Category: modern


The Trouble With Historical Fiction

March 3rd, 2015 — 12:57pm

When I was in school, my two favorite subjects were history and English. I love learning about people and societies, both real or imagined. When I discovered historical fiction, it was like Christmas every day.

Little House on the Prairie was my gateway drug. Once I discovered Laura Ingalls and her family, I was hooked. I read all of the books, then the spinoff series about her husband, then the books about her daughter. I forced my younger brother and neighbors to play pioneers in the back yard, in which we pretended to hunt and forage for food in my parents’ garden.

Then I discovered the American Girl series and was astounded to find books about girls in so many other time periods. Each girl was an introduction to a different historical period that held new and exciting cultures and experiences, but my love was for Molly McIntire, the feisty WWII era girl who grew a Victory Garden and went to summer camp — which, at ten, was pretty much the dream of my life. Molly’s books opened me up to the world of WWII historical fiction, which led to the ultimate coming of age experience of discovering the Holocaust and the stories that lie within that terrible time in history.

As I got older, I ventured into other genres, but historical fiction always remained near and dear to my heart.

Which leads me to the trouble with historical fiction: the research.

Some authors, I have noticed, have a terrible problem with research — particularly when the plot of the book starts to resemble an introductory history lecture. Historical fiction is like a dance, a lovely waltz when it’s done right and an offbeat two step when it’s not.

Case in point: Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series. She sucked me in with the first book, I’ll give that to her. It had everything I love about historical fiction — well-developed characters, lushly described landscapes, interesting historical period, intriguing plot lines (not to mention a nice hunk of man in the character of Jamie Fraser). However, as the series went on, Gabaldon became more bogged down with the research.

Unnecessary intricacies were described in detail — making clothes, making a meal, farming, preparing for war, fighting a battle, cleaning and caring for wounds and ailments. The result is a plot that moves at a snail’s pace, plodding along among the murky waters of historical accuracy and research.

The first book in the series was 640 pages, which in itself is daunting. The largest of the currently eight book series is a ridiculous 1008 pages. That is some 400 extra pages of History 101 fodder. Not every day of life in colonial America needs to be drawn out in detail — this is a book, not the recreation of historic Jamestown.

When it comes to historical fiction, the fiction is sometimes better than the history.

Comment » | modern, musings

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

June 10th, 2014 — 10:40pm

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon was published in 1991 and housewives have never been the same. Gabaldon has a Ph.D. in behavioral ecology, a master’s degree in marine biology, and a bachelors in zoology, and she writes historical romance/fantasy. Go figure. Outlander-1991_1st_Edition_cover

Outlander is the story of Claire Randall, who is on a second honeymoon to Inverness, Scotland, with her husband Frank after serving as a British army nurse in World War II. She and Frank have been having marital difficulties, revolving mostly around their inability to conceive a child. Frank is taking the opportunity to research his family history, and Claire is intrigued by the story of a pagan ritual held by a henge at nearby Craigh na Dun. She sneaks out one night to watch it; while at the stones, she hears a strange buzzing noise and becomes disoriented, then is surprised to hear the sounds of a battle, which she assumes are battle re-enactors. When she finds the men, she is taken captive by someone who claims to be called Captain Jack Randall (who is the ancestor Frank was researching) and he asks her why she is in a state of undress. He thinks that she is a prostitute or a spy and prepares to rape her when he is knocked unconscious by a Scotsman, who takes Claire with him as he rejoins the rest of his clansmen. Claire discovers that she has somehow traveled back in time to 1743 and has been rescued by Jamie MacTavish, who is a member of the Clan MacKenzie. Though they are suspicious of her and refer to her as a Sassenach (an outlander who is not part of the Scottish culture) Claire manages to gain their respect as a healer when she uses her 20th century medical knowledge to help Jamie’s injuries.

outlander-sam-heughan-caitriona-teaser-trailer

Claire dresses Jamie’s wounds in the Starz “Outlander” series.

Captain Randall finds out that the MacKenzies have been housing Claire and he demands that the clan bring her to him. In order to protect her, the leaders of the Clan MacKenzie, Colum and Dougal, tell Claire that she needs to marry Jamie. Claire protests but since she cannot really explain that she has a husband in 1945, she consents to marry Jamie. On their wedding night, he reveals to her his true last name – Fraser. He has been using a fake name because he is wanted by the English for obstruction, and had previously been captured and tortured by Captain Randall; he has deep scars on his back from the whippings, both with a whip and a bayonet, that he received. Jamie and Claire quickly grow to love each other and have hot sex. Like, really hot.

Claire adapts to life in the Scottish Highlands. She becomes friends with Geilis Duncan who shares her love of medicine. However, when a young girl who is in love with Jamie and jealous of Claire misinterprets their medical practices, Claire and Geilis are accused of witchcraft. Jamie manages to save Claire from a public whipping and possible hanging, but not before she sees a smallpox vaccination on Geilis’s arm, and she realizes that Geilis is from the future as well.

When Jamie asks about the witchcraft allegations, Claire is unable to explain herself other than with the truth – she is from the future. Jamie believes her and tells her that he will help her get back to Frank, if that is what she truly wants. Claire takes a night to decide and realizes that she loves Jamie more and decides to stay. The two of them go to Lallybroch to stay with Jamie’s sister on their clans’ land and hide from the English forces.

However, a tenant on their land betrays Jamie to the English. He is captured and taken to Wentworth Prison, which is presided over by Captain Randall. Claire and Jamie’s clansmen stage a break out, but fail – Claire is captured and is beaten and almost raped by Captain Randall. Jamie offers himself to Randall in Claire’s place, knowing that Randall has a sadistic obsession with him. Randall agrees and throws Claire out into the cold woods. Claire tells Randall that she’s a witch and, using Frank’s family genealogy research, tells him when and where he will die.

Alone and freezing in the woods, Claire runs into a former suitor of Jamie’s mother, who gathers men together to help her free Jamie. They stampede a herd of cows through the castle, trampling Randall when he comes to investigate the noise.

Claire takes Jamie to an abbey in France where she helps him recover from his injuries and the psychological tortures that he has undergone. She and Jamie swim in a “healing spring” under the Abbey, and Claire reveals at the end of the novel that she is pregnant with their first child.

At the end of the day, Outlander is a good book — it is lushly researched, the time travel element is interesting, and the story is interesting. The book itself is very long — about 650 pages — so be sure that you have plenty of time to invest in the story.

outlander-caitriona-balfe-sam-heughan-teaser-trailer

But let’s be honest, we’re all in it for one thing and that is Jamie Fraser. I consider myself a pretty ardent feminist, but even the scene where Jamie takes the strap to Claire after she ran away and he saved her from Captain Randall is not enough to turn me off of Jamie. He is the right amount of tortured and strong and perfect and hot. Did I mention hot? He’s about 6’4, strapping, red-haired, and fictional, but hey, no one is perfect.

I mean, DAMN.

Starz is creating a series based on Outlander that premieres this August. There are also seven books in the Outlander series, with the eighth book coming out this June. Each of the books in the series is just as long, if not longer, than Outlander, and just as richly (and sometimes obnoxiously) detailed. There are eight additional books by Gabaldon that detail a secondary character, Lord John Grey, and are historical mysteries. Putting those degrees to work, obviously.

Comment » | modern

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

June 4th, 2014 — 11:26am

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction and rightfully so. It is a beautifully written novel about Theo Decker and his life after his world is changed by an act of terrorism. The_goldfinch_by_donna_tart

When Theo was 13, he and his mother visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see an exhibition of Dutch masterpieces, including Theo’s mother’s favorite work, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius. While at the exhibit, Theo gets distracted by a redheaded girl and her grandfather — he is mesmerized by the girl and follows her into a room away from his mother. It is then that a terrorist bomb hits the museum, killing many including Theo’s mother.

In the aftermath of the blast, the elderly man (Welton “Welty” Blackwell) gives Theo a ring and appears to point at The Goldfinch painting — Theo, in his confusion and panic, takes the painting out of the museum.

