, culture, and architecture of Italy, and this book felt like it could be a sequel to his first (not that I’ve read the first, nor am I planning to). Rather than exploring the nuances of Islam as a culture vs. Islam as a religion, or even really explaining the fundamental beliefs of Islam, Negus tells us about the architecture, sites, and attractions in the Middle East. Since his travels extended over several countries, I had trouble keeping track of where he was, who he was talking to, and how it all related.

The writing style also bothered me. He kept asking rhetorical questions that were meant to emphasize how Muslims in the Middle East are normal people, but came off sounding patronizing. His 13-year-old son was one of his travel companions, and he kept referencing him in his questions and answers. Yes, the innocent questions of a child often force us to face harsh realities that don’t have simple explanations, but that tactic loses its effect after the first or second time. He also refers to himself as “the author” on multiple occasions. I was confused by this at first, then understood that he was talking about himself, but preferred to do so in third person rather than saying “I was talking to…”. Furthermore, his flowery language is full of embellishments that sound more like tangential wanderings than drawn-out explanations. It wasn’t easy to follow, it didn’t address the topic I thought it would, and was not written in the style I was expecting from a renowned journalist. The one credit I will give this book is that it is interesting to read it in the current context of the Middle East in a post-Osama Bin Laden and post-Arab spring situation. But really, don’t bother.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns – Khaled Hosseini

Mariam is a harami, an illegitimate child, but she doesn’t understand why she can’t live with her father, his wives, and all her other brothers and sisters. In the innocence of adolescence, Mariam tries to force her way into her father’s family despite her mother’s warnings, and the results are immediate and disastrous. Shortly afterward, Mariam is married off from her rural hometown of Herat to a shoemaker in Kabul, over 650 kilometers away. In Kabul, Mariam learns about modern life, covering herself with a burqa, and the responsibilities and trials of being a woman and a wife. When revolution hits Afghanistan and the government crumbles to chaos, Mariam and her husband, Rasheed, take in the young girl across the street who was orphaned by a stray rocket just as her family was planning to leave Afghanistan. Rasheed makes this new girl, Laila, his second wife, and she also quickly learns what it means to be a wife, woman, and mother. Feeling betrayed by the decision, Mariam keeps a cold distance from Laila, but extraordinary circumstances bring about unusual actions, and Mariam and Laila slowly become friends. Eventually, they join together to fight for friendship, love, and life in their struggle to survive the revolution and an abusive husband.

A Thousand Splendid Suns tells the story of women working together in revolutionary Afghanistan. Overall, the writing is clear and understandable, although Hosseini has a tendency to tell tangents before making a point. There is one chapter in the story that starts off with the women digging a hole in the backyard, and then Hosseini digresses into at least eight other vignettes before he tells us what the hole is for. By the end of the chapter, I almost forgot what he had been talking about. Otherwise, it is straightforward and easy to understand. He doesn’t throw in too much Arabic, and he translates most of what he does put in.

This book has been on my list so long that I couldn’t really tell you what happens in Kite Runner – his other book. I never heard a compelling summary or argument from anyone else as to why I should read it, so it was never a priority book, but I would say it deserves priority status. This story is amazing. In a world where women are so often fighting against each other to get ahead, Hosseini gives us a beautiful, heartbreaking story of two women who find friendship and strength from each other. This book tells the story of disrupted lives coming together, forced to unite amidst chaos, and somehow finding strength to overcome hardship. The story itself is compelling enough, but set against the background of a country caught between competing warlords and the government of the Taliban imposing Shari’a law, it is almost unbelievable that someone could endure (endurance is a key theme in the book) such hardships and still find beauty and meaning to life. Well worth the read.

