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.