But depression wasn’t the word. This was a plunge encompassing sorrow and revulsion far beyond the personal: a sick, drenching nausea at all humanity and human endeavor from the dawn of time. The writhing loathsomeness of the biological order. Old age, sickness, death. No escape for anyone. Even the beautiful ones were like soft fruit about to spoil. And yet somehow people still kept fucking and breeding and popping out new fodder for the grave, producing more and more new beings to suffer like this was some kind of redemptive, or good, or even somehow morally admirable thing: dragging more innocent creatures into the lose-lose game. Squirming babies and plodding, complacent, hormone-drugged moms. Oh, isn’t he cute? Awww. Kids shouting and skidding in the playground with no idea what future Hells await them: boring jobs and ruinous mortgages and bad marriages and hair loss and hip replacements and lonely cups of coffee in an empty house and a colostomy bag at the hospital. Most people seemed satisfied with the thin decorative glaze and the artful stage lighting that sometimes, made the bedrock atrocity of the human predicament look somewhat more mysterious or less abhorrent. People gambled and golfed and planted gardens and traded stocks and had sex and bought new cars and practiced yoga and worked and prayed and redecorated their homes and got worked up over the news and fussed over their children and gossiped about their neighbors and pored over restaurant reviews and founded charitable organizations and supported political candidates and attended the U.S. Open and dined and travelled and distracted themselves with all kinds of gadgets and devices, flooding themselves incessantly with information and texts and communication and entertainment from every direction to try to make themselves forget it: where we were, what we were. But in a strong light there was no good spin you could put on it. It was rotten from top to bottom.

Theo went through some dark times after the death of his mother and his recovery from the bombing.

His father had abandoned Theo and his mother the year before, but Theo is determined to stay in Manhattan. He stays with a school friend, Andy Barbour, and his family. The Barbours are wealthy socialites with the typical WASPy problems — Mr. Barbour is medicated for a behavior disorder that is probably manic depression, Mrs. Barbour is cold and distant, the oldest son, Platt, who is away at boarding school and is a huge bully, Andy, Theo’s friend who is a genius with all of the social awkwardness that comes along with it, Kitsey, a snobbish princess, and Toddy, who is the youngest child. He gets along well with them, though he has nightmares from the post-traumatic stress disorder from the bombing.

Theo also returns the ring to the family of Welty — James Hobart, who goes by Hobie, and his redhaired granddaughter, Pippa. Pippa sustained a head injury in the bombing. Theo sits with her and his initial attraction to her grows. Unfortunately, Pippa is being sent away to family in Texas when she recovers from her injuries.

Unfortunately for Theo, his father, Larry, and his girlfriend, Xandra, show up to take him to their home in Las Vegas. Theo doesn’t want to leave the Barbours, but doesn’t really have a choice. Vegas is terrible for Theo — his father and Xandra are not good parents and his father’s source of income is not steady, since he mostly just gambles. Xandra has a Maltese puppy named Popper that is incredibly neglected, except for Theo’s attentions to him. (We’re talking super neglected, to the point where I almost felt worse for the puppy than for Theo at this point. Oops.) At school, Theo meets Boris, who is a Russian-Ukrainian immigrant and is not the best role model for Theo. Together, Boris and Theo drink a lot of alcohol, take a lot of drugs, and skip a lot of school.

Mauritshuis_Fabritius_605

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius

Theo is haunted by The Goldfinch. He still has the painting, which was on the news as missing/destroyed in the bombing and is renowned for being one of the only works by Fabritius to survive a gunpowder explosion in 1654. He wraps the painting in bubble wrap and a pillowcase in an attempt to preserve it once he notices the wear that occurs when he looks at it. He is in constant fear of its discovery and the retribution he would face for its theft.

Theo’s dad starts getting friendlier with Theo and tells him he needs his social security number in order to open a savings account for him. He also tries to get Theo to put his money from his mother’s will in the account that Larry would have access to. Luckily, Theo’s lawyer is onto Larry and doesn’t allow for him to steal Theo’s money. It turns out that Larry is in deep with the gambling debts. In his despondency about not getting Theo’s money, he gets drunk and dies in a car accident. Theo knows that he will be sent to a state home, so he steals drugs and money from Xandra and leaves with Popper. Boris begs him to stay another day, but he leaves immediately for New York on a bus.

Once in New York, he sees Mr. Barbour on the street, but Mr Barbour is not on his medication and curses at him. The only other place Theo can think to go is to Hobie’s house, where he is pleased to find Pippa. Pippa tells him that she’s at a boarding school in Switzerland and is only visiting, much to Theo’s chagrin.

Hobie teaches Theo the art of antique restoration, and he eventually becomes a partner in what was once Welty and Hobie’s antiques business. The narrative skips forward eight years, where Pippa is living in London with a boyfriend (which tortures Theo) and Theo and Kitsey Barbour are engaged to marry. Mr. Barbour and Andy died in a boating accident, and Mrs. Barbour has pulled a Mrs. Havisham and has secluded herself in her apartment. Theo has also developed a prescription drug addiction. Theo and Kitsey have many relationship problems, the biggest of which is her continued love for her high school boyfriend, Tom.

Along with restoring antiques, Hobie enjoys creating pieces that are identical to antiques — which Theo has been selling them as legitimate pieces, unbeknownst to Hobie. One of the buyers of the fabricated pieces realizes what he has and attempts to blackmail Theo — he realizes that Theo and Welty were in the room with The Goldfinch and thinks that Theo and Hobie know the whereabouts of the painting. Theo is afraid of the financial repercussions of customers finding out about the fake antiques, the trouble he will be in when authorities discover he has The Goldfinch, and the guilt he feels in betraying Hobie’s trust.

Out of nowhere, Boris appears on the street of Manhattan. He has wealth and renown in the Russian neighborhood (which he does not explain), but he has a confession for Theo — while they were in Las Vegas, Boris stole The Goldfinch from Theo and replaced it with a textbook that was the similar size and weight; because it was so tightly sealed and Theo never looked at it, he had no idea. Over the years, The Goldfinch has been used as collateral to barter for various criminal activities and deals, but Boris feels guilty and vows to return it to Theo. At Theo and Kitsey’s engagement party, Boris approaches Theo with a planfor them to fly to Amsterdam and meet up with the men who have the painting in order to get it back. Theo is overwhelmed when the blackmailer arrives at his and Kitsey’s engagement party, and he agrees to go and leaves without telling anyone that he’s going — he leaves a note of love to Pippa.

Once in Amsterdam, Boris and assorted men take Theo to meet up with the men who have The Goldfinch, but they all have guns (besides Theo). At the meeting, they attack the men and steal the painting; however, agents fo the dealers finds them and there is a shootout, in which Boris is shot in the arm, Theo shoots a man, and the painting is stolen back.

Theo goes back to his hotel, devastated, and takes a ton of drugs. His cell phone is dead, so he can’t get in touch with Boris, he thinks he is going to be arrested for shooting and killing the agent, and he realizes that he doesn’t have his passport — he left it in the car with Boris. He contemplates suicide when, miraculously, Boris shows up at the hotel. He tells Theo that he has saved the day — he called the art recovery police on the agents, and they have been arrested and The Goldfinch has been recovered. Even better, Boris received a reward for the painting’s return and he graciously shares the reward with Theo.

Theo returns to New York and is greeted by a very upset Hobie. Hobie has been made aware of the sale of the fabricated antiques, so Theo confesses to everything, beginning with the day of the art museum and The Goldfinch. Hobie confesses that The Goldfinch was Welty’s favorite painting, too.

Theo travels the world to buy back the fabricated antiques. Pippa has told him that though she loves him, they can never be together because their character flaws and their shared experience of the bombing makes them too similar to be a safe and effective couple. Theo wonders how much of his experiences are due to fate and how much are due to his character.He realizes that “we don’t get to choose our own hearts. We can’t make ourselves want what’s good for us or what’s good for other people. We don’t get to choose the people we are.”

The writing of The Goldfinch is beautiful. I read this book over Christmas break but have not been able to stop thinking about it. The story can be described as a bildungsroman, but it is so much more than that. The novel discusses the preservation of beautiful things, both items and people, as well as how much power fate has — as well as the power of our parents and their presence (or lack thereof) in our lives. Theo loses his mother early in his life and fourteen years later he observes that “things would have turned out better if she had lived.”

There are plot points that are eyeroll inducing (especially the deus ex machina in the climax — Boris called the cops, really? Really, that’s how it’s resolved after an epic shootout) but the story of Theo’s decline into teenage delinquency and his fight out was mesmerizing to read. I’m also a sucker for a good mom story. I’m very close with my mother and even the thought of losing my mother, even as an adult, makes me slightly hyperventilate.

Comment » | modern

Young Adult Fiction

August 13th, 2013 — 5:13pm

…..or, How I Spent My Summer Vacation.

For years, I have turned my nose up at young adult (YA) fiction. I have been a voracious reader for my entire life, and hadn’t read young adult book since my childhood — even when I was a young adult (in this case, meant to be a teenager), I was reading books from the “adult” stacks in the library. To me, young adult meant Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret or other books I’d read as a kid.