Because it is Bitter and Because it is my Heart

Because it is Bitter and Because it is My Heart – Joyce Carol Oates

It’s rural New York in the 1950s and Iris Courtney is growing up on the wrong side of lucky. Her dad has a gambling problem, and while it occasionally brings in luxurious gifts, it more often results in unpaid debt. They move frequently, trying to stay in the nicest neighborhood they can afford while avoiding the streets that everybody knows are the territory of white trash. There is no concern about living in a black neighborhood because racial divides are so embedded that the possibility of having black neighbors is unthinkable even when they don’t have enough money to get by. For a white family, maintaining the semblance of class is what matters. Iris’s mom concerns herself with brands, labels, keeping the right company, and maintaining her reputation above all else. Constantly seeking upward mobility without acknowledging her lack of opportunity, she denies or ignores every problem she encounters. Rather than aiming for a good reputation, Iris’s father focuses more on a good time, causing the demise of their marriage. Meanwhile, Iris tries desperately to figure out her relationships with other people within the context of her race and class boundaries. Her life is forever altered and continuously redefined when the black boy she loves kills a white boy from a white trash family who had been threatening her. (Don’t worry, that’s not much of a spoiler – it happens in the first section of the book and is the impetus for every other major plot point). Iris comes of age while trying to find her identity amidst all her struggles of how to relate to people and why.

Because it is Bitter is the first…anything, I think…that I’ve read by Joyce Carol Oates, so I don’t know much about her background and I can’t compare it to her other work. She writes not quite in stream of consciousness, but her sentence structure tends to reflect natural thought patterns with some fully formed, grammatically correct sentences, but most of them with a few errors, some incomplete thoughts, and some consisting of just single words. It took me a while to get used to this style of writing because I am one of those people who have to read every word of every sentence, but after the first section, I stopped noticing it. The bulk of the novel is written from the perspective of Iris, but she switches between characters occasionally and convincingly builds different patterns of thought and speech, different behaviors, and different perspectives. I was very impressed with the character development.

I read this book on the recommendation of another PCV (I love reading books recommended by others, please let me know what you think I should read!). She was a high school English teacher before she came to Peace Corps, and she said “I was reading this book, and I thought it would have been great for my class. Then it got kinda sexy, and I realized why we would never have read it. So I thought you might like it.” It certainly fits her description, and I really enjoyed the book. I wouldn’t make a blanket recommendation that everyone read it, but I can think of some people who would also really enjoy it.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Scarlet Letter

The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne

Everybody knows that Hester Prynne has committed adultery because the bright red A she is sentenced to wear everyday announces it to the world. The result of the act, her daughter Pearl, is the living example of a fit of passion. Alternately referred to as an elfin child, spirit child, or fairy, Pearl bounces her way through life displaying none of the usual manners of children her age and disregarding all social norms. Meanwhile, the mystery of the father remains a secret – at least to the town. As the reader, we know that the minister Mr. Dimmesdale has been screaming his guilt in silence, faithfully performing his personal penance away from the eyes of the public because his position in the community does not allow him to make it known. Even when he tries to make it known, his role as a minister makes it seem as if he is merely finding fault with himself, not admitting to a crime of passion. Further complicating matters, the physician by the name of Roger Chillingworth vindictively exacerbates the minister’s personal agony while publicly appearing as his closest colleague. In a previous world that remains unknown to the town, Roger Chillingworth was the husband of Hester Prynne, so he is a private victim of the public scandal, but he expertly channels his anger into the demise of the minister. In a tangled circle of love and hate, God and Satan, grudges and forgiveness, how can the matter be settled?
The Scarlet Letter is a study of dualities. After her public humiliation, Hester moves to the edge of town and lives on the border between wilderness and civilization. Removed from society, she has a new perspective from which to observe and criticize the institution that forced her out, but she does so in the same way she bears her public shame – silently and without show of emotion. Hester’s public appearance, aside from the scarlet A she wears, is limited to shades of gray, while her daughter Pearl is always decked out in the most elaborate fashions. The minister dutifully carries out his responsibilities during the day, but announces his guilt and punishes himself in the night. Above all, there is the distinction between God and Satan. In the story, Roger Chillingworth takes the part of Satan as the hateful, despicable man who seeks to destroy others in ways so subtle that it only makes them more painful. God takes the role of God because the minister cannot forgive himself – he is constantly seeking a Higher expression of mercy. While this makes for excellent literary analysis, it sometimes felt contrived and too blatant. The author goes so far as to point out the lack of civilization in the wilds beyond town leading to questionable activities like witchcraft and personal conversations between sinners.
I loved The Scarlet Letter the first time I read it because there was so much to analyze – I felt like I was finally understanding my 11th grade English class! – but I liked it more this time for the issues that weren’t quite resolved. Hester bears her public shame without complaint for the rest of her life – how does the public shame contribute to and limit her future actions and choices? Alternately, why is the minister incapable of forgiving himself? This ultimately leads him to self-destruction (although it he is aided in the process by Roger Chillingworth), but does he have to admit guilt publicly in order to find peace? Could the minister eventually have forgiven himself without making a public confession? How important is public acknowledgment of personal lives? And how do we balance all those dualities to find a life that suits us personally? How important is it to follow all those social expectations? The last chapter is written in a way that tries to inspire speculation about the veracity of the story and characters. The story mostly resolves itself, but I like that it leaves some issues open to questions and interpretation.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Female Chauvinist Pigs

