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 clich├ęs, 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.