Once I hit college and became an English major, I turned into that annoying snobby reader — I was an English major, I’m reading the classics, I don’t have time for teenager nonsense. (Harry Potter notwithstanding. I will always fight for my right to Harry Potter.) While in college, I lived with a girl who wanted to be a young adult author, so she read a lot of young adult fiction and recommended that I read a book series about vampires and werewolves that she said was SO GOOD. It was Twilight, and good it was not. The writing in that book sent me back to my college reading lists happily.

It got worse when I became a high school teacher. I spent my day surrounded by teenagers, I did not want to spend my off time reading about their problems. I got enough teenage angst in the day, thank you!

Last year, I began my masters degree in library science. In order to ease myself back into the academic life, I took a class called Literature for Youth, because it seemed easy enough — read some books, write some papers about them. And kids books, how bad could it be.

The reading list was TWENTY-SEVEN PAGES LONG, full of a combination of children, juvenile, and young adult fiction and nonfiction. As I was teaching pre-AP English 2 at the time, I chose a lot of YA books (and pawned off a lot on my students, telling them to read them and let me know if they were good). I figured it would be easy enough.

YA has come a long way since my adolescent years. For one thing, it’s a genre unto itself, which has developed over the last ten years. As much as I roll my eyes, Twilight really did change the role YA plays in the bookstore or the library. YA is taken seriously as literature now and has a lot of great books — and some not so great. There is a HUGE supernatural presence in YA (Barnes and Noble has a separate YA shelf for paranormal romance, gag), but a lot of them are very well written and very compelling, with wonderful characters and plotlines.

Not all of them focus on romance, which is refreshing. Many of them explore themes that are important to teenagers (and adults, as there is a reason that they’re called “young adult” — teenagers go through the same issues that adults go through, they’re just plagued with hormones that make the smallest problem seem like a life or death situation) and, if read with an adult that’s close to them, can open up conversations and make it easier for them to identify with the world — yes, even the paranormal romance.

There are few guides out there to understanding and writing YA fiction, but here are a few things I’ve noticed from my (limited) exposure to YA:

1. YA is predominately written in first person, which can sometimes get a little tiring (but teenagers are self centered and probably won’t notice). YA also predominately comes in trilogies or series. Be warned — when I read Libba Bray’s The Diviners, I had no idea it was the first in a series and I was PISSED to get to the end and find that it continued in a yet-to-be-published book. PISSED.
2. There’s almost always a romance. Even in books that aren’t labeled as a romance, there will be a romance.
3. About 75% of the time that romance will be a love triangle.
4. The main character will usually feel inadequate and not understand why the other person likes them. A lot of, “But I’m so hideously ugly, how could anyone ever love me!?!??!?!” to which the other person will respond, “You are so beautiful, I wish I could make you see it!!!!!!!!!!!” Which happens in adult romances, too. So maybe that’s just a romance genre thing. Whatever it is, it can be annoying.
5. There is usually a very good lesson to learn, even if it’s hidden or thematic. YA can serve as a modern Aesop’s Fable, but with a lot more pining. Some books (such as those by Laurie Halse Anderson or Ellen Hopkins) are overt in their messages, some (like Libba Bray’s The Great and Terrible Beauty trilogy which focuses on the strength of girls/women) can be more subtle.
6. The books that I find the most enjoyable are the ones that are dystopian/paranormal in nature rather than focus on a more modern world with typical teenage problems. That’s just a question of taste, however.
7. Almost every new book/series will be compared to something that has come before it. I’ve noticed this more in YA than in any other fiction category. Books will be advertised as “the new Harry Potter,” (Shadow and Bone) “the new Hunger Games,” (Divergent) “the new Twilight” (City of Bones). Ignore that and just enjoy them for what they are.
8. YA books are easy to read without being too juvenile. There is a difference between a juvenile book (meant for ages 8-13) and a YA book (meant for ages 14-18). There are different issues for these kids. Wait ’til Helen Comes is for a different audience than Divergent — there’s a different maturity (and vocabulary level) associated with each book. That being said, YA books shouldn’t send you to the dictionary to look up every other word. If it is, you may need to take an SAT vocabulary refresher.
9. YA books are the new movie craze. Think about it — Harry Potter, Twilight, Hunger Games, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Percy Jackson, City of Bones, Divergent, Beautiful Creatures, The Fault in Our Stars, The Giver, Vampire Academy, A Great and Terrible Beauty, Unwind, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children — these are all YA books to movies that are either already out or are scheduled to come out/start production in the next year. And these are just ones that I can think of off the top of my head.
10. While YA is a good place to go to be reminded that good conquers evil, YA does not shy away from real life situations and heartache. People die, people get sick, people are victims to horrible accidents. While good does triumph, sometimes it hurts and you feel like you can’t possibly go on but you know that you have to — and that’s just literature reflecting life.

Comment » | modern

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

February 13th, 2012 — 8:47am

The Hunger Games Trilogy is a series of three books by Suzanne Collins: The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay. The first of the books, The Hunger Games, was published in 2008 and the series has skyrocketed in popularity, culminating in a movie that will be released this March. It was originally marketed as a young adult novel, but has been embraced by readers of all ages, including almost all of my adult friends.

The books are set in a dystopian future in a country called Panem, which was once North America. The people of Panem attempted a coup that was defeated by the Capitol, the corrupt leaders of the country. The country was divided into districts and are strictly controlled by the Capitol. In order to remind the people of their mistake of the uprising and to demonstrate their control, the Capitol puts on the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games are an annual event in which one boy and one girl aged 12 to 18 from each of the 12 districts surrounding the Capitol are selected by lottery to compete in a televised battle in which only one person can survive.

THE HUNGER GAMES

The first book introduces the narrator, Katniss Everdeen, who lives in District 12 with her mother and younger sister, Prim. District 12 was once the Appalachian mountain region, which is revealed by small clues, such as the coal mining jobs the people hold. Katniss is 16 and is the sole provider for her family; her father died in a coal mining accident five years before and Katniss and her best friend, Gale, have been illegally going out of the confines of District 12 and hunting animals and foraging different mushrooms and berries to feed the family (both by feeding their families and selling the excess meat to the people in the black market, the Hob).

The book opens on the morning of the lottery for the Hunger Games, when all of the people of the district are required to put their children’s names into the lottery. The children’s names that are pulled from the lottery are referred to as Tributes, which is one more way to keep the people of Panem in their place. When the Capitol representatives pull two names for the Hunger Games, the boy is Peeta Mellark, a boy who Katniss knew from school and had once given her bread from his family’s bakery when her family was starving, even though he was punished for it later. The name of the girl that is drawn is Primrose Everdeen, Katniss’s eleven year old younger sister. As Prim walks to the stage, Katniss runs forward and volunteers to be the female tribute for District 12.

Katniss and Peeta are taken to the Capitol, where they are to be trained by the former victors of the Hunger Games from their district. In the case of District 12, there has only been one former victor: Haymitch Abernathy, who is infamous for living in a perpetual state of drunkenness. Katniss takes an instant dislike for him, as he is too drunk to properly train them, which is crucial, given that the wealthier and healthier districts have been training their tributes for years.

In the initial interviews with Caesar Flickerman that are broadcast to everyone in Panem, Peeta reveals that he’s had a lifleong love for Katniss, which she interprets as a way to manipulate the audience and get support and fans, which is important, as the audience can send gifts of food and medicine to the players in the Games. Katniss and Peeta are assigned a team that serves them while they’re staying in the Capitol, which include an aesthetic team to help clean them up for the formal on-air parade and presentation. Their stylist, Cinna, designs their outfits that instantly gets the audience talking about them — he bases the designs for their outfits on their coal-mining district, but rather than sticking to coal, he comes up with designs that incorporate fire and flames; Katniss becomes “the girl on fire” when Cinna’s designs for the first audience presentation includes actual fire.

The Hunger Games begins with all of the tributes (two from each district, 24 in all) starting in a circle around a cornucopia filled with items that could be helpful during games, including weapons, food, and medicines. Haymitch has advised Katniss and Peeta to avoid the cornucopia, as that is where most of the triubtes are killed. Sure enough, 11 of the 24 tributes are killed the first day. Katniss spends most of the first few days of the Games alone, using her hunting and foraging skills to survive. Some of the more experienced tributes make a gang and are attempting to hunt and get rid of the other tributes. Katniss briefly unites with a tribute from the agricultural district who is one of the younger of the tributes. Rue reminds Katniss of her younger sister, and the two of them torment the gang by setting some of the Capitol’s mutant creations, tracker jackers, on them (the Capitol had created different creatures and set them on the people of Panem in order to shorten the rebellion; these include tracker jackers, a genetically-altered wasp that hunt you down and sting you with a hallucinogenic venom that gives you visions before killing you, and jabberjays, birds that spied on and then repeated the things the rebels said to the Capitol. The jabberjays then mated with mockingbirds to create mockingjays, birds that memorize and repeat songs instead of words. The mockingjays serve as a symbol of the rebellion and a slap in the Capitol’s face, as the jabberjays were supposed to die off but created new life and thrived instead). When Rue is killed by one of the other tributes, Katniss sings to her to comfort her as she dies and then covers her with flowers, giving her a makeshift funeral and showing her anger and defiance to the Capitol.