Female Chauvinist Pigs – Ariel Levy

My apologies, I am writing this two weeks after finishing the book, so it will be an abbreviated review.
The rise of raunch culture has produced a society in which women now objectify themselves and other women in the same way men do and call it feminism, but is it really feminism? While institutions like Playboy, Girls Gone Wild, and the porn industry have added new ideas and definitions of what it means to be sexy, they have also redefined and restricted what it means to be sexy. After decades of attempting to make women equal to men, women now attempt to be like men to achieve the highest status in society. Levy points out how this is not equality, constricts the spectrum of “sexy,” and does not qualify our society as “postfeminist.”
This book is excellent for discussion, and after reading it, I forced it onto some other PCVs in my group so they could read it and we could all discuss it. The discussion happened over a holiday weekend at the beach, and lasted for hours. We talked about everything from how social dictates for how men and women act impact your personal experience, how to buck the system, why women still feel the need for male approval and how that approval has shifted, and whether there was any solution to it all. This was our main problem with the book – it doesn’t present a solution to raunch culture. So Playboy, porn, and Girls Gone Wild claim to “liberate” women by offering a shockingly scanty way to reveal themselves, but what can we do to counter these trends? How can we remind everyone about the goals of the feminist movement? Is it possible to incorporate raunch culture into feminism, and how? What can we do about it? She doesn’t tell us. But she sure is thought-provoking.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Catch-22 – Joseph Heller
It’s the lose-lose situation. There’s no way around it. Yossarian is stuck in a war he doesn’t want to fight, but he can’t get out of the war because he is sane enough to think he wants to live. His only responsibility is to fly in missions, and the number of missions required to complete his service is continually raised by a crazy Colonel who will do anything to get published in The Saturday Evening Post. People have to be crazy to fly in missions, and showing that you are insane is the only way to get you disqualified from service. However, you cannot make this request of a doctor, because asking to be grounded from missions in order to remove yourself from danger is obviously the process of a sane mind. Therefore, you are sane and must fly interminable missions. Catch-22.

Catch-22 also applies to every other situation in the book. From a dead tent-mate that was never officially recorded, so he can never officially be moved out, to a permanently high fever and a non-existent liver condition that qualify Yossarian for a stay in the hospital whenever he wants to get away from it all, nothing has a simple solution. Throughout the book, we learn about all the friends in his squadron who, by the end of the book, have all been killed in some fashion or another, and about the harebrained Generals and Colonels who are only following their personal obsessions and their orders from higher up. Then there’s also the guy in charge of the mess hall, who serves gourmet meals with products he runs on the black market. The whole operation spans all across Europe and down into northern Africa, and he plans everything at the expense of government money. He runs all the products, and then he sells everything to himself from a different location at a loss, but somehow manages to make a profit for everyone involved because everyone has a share of the syndicate. Catch-22.

Nothing makes sense, but there is nothing anybody can do about it because every argument is made with such infallible illogic that there is no reasonable comeback. The most compelling argument of all? Why not? This is the second time I’ve read Catch-22 and it only got better. Heller’s word play isn’t quite as lyrical as Nabokov, and his satire isn’t quite as sharp as Vonnegut, but when you combine those two with the inevitable “why not?” you come out with one of the best books since…sliced bread. The world of Catch-22 is a little difficult to keep track of, which is kind of the point. Each new chapter tells the reader about a different character, and overall we learn a little more about what has happened to Yossarian each time we meet someone new. The story circles around on itself, so it is hard to remember what happened in what order and which characters you should keep track of, but eventually it mostly makes sense. It is also an excellent lesson in SAT and GRE words. You must read this book. If I had to rank my favorite books ever (Harry Potter aside to give others a fair chance), Catch-22 would probably come in first. I love it, so you must as well.