Unbeknownst to Katniss, the audience has become enamored with the unrequited love story of Peeta and Katniss, and the Capitol has announced that there are new rules for the Hunger Games: two tributes from the same district can win the Games as a pair. Katniss hears the announcement and tracks down Peeta; she finds him wounded and takes him into a cave to nurse him back to help. Peeta has blood poisoning from a leg wound given to him from one of the gang, and Katniss has to go to the cornucopia to get medicine that has been donated by viewers. While there, she is almost killed by the remaining members of the gang, but she is saved and her life is spared by Thresh, the other tribute from Rue’s district. He spares her life in order to thank her for helping and caring for Rue when she was dying. Katniss makes it back to Peeta and injects him with medicine, saving his life. They stay in the cave for days while Peeta recovers. Katniss and Peeta explore their budding romance; Katniss initially engages in the romance in order to keep up the star-crossed lovers act, but feels that the feelings she’s pretending to have are slowly becoming real.

On the final days of the Hunger Games, the river close to their cave becomes dry, and Katniss and Peeta realize that this is the Capitol’s way to get the remaining tributes together at the center of the arena. They make their way there and, once there, see the final tribute, Cato, being chased by giant muttations, a Capitol creature that are human-like wolves. Katniss realizes that the muttations resemble the dead tributes, including one that has Rue’s eyes and face. Cato is attacked by the muttations but doesn’t die because of the armor he’s wearing, so Katniss kills him by shooting him with an arrow. Peeta and Katniss wait to be announced as the winners when an announcement is made that there can only be one winner after all. OH HELL NO.

In order to keep one from having to kill the other, and because Katniss is pissed as hell, Katniss and Peeta threaten suicide with poisonous berries in hopes that the Capitol would rather have two victors than none. It works, and they are declared the winners and taken out of the arena. In the aftermath and celebration from the Hunger Games, the Capitol becomes angry with Katniss and claims she was sparking rebellion by “outsmarting” the Gamemakers and defying the Capitol. When Haymitch tells Katniss this, she takes it as her job to reverse it to save her family and friends from retaliation from the Capitol. During an aired interview with Caesar Flickerman, Katniss claims that she wasn’t trying to rebel, she was trying to insure a future with Peeta because she loves him, insuring that the audience likes her more and will hate the Capitol if they kill her. Peeta and Katniss seem to be safe for now.

On their way home, Katniss and Peeta discuss their feelings and Katniss reveals that she knew when Haymitch would send her sponsorship gifts and played most of the games by manipulating the feelings of the audience by acting like they were in love. She has assumed that Peeta was playing the games as well, and quickly finds out that Peeta’s feelings were true — he tells her that he’s loved her since that day years earlier when he gave her the bread for her family, even though he knew that he would be punished by his parents. Katniss tells him that she doesn’t know exactly how she feels about him. Peeta’s feelings are hurt by knowing that Katniss was playing him, but he agrees that now they have to portray themselves to be in love in order to keep the Capitol from discovering this and killing them and their families for their rebellion.

CATCHING FIRE

The second novel opens with Katniss and Peeta embarking on their Victory Tour, where they tour each of the districts and are presented as the victors of the Hunger Games. When the tour has finished, they return to their homes in District 12. Their relationship is tenuous, as Peeta is in love with Katniss and, because this is a young adult novel, Katniss is unsure of her feelings for him. She knows that she cares for Peeta and wants to keep him safe, but she thinks she just might be in love with her best friend from home, Gale. Of course she is. OF COURSE.

While on the Victory Tour, Katniss and Peeta keep up their love act, with Peeta proposing to her during one of the televised interviews. Katniss figures that this is the only way to stay alive. Turns out, she’s right.

When she gets to her family’s new house in the area reserved specifically for victors of the Hunger Games, her mother tells her that there is a visitor waiting in her room. Waiting for her is President Snow, the president of Panem, who is none too pleased with her shenanigans in the arena, specifically that her actions could be interpreted as trying to spark a rebellion against the Capitol. The unhappy citizens of the country have embraced the mockingjay pin Katniss wore during the games as the symbol of the rebellion. President Snow tells Katniss that she has to convince the citizens of the country that she was simply trying to save Peeta’s life and not a way to stick it to the man. Before he leaves, he whispers in her ear that he knows that Katniss kissed Gale upon her return home and Katniss realizes that President Snow’s breath smells like blood.

Katniss discovers that there have been uprisings in other districts — she encounters two runaways from District 8 and they explain a theory that District 13 was not wiped out by the Capitol, due to its residents going underground, and that stock footage of 13 is played instead of new film on television. There are suddenly a new group of Peacekeepers (the Capitol’s police enforcers) that arrive in District 12; their first act upon arriving in the district is brutally whipping Gale for hunting illegally. Katniss tries to stop his beating and is struck in the face by the new Head Peacekeeper, Thread, before the beating stops and Katniss and Haymitch carry Gale to Katniss’s mother for healing. That night Katniss realizes that she loves Gale, but she doesn’t know if it is a romantic love.

(That is one of my least favorite parts of young adult novels and honestly, one of the reasons why I tend to shy away from reading them. It seems like every young adult novel that’s been written in the past ten years incorporate some sort of love triangle between a girl and two guys. IT IS SO ANNOYING. I blame Twilight. There is some sort of romantic dissonance that has to occur in young adult novels. It’s not enough that Katniss is a strong female character, she has to be incapacitated by some sort of romance. Okay, moving on.)

This year is the 75th anniversary of the Capitol’s defeat of the rebellion, so it is the 75th Hunger Games and is what they call a Quarter Quell. There is always some sort of special craziness added into the mix. The last Quarter Quell, during the 50th Hunger Games, there were double the amount of tributes. This time, the twist is that the tributes will be chosen from previous victors, which means that Katniss and either Peeta or Haymitch will be back in the games.

On the day of the reaping, Katniss and Haymitch’s names are drawn, but Peeta volunteers to take Haymitch’s spot. Katniss decides that she is going to make it her mission to save Peeta’s life and make sure he stays alive during the games and makes Haymitch agree.

These games are different because all of the victors know each other and are friends and more importantly, all of the citizens of the Capitol love the victors — they’re celebrities in Panem and the Capitol loves them like we love our reality stars. A lot of the victors are old and many of them have turned to drugs or alcohol to try to rid themselves of the memories of the games. Haymitch tries to get Katniss and Peeta to forge an alliance with some of the tributes, but they decide to try to keep each other alive on their own.

The games start and Katniss and Peeta find out that Haymitch has been forging alliances without them — Finnick, the extremely handsome and muscular tribute from District 4 and his 80 year old fellow tribute, Mags, instantly fight with Katniss to survive; Finnick even has a bracelet Haymitch had been wearing to show that he can be trusted.

There are some gruesome tortures in the arena, including a chemical fog that paralyzes and kills and orange muttation monkeys. Johanna Mason, a tribute from District 7, meets up with Finnick, Katniss, and Peeta, bringing Beetee and Wiress, tributes from District 3, the technology district. Wiress soon proves her genius by revealing to Katniss that the arena is arranged like a clock, with all of the arena’s disasters occurring on a timed chart. After Wiress is killed, Katniss learns of Beetee’s plan to harness lightning in order to electrocute two other contenders.

While Johanna and Katniss are attempting to set the wire, they’re attacked by the remaining contenders, Brutus and Enobaria. Johanna jumps Katniss, which makes Katniss think that Johanna was working against them the whole time. Johanna has knocked her out and cut her arm, and when Katniss comes to, she finds Beetee laying on the ground with the wire wrapped around a knife and Finnick and Peeta are nowhere to be found. She remembers Haymitch’s advise before going into the arena: “You just remember who the enemy is.” She finally realizes that the enemy he was talking about is the Capitol. Good job.

Realizing that Beetee was trying to blow up the forcefield, she wraps the wire around her bow and shoots it straight into the forcefield at the exact moment when the lightning strikes the tree, blowing up the arena. She is thrown to the ground and, before she passes out, thinks that the Capitol will never let her or Peeta live after this.

When she wakes up, she is being transported on a hovercraft to District 13. Katniss wanders around until she finds a room with Haymitch, Finnick, and Plutarch Heavensbee, the Head Gamemaker who has been secretly working with the rebels. Haymitch tells her that there was a plan to break them out the minute the Quell was announced. The victors from 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, and 11 had varying degrees of knowledge about it. Plutarch had been for several years part of a group planning to overthrow the Capitol. He made sure that the wire was among the weapons, as it was to be used by Beetee to blow up the forcefield. The hovercraft is from District 13, which is where they are headed. Upset, Katniss asks why she and Peeta were not in on the plans, and Haymitch explains that once the forcefield exploded, she and Peeta would be the prime targets and the less they knew the better, in case of capture. She tells them that Johanna tried to kill her, but Finnick explains that Johanna was removing Katniss’ tracker, and that all of victor tributes in those districts have pledged their lives to her and the rebellion; that she is the mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion.

She realizes that Haymitch never had any plans to keep Peeta alive. He tells her that everyone kept Peeta alive because they knew that if he died she would never keep an alliance with the others. She asks where Peeta is, and Haymitch tells her he was picked up, along with Johanna and Enobaria (the tribute from District 2), by the Capitol. In horror and anger, she attacks Haymitch, scratching his face. Finnick and others strap her down and drug her to keep her calm. Finnick tells her that the Capitol will at least keep Peeta alive to use as bait against Katniss. So you know, there’s that.

Gale visits her in her room on the hovercraft. He tells her that after the Games, the Capitol sent bombers to the districts. He explains that he was able to get her family out in time, but District 12 has been destroyed.

MOCKINGJAY

The third and final novel in the trilogy begins with Katniss visiting the ruins of District 12 and is thinking about the happenings of the previous few days. There has been an underground rebellion working for a while and District 13, which the Capitol said had been destroyed in the initial uprising, has been thriving in underground bunkers. District 13 had been in charge of nuclear technology and has escaped the clutches of the Capitol by threatening them with a nuclear attack.

The rebels, headed by President Coin, the leader of District 13, are eager for Katniss to join them. She has become the mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion. She is more of a figurehead of the rebellion, but they’re desperate to be able to produce pictures and propaganda of her as a part of the rebel alliance. Katniss agrees that she will take part in the rebellion but she has some conditions: she demands that President Coin grant immunity to all of the captured tributes of the Quarter Quell, she demands the right to kill President Snow herself, and asks for her family to keep their cat, Buttercup.

The rebels are thrilled that Katniss has decided to be the face of the uprising and put plans in motion to make different TV spots featuring the Mockingjay in action. They send Katniss, Gale, and a team of other soldiers and cameramen to film her visiting a hospital in District 8, which has been targeted and badly attacked by the Capitol. In fact, while they’re leaving District 8, the Capitol bombs the hospital, killing almost all of the helpless men, women, and children inside. Katniss becomes enraged and realizes that she wants to help the rebellion now. Luckily, it’s all caught on tape.

Beetee, the technological genius from the Quarter Quell, has come up with a way to hack into the Capitol’s live broadcasts. The broadcast they interrupt is an interview with Ceasar Flickerman and Peeta. Katniss is relieved to see Peeta is alive but is concerned that they’re torturing him, especially since his message is for that of a ceasefire. Beetee manages to stick several seconds of the propaganda shots into the broadcast, which excites the rebels and makes them plan different videos they can shoot.

The next time they hack into the broadcast system is during another interview with Ceasar and Peeta, only this time Peeta is looking a little worse for wear. He looks like he’s lost a substantial amount of weight and there are bruises on his face that even the Capitol makeup can’t cover. Peeta manages to get a message to Katniss and the rebels watching that District 13 will be bombed that night — the screen goes black but there are suspicious torture noises. They manage to get further underground into their bunkers before the bombs hit, but Katniss saw blood on the screen before it goes to black and knows that somewhere Peeta is being tortured.

While bunkered down during the bombing that lasts a few days, she talks to Finnick, the tribute from District 4, who tells Katniss that he knows how she feels — his girlfriend, Annie, has been taken prisoner by the Capitol as well and he is being driven mad by the knowledge that she is being tortured by the Capitol in order to destroy him mentally. Katniss realizes that this is what is happening to Peeta and she has a panic attack and passes out.

When she comes to, Haymitch is there. He tells her that the decision has been made to attempt a rescue mission into the Capitol to save Peeta, Annie, and Johanna. It is a very dangerous mission, made even more dangerous by the fact that Gale was the first person to volunteer, so now she’s even more distraught about it because both of her men might die.

In order to distract the Capitol from the rescue mission happening under their noses, Katniss and Finnick shoot a new propaganda video. Katniss tells the camera that she has been set free by the knowledge that the Capitol is torturing Peeta because that means that she can fight them without punishment. Finnick reveals that President Snow had been selling Finnick’s body to anyone from the Capitol who was willing to pay; Finnick and the other victors were forced into this prostitution because if they didn’t, someone they loved would be killed. In exchange for his sexual services, Finnick has learned a lot of secrets about prominent Capitol members, including President Snow. According to Finnick, Snow has been poisoning his political adversaries to rise to power. He would drink out of the poisoned cups to avoid suspicion but sometimes the antidotes wouldn’t work, which is why he always smells of roses and why Katniss smelled blood on his breath — he has sores in his mouth that will never heal. After the cameras have cut, Haymitch tells Katniss that after his games, when he technically cheated by using the forcefield around the arena as a weapon to kill the remaining tribute, the Capitol killed his mother, younger brother, and girlfriend in order to “make an example” out of him to the other tributes.

The spot airs on the Capitol television, and Katniss and Finnick wait for the rescue team with Annie and Peeta to arrive. They finally get word that the team has returned with everyone alive. They bring Finnick and Katniss to the hospital wing, where Finnick and Annie are joyfully reunited. Peeta is still unconscious, so they bring Katniss to his room so she can be there when he wakes up.

When she gets to his room, Peeta is awake already. He sees her and immediately runs to her, for what she thinks is an embrace. He grabs her by the neck and tries to choke and kill her.

It turns out that the final way of torturing Peeta and Katniss has been to “hijack” Peeta’s mind — they injected him with the hallucinogenic tracker jacker venom and gave him false memories of Katniss being the enemy. It’s very “Zoolander killing the prime minister of Malyasia,” except this time it could actually work.

The doctors at 13 attempt to un-hijack Peeta’s mind while Katniss, Finnick, Gale, and the other soldiers prepare for an assault on the Capitol. Katniss still has her mind made up that she is going to assassinate President Snow. Gale shows her a bomb that he and Beetee have been working on; a bomb goes off, waits for about a minute for rescue workers to go in, and then another bomb goes off, killing the innocent people attempting to help. Katniss realizes that they are becoming just as sociopathic as President Snow, especially when Gale defends his bomb by saying that the people of the Capitol didn’t care about the people of the districts, so all is fair in war and war.

Katniss, Finnick, Gale, and about five other rebel soldiers go on a mission into the Capitol after taking control of some of the other districts (they’ve managed to take over District 2, which is especially important as they produce the Peacekeepers for the Capitol). One of the soldiers is killed toward the beginning of the mission and President Coin sends a replacement: Peeta. This is when Katniss realizes that President Coin sees her as a threat due to her influence on the people of Panem and has sent Peeta in so that he can kill her, even though his mind is mostly back to normal. After a call from Haymitch, Katniss resolves to start trying to help Peeta remember his former memories. The Squad creates a game, “Real or Not Real”, to help him separate the hijacked memories from the real ones. During this, Peeta reveals that when he was held in the Capitol, they forced him to watch the execution of two Avoxes (prisoners who have had their tongues cut out and are then forced into slavery in the Capitol), Darius and Lavinia, under the guise of trying to get information about the rebellion — he reveals that he is beginning to understand the difference between the fake memories and the real ones because the fake memories have a “shiny” quality to them. He still has some homicidal moments, though, which awkwardly show up in the middle of a Capitol street that has been booby-trapped with several traps and pods of danger, and it results in the death of two men.

The group continues through the Capitol to get Katniss close enough to kill President Snow, encountering traps and monsters and losing men along the way. When they finally reach the Capitol, Peeta separates from the rest of them, saying that he can’t trust himself to not try to kill Katniss at the last minute. Katniss reaches Snow’s mansion, which she is horrified to see has a human shield comprised solely of children. Silver parachutes that look like supply packages similar to those that came down in the Hunger Games arena come down and the children reach for them; unfortunately, the packages contain bombs. When the children have been bombed, a group of rebel rescue workers rush in to help. Katniss recognizes her sister, Prim, among the group and starts running to her to warn her of possible danger, but it’s too late — a second bomb goes off, killing Prim and burning Katniss.

Katniss is taken back to District 13 with the rest of the survivors — Finnick was attacked and killed by muttations in the Capitol, Gale was captured but rescued in the Capitol, and Peeta is nowhere to be found. Katniss’s body is reconstructed using skingrafts, but there is nothing to do for her mind; Prim’s death has driven her to a point of mental instability reminiscent to that of when she won the first Hunger Games. Slowly she regains her sanity, but the slightest remembrance of her sister can put her back over the edge.

President Snow was taken captive that day and has been held in a District 13 cell ever since. She goes down to see him and he tells her that it was President Coin, not Snow, who ordered the attack on the children. This means that the bombs could have been the one designed by Gale. Uh oh. When she talks to Gale, he tells her that he has no idea if it was his bomb but he feels guilty nonetheless. She realizes that she will never be able to look at Gale the same way again; he represents the destruction and anger that she has always had toward the Capitol and two fiery people will never last long together (and my ex-boyfriend and I can attest to that truth).

The day of President Snow’s public execution arrives and Katniss is outfitted with a bow and arrow to take the “final shot” of the war. As she stares at Snow, she realizes that he had promised that they would never lie to each other, which meant he was telling the truth about Coin ordering the attack on the children. Coin has also told the former victors that they will hold one final Hunger Games in which the tributes will come from the children of the Capitol, so Katniss thinks that she is just as untrustworthy and horrible as Snow. When she takes the shot to kill Snow, she aims and shoots and kills President Coin instead. The people on the square instantly riot and Katniss is taken away by guards.

While being held in a cell, she is told that after the riot, President Snow was found dead; he was either trampled to death or choked on his own blood from the sores in his mouth that were no longer able to be medicated once he was taken from the Capitol. District 13 holds a trial for her while she’s held in solitary confinement and finds her not guilty due to her apparent insanity — her punishment is that she is sent to live in District 12.

She and other former 12 citizens return to what is left of their homes. Her mother doesn’t return, however, as the deaths of Katniss’s father and Prim are too much for her to handle; she remains in the other districts as a healer so she can keep busy. The District 12 citizens attempt to rebuild and Katniss lives alone in her house in the Victor’s Village (Haymitch is a less than stellar neighbor) until one day Peeta shows up. It has been months since anyone has seen him and he has apparently worked off his brainwashing.

Katniss realizes that falling in love with Peeta was inevitable — he represented the peace and hope for the future that was a perfect contrast to her fire and anger. They reunite and together, with Haymitch, create a book memorializing the victims of the Hunger Games and the Capitol’s bloody reign.

The end of the book jumps ahead to fifteen years later, where Peeta and Katniss are still together. They have had two children together, because Peeta desperately wanted them. The Hunger Games are over, but Katniss dreads the day her children learn the details of their parents’ involvement in both the Games and the war. Peeta and Katniss sometimes experience flashbacks of the Games; when she feels distressed, Katniss plays a comforting game reminding herself of every good thing that she has ever seen someone do. She finds the memory game repetitive sometimes, but as she concludes the novel she concedes that “there are much worse games to play.”

The novels are really entertaining and have a really good story. I enjoyed them because they don’t seem like the typical young adult novels, minus that annoying love triangle. The characters don’t act like teenagers and there are a lot of mature themes. The characters live in extreme poverty and experience extreme loss at very young ages, and also have to deal with loyalty, betrayal, challenging authority, and war. Katniss has essentially raised herself after the death of her father when her mother had an emotional breakdown which makes her much more self-efficient and not a whiny teenager.

I tend to shy away from young adult novels because I spend my days with teenagers. The last thing I want to do is read about a teenager’s life and problems, especially because they usually involve crushes and clothes and bullshit. This novel circumvents the trapping of a typical YA novel by using teenagers in an un-teenage format.

Plus, the movie looks like it’s going to be AWESOME.

3 comments » | modern

96. Sophie’s Choice by William Styron

May 10th, 2011 — 2:04pm

Spoiler alert: This is quite possibly the most depressing book imaginable. Oedipus Rex has more laughs than this book. If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, then you should turn back now.

Sophie’s Choice by William Styron was published in 1979. It is narrated by Stingo, a Southerner working in publishing in new York City, who befriends an extremely screwed up couple. It takes place in 1947.

The Sophie in question is Sophie Zawistowska, a Polish-Catholic survivor of Auschwitz. Throughout the book, she tells Stingo about her past — both of her parents were professors, and Sophie was married at a young age to a mathematics scholar. One day, the Germans came and took Sophie’s father and husband away to a concentration camp and shot them on New Year’s Day. Sophie was taken to Auschwitz when she smuggled ham to her dying mother. While at Auschwitz, she worked as the stenographer to Rudolf Höss and tried to convince him that her son, Jan, should be taken from the camp and put into the Lebensborn program and be raised as a German orphan because he has blonde hair and blue eyes and speaks fluent German, but Höss refuses.

Sophie (Meryl Streep) living with her Choice.

The final piece of Sophie’s story from Auschwitz is about when she and her two children first arrived at the camp. She has two children, her son Jan and her daughter Eva. On the night they arrived, a doctor makes her choose which of her children will be sent to the gas chamber that night and which one will live.When she is unable to choose, a Nazi officer said both would be sent to die so Sophie chooses Eva to die that night, because she figures that Jan would have a better chance of surviving the camp. However, after she and Jan are separated between the adult and children camps, Sophie never finds out what happened to her son; she gets a letter saying that he’s been moved from the Children’s Camp and she assumes that he was killed. She has been living with overwhelming guilt and mourning ever since the day she arrived at Auschwitz.

You can start crying now. It’s okay. I’ll wait.

Sophie moved to America immediately after the war and met Nathan, who took care of her when she was sick when she first arrived. Nathan is crazy (he’s an undiagnosed paranoid schizophrenic) and is abusive to Sophie when he has one of his outbreaks; it doesn’t help that he’s self-medicating with cocaine and prescription drugs that he gets from his job at Pfizer.

Unfortunately, Nathan sets his crazy on Stingo and Sophie, who he accuses of having an affair together and he attacks Sophie and tries to kill her. Stingo takes Sophie away to Virginia, where Sophie tells him the story of her children. Stingo tells her that he’s in love with her and Sophie takes Stingo’s virginity. The next morning, Stingo wakes up to find a note from Sophie; she has gone back to Nathan. Telling the story of her children has overwhelmed her with grief and she has gone back to commit suicide with Nathan, who is on his own suicidal crazy-train. Stingo returns to Brooklyn and discovers that Sophie and Nathan have poisoned themselves with cyanide.

DEPRESSING.

There are a lot of nuances to the book — the way that the narration is told in both third and first person, the jumps in time, the comparisons of the Holocaust to the American South, the focus of a Holocaust survivor who isn’t Jewish — but who cares? Not when you compare it to the heart-wrenching choice of knowing that you are responsible for the death of your child. I don’t have, much less want, children and I felt like my heart was being torn out of my chest. I didn’t think anyone could find a way to make the horrors of the Holocaust even worse, but congratulations, William Styron, you did it.

The apocryphal story of the film version of Sophie’s Choice has Meryl Streep as Sophie only being able to do one take of the “choice” scene, as she found it too emotionally draining and painful. Preach, Queen Meryl.

4 comments » | modern

41. Lord of the Flies by William Golding

April 13th, 2011 — 2:53pm

Nothing scares me more than evil children. Any movie that is advertised as featuring a possessed child, or a creepy child, or a murderous child will not be getting my popcorn and jujubee money. So just the summary of Lord of the Flies gives me the creeps: “British schoolchildren survive a plane crash on a desert island and have to form their own society, but their island utopia soon turns to chaos.” No good can come of British schoolchildren being stranded on a deserted island. No good.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding was published in 1954, in the midst of the Cold War. The beginning of the novel explains that the plane is evacuating the students from Britain; there is a subtle nod to a nuclear-esque war going on and the plane has been shot down by a nameless enemy. Two of the children (who range in age from about 6 to 14) are the first characters on the beach — Ralph and the unfortunately named Piggy, who is chubby and has asthma and glasses. Poor Piggy doesn’t stand a chance on the playground, much less on a deserted island.

Ralph and Piggy find a conch shell on the beach and blow it to alert any other survivors to their whereabouts. Kids start coming towards them from all directions, including a large group of kids in identical choir robes. The head of the choirboys, Jack, makes himself known pretty quickly and he and Ralph discuss the need for an organized plan. Jack makes the argument for himself in possibly one of my favorite election speeches ever:

“I ought to be chief,” said Jack with simple arrogance, “because I’m chapter chorister and head boy. I can sing C sharp.”

Somehow the boys are unconvinced that the ability to sing C sharp is a valuable life skill for getting rescued off an island, and they vote Ralph to be the leader. Ralph, in order to keep the choir boys from performing a mutiny, suggests that Jack and the Choir Boys work as an army and hunt for the group — maybe not the best idea, in hindsight.

Ralph, Jack, and a boy named Simon walk around and determine that they’re on an island and that there are no discernible signs of human civilization; they find tracks in the sand, but they’re animal tracks, there is no village smoke or boats on the shore. They find a piglet that they catch and Jack attempts to kill it with a knife; however, once he raises his arm in the air to stab it, he hesitates over the enormity of the act of killing a living creature and the pig gets away. In typical boy fashion, Jack promises that the next time there will be no mercy on whatever animal is under his knife.

When they get back to the others, they make their rules of the island — have fun and try to be rescued. They start a fire using Piggy’s glasses and maintaining the fire becomes the number one priority. They also establish a rule that when they are meeting together, whoever is holding the conch shell is the one who gets to talk. The conch comes to represent the attempts at civilization and order.

As the novel goes on, the Big Three of Ralph, Jack, and Simon begin to take over different roles of leadership; Jack takes the choir boys and becomes in charge of hunting the pigs on the island for meat, and Simon takes control of building shelters, as well as defending and protecting the younger boys. Piggy becomes an outcast; the older boys don’t take him seriously, even though (and probably because) he is a voice a reason, and the younger kids follow suit and make fun of him.

Several things happen to the boys that threatens their fragile civilization. The initial fire that they build by focusing sunlight through Piggy’s glasses is ignored while the kids play on the beach, and the fire gets out of control and burns all of their firewood. After the fire, one of the “littluns” disappears after the fire and is never seen again, presumably burned to death from the fire. On another occasion, Jack and the Choir Boys go off to hunt when they’re supposed to be watching the signal fire. Ralph and Piggy are on the beach, and they see a ship pass by, but when they get back to the fire to make a smoke signal, the fire has died out. Ralph accuses Jack, who has just returned triumphantly with a killed pig whose throat he slit, of letting the fire die. Jack and the Choir Boys, with face paint on their faces and blood still on the knife, are too preoccupied with the excitement and adrenaline rush of their first kill, and they put on a frenzied, crazed recreation of the hunt. Piggy tells Jack that he shouldn’t have left the fire and Jack punches Piggy in the stomach and then slaps him in the face hard enough to make Piggy’s glasses fly off and break one of the lenses.

Ralph calls an assembly to try to get their heads in the game and focus on their main goal: keeping the fire up so they can be rescued. At the meeting, the littluns start talking about their fear of a beast living on the island. Jack, with his usual sensitive nature, states that there is no beast, and he should know, as he’d covered every inch of the island during their hunts. Piggy brings up the point that there is no beast on the island and no reason to fear anything other than people (enter ominous music here). The littluns insist that there’s a beast; some say that it comes out of the sea, some say that it lurks in the caves, and they all agree that it comes out at night. Jack, in a moment that brings chaos to the meeting, speaks without holding the conch and declares that if there’s a beast, he and his boys will hunt it down. At this, the meeting splinters, with boys running away in all directions, leaving Ralph, Piggy, and Simon watching after them fearfully, discussing what “the grownups would think” if they could see how quick to violence and chaos the boys all are.

That night, there is an air battle over them, and a parachutist falls to the ground while the boys are all asleep. Two of the boys, twins who are interchangeable and are therefore known collectively as “SamnEric”, wake up and see the parachute fluttering; they panic, convinced that the beast has come in from the air. Ralph, Jack, and some of the hunters agree to go and look for the beast. On the search, they come across a wild boar and they try to catch it. When it gets away, they make a pretend hunting circle, enclosing on one of the boys, Robert, and pretend that they’re hunting him. They engage in their hunting ritual, which includes a chant:

“Kill the pig! Cut his throat! Kill the pig! Bash him in!”

Creepy kids. Not okay.

The hunters from the 1990 movie. Aka, the best form of birth control available. Do not want these evil children.

Ralph and Jack go up the mountain and see what looks like “a great ape” asleep in one of the trees. They run back to the other boys and report back that they found the beast. While they’re discussing what to do, Jack declares that he’s no longer going to follow Ralph; Ralph is too preoccupied with his precious little fire and he’s a coward, so he’s going to take his hunters and kill the beast. When the other boys don’t elect to remove Ralph’s power, Jack calls his hunters and they run off to the beach. Ralph gets the other boys to help him rebuild the fire, but by the time they’ve finished, most of the boys have defected and joined Jack’s tribe. Ralph notices that Simon is gone as well, to which Piggy replies, “He’s cracked.”

Simon has gone off on his own to look for the beast. He finds a gift for the beast that Jack and the Choir Boys made, which is the head of one of the pigs killed by Jack that they impaled on a stick; it is covered in flies, and Simon thinks of it as “Lord of the Flies.” He has indeed cracked. The Lord of the Flies begins to talk to him and it is the creepiest thing yet:

“You are a silly little boy,” said the Lord of the Flies, “just an ignorant, silly little boy.”

Simon moved his swollen tongue but said nothing.

“Don’t you agree?” said the Lord of the Flies. “Aren’t you just a silly little boy?”

Simon answered him in the same silent voice.

“Well then,” said the Lord of the Flies,” you’d better run off and play with the others. They think you’re batty. You don’t want Ralph to think you’re batty, do you? You like Ralph a lot, don’t you? And Piggy, and Jack?”

Simon’s head was tilted slightly up. His eyes could not break away and the Lord of the Flies hung in space before him.

“What are you doing out here all alone? Aren’t you afraid of me?”

Simon shook.

“There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast.”

Simon’s mouth labored, brought forth audible words.

“Pig’s head on a stick.”

“Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! You knew, didn’t you?” said the head. For a moment or two the forest and all the other dimly appreciated places echoed with the parody of laughter. “You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are what they are?”

And then Simon faints. Thank god. I don’t know how much more of that conversation I could take.

When he wakes up, he sees that the flies have moved to a different spot. He sees that it’s the body of the parachutist that became tangled in the tree and realizes that the dead body is what Ralph and Jack thought was the beast. He rushes back to the other boys to tell them that it’s harmless and that they’re mistaken.

Meanwhile, Ralph and Piggy have gone to find Jack and the others, seeing as how there are no boys left in Ralph’s tribe. They find them on the beach, painted with face paint and looking dirty and wild. And crazy. When it starts to rain, they form a circle and do their weird little hunting game, pretending that the boy Roger is a pig. Ralph and Piggy find themselves unable to resist the game and join in. The boys start chanting:

“Kill the beast! Cut his throat! Spill his blood!”

Simon bursts through the woods, shouting to them about the man in the trees, and the boys, in their bloodlust and mob mentality, mistake him for the beast. They form a new circle around “the beast.” Simon stumbles on the beach, and they attack and kill him with their bare hands and teeth. Then the mob breaks up and the boys all wander away, leaving Simon’s body bleeding and dead in the rain. As it rains, the tide rises and washes Simon’s body off the beach and into the ocean.

Ralph and Piggy, now that the spell of the mob has broken, are horrified that they took part in the murder of Simon. Jack, on the other hand, is not so upset. He and his tribe have taken solace in a place they call Castle Rock, where he is holding court like a dictator. Jack has decided that his tribe deserves a fire, so they are going to sneak to Ralph and Piggy’s camp and steal Piggy’s glasses. All that is left of Ralph’s tribe is Ralph, Piggy, and the twins Sam and Eric, so the security on the place is rather subpar. The boys pretend to be the beast and attack them, stealing the glasses in the chaos. Once the glasses are stolen, Ralph plans to steal them back.

Ralph, Piggy, Sam, and Eric go to Jack’s tribe and Ralph accuses Jack of being a thief. Apparently even on a deserted island this is a disrespect that will not be tolerated, as Jack calls for Sam and Eric to be tied up in order to show Ralph that he can basically do whatever he wants; his “painted savages” are completely loyal to him. One of the boys, Roger, was up on the rock and was dropping stones on them. Piggy, frustrated with all of this foolishness, grabs the conch and appeals to the boys:

“I got this to say. You’re acting like a crowd of kids.”

The booing rose and died again as Piggy lifted the white, magic shell.

“Which is better — to be a pack of painted Indians like you are, or to be sensible like Ralph is?”

A great clamor rose among the savages. Piggy shouted again.

“Which is better — to have rules and agree, or to hunt and kill?”

The boys decided that yeah, hunting is better than law, as they cornered Ralph and Piggy and readied themselves for an attack. Roger intensified his rock throwing and caused a boulder to fall down on top of them.

Ralph heard the great rock long before he saw it. He was aware of a jolt in the earth that came to him through the soles of his feet, and the breaking sound of stones at the top of the cliff. Then the monstrous red thing bounded across the neck and he flung himself flat while the tribe shrieked.

The rock struck Piggy a glancing blow from chin to knee; the conch exploded into a thousand white fragments and ceased to exist. Piggy, saying nothing, with no time for even a grunt, travelled through the air sideways from the rock, turning over as he went. The rock bounded twice and was lost in the forest. Piggy fell forty feet and landed on his back across that square, red rock in the sea. His head opened and stuff came out and turned red. Piggy’s arms and legs twitched a bit, like a pig’s after it has been killed. Then the sea breathed again in a long, slow sigh, the water boiled white and pink over the rock; and when it went, sucking back again, the body of Piggy was gone.

This time the silence was complete. Ralph’s lips formed a word but no sound came.

With the shattering of the conch and Piggy’s death comes the total loss of any shred of humanity that Jack and the boys might have still had. Ralph barely escapes as they hurl spears at him. The boys, namely Roger, torture Sam and Eric for not joining their tribe in the first place. Ralph hides all night and day while the boys hunt him like an animal. He runs into Sam and Eric on the beach, and they tell him that the boys forced them to join the tribe and for Ralph to get away while he can. Apparently Roger has sharpened a stick at both ends and it has Ralph’s name on it. Ralph hides in the forest and Jack decides to smoke him out; he has the boys set the trees on fire. Ralph is driven to the beach by screaming savages with spears. He falls to the sand and covers himself with his arms to try to protect himself.

When he gets to his feet, a British naval officer is standing on the beach, staring at Ralph with a “what the hell is going on here?” look. They saw the smoke from the burning forest and came to the island to investigate. A group of the tribe, “their bodies streaked with colored clay, sharp sticks in their hands,” emerged from the forest, and the officer asks if they’ve been having “fun and games.” When Ralph tells him that two of the boys have been killed, the officer replies that he would have thought better of a pack of British boys.

Ralph looked at him dumbly. For a moment he had a fleeting picture of the strange glamour that had once invested the beaches. But the island was scorched up like dead wood — Simon was dead — and Jack had…

The tears began to flow and sobs shook him. He gave himself up to them now for the first time on the island; great, shuddering spasms of grief that seemed to wrench his whole body. His voice rose under the black smoke before the burning wreckage of the island; and infected by that emotion, the other little boys began to shake and sob too. And in the middle of them, with filthy body, matted hair, and unwiped nose, Ralph wept for the end of innocence, the darkness of man’s heart, and the fall through the air of the true, wise friend called Piggy.

The officer, surrounded by these noises, was moved and a little embarrassed. He turned away to give them time to pull themselves together; and waited, allowing his eyes to rest on the trim cruiser in the distance.

This book is an interesting argument for society — how long does it take civilization to fall apart, what does power or the lack of power do to a person, how does mob mentality influence people to do horrible things, where does the line between emotional and rational responses break down.

Ralph has good intentions for the group and is described as having natural leadership, even if his ideas aren’t always implemented well. He is nonviolent in contrast to Jack’s violence. He takes the leadership role very seriously and tries to set rules and procedures in order; the use of the conch shell during their assemblies, for example.

Piggy is the scientific mind of the group, very logical and rational. He is also the most set on having a civilization; he takes the conch shell with them on the raid of Jack’s tribe and insists on using it to speak to the savage boys. He acts as Ralph’s adviser, as he is the one with the ideas but no sense of leadership and none of the boys take him seriously. He demands order and has an adult sense of reason; he finds it hard to believe that the savage boys of Jack’s tribe would rather hunt and kill rather than be rescued and have order. His death signifies the final spiral into chaos.

Jack is the epitome of human nature when exposed to anarchy and chaos. Though he rather begrudgingly agrees to Ralph as the leader, he slowly takes over more and more power as the leader of the hunting choir boys. He also primal and masculine qualities that aren’t apparent in the other boys, which might be due to his being one of the older boys — when he is unable to kill the first pig they find, due to the potential trauma of ending a life, he feels shame and compensates by vowing to hunt until he kills something, even going so far as to abandoning the fire in order to hunt. His blood lust gets more intense and irrational. He and the hunters begin to paint themselves with body paint, shedding their humanity as they shed their clothes. As more of the boys give over to their primal natures, they leave Ralph’s tribe and join Jack.

Simon represents peace and humanity (see: Jesus figure). Simon takes care and calms the younger children when they’re having their nightmares and he keeps the older kids from teasing them. He is in tune with nature and the ocean, and that is why he has such an adverse reaction to seeing the pig’s head and hallucinates the Lord of the Flies (which happens to be the English translation of “Beelzebub,” a demon synonymous with Satan). His hallucination reveals the truth of the beast to him, and when he tries to explain it to the others, he’s savagely murdered, bringing about the loss of the truth and the boys’ innocence.

The arrival of the naval officer represents the adult authoritative influence on children: what was once a savage hunt and murder is reduced to “fun and games.” As the boys are crying, the officer looks away from the boys and towards his own battleship, juxtaposing the brutality of the children’s experiences on the island with the brutality of the adults’ experiences in war.

Whenever people talk about possibly lowering the drinking age or giving kids more responsibility, Lord of the Flies is immediately what I think of. Kids are not to be trusted with anything other than stuffed animals and need to have good solid role models that will teach them to not to try to kill each other with sharp sticks. I’m looking at you, Kid Nation.

All in all, this book is a study in why I will never have children. The possibility of the kids mutinying and chasing after me with sticks and face paint? No thank you.

4 comments » | modern

4. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

January 31st, 2011 — 12:31am

Lolita by Vladmir Nabokov was published in New York in 1958. It has been controversial and debated ever since.

The book is about a man, Humbert Humbert (a pseudonym he has chosen for himself), who is obsessed with nymphets, or sexually precocious girls. He blames this obsession on the death of his childhood sweetheart, Annabel Leigh. Because he was in love with her and she died at a young age, he subconciously searches for her to love again, and instead finds young girls who remind him of her. Humbert rents a house from Charlotte Haze, who just happens to have a 12 year old daughter named Dolores. Humbert immediately becomes infatuated with Dolores (who is also called also known as Dolly, Lolita, Lola, Lo, and L throughout the novel, try to keep up), and remains in the house to be near her.

Meanwhile, Charlotte, Lolita’s mother, begins to fall in love with Humbert. While Lolita is away at summer camp, she tells him that he has to either marry her or move out of the house. He agrees to marry Charlotte, even though he does not care for her and actually sort of pities her, so that he can remain close to Lolita. Charlotte remains unaware of Humbert’s creeper tendencies until she discovers his diary, in which he waxes poetic about his feelings for Lolita. Needless to say, she is horrified and makes plans to get her and her daughter as far away from Humbert as possible. Unfortunately, before she can do that or tell anyone what she’s discovered about Humbert, she’s hit by a car and killed.

Humbert picks up Lolita at camp; he tells the counselors that Charlotte is ill and is in the hospital. Once he has Lolita, he takes her to a hotel and attempts to give her sleeping pills in order to molest her more easily. The pills fail to work on her, but it’s okay! Because Lolita actually initiates sex with Humbert. It turns out that Lolita is already sexually active, as she had sex with a boy at her summer camp. And she’s still 12, by the way. Just saying.

Ignore the sunglasses and the lollipop. She is still 12.

Humbert finally tells Lolita that her mother is dead, and she realizes that there’s not really much else to do other than to accept her new life with her “stepfather” (EW). While at the hotel, they meet a strange man who seems to know them. Humbert is nervous about this, and decides that they need to take their show on the road.

Humbert and Lolita create a new life as nomads; they travel around from motel to motel with Humbert keeping Lolita disciplined by equally threatening to send her away to reform school and bribing her with sexual favors, even though he knows that she doesn’t love him like she does. Gee, I wonder why. They finally settle down in New England and Lolita is enrolled in school with Humbert assuming the role of the overbearing strict parent; Lolita is not allowed to participate in extracurriculars at school or associate with boys. The neighbors see his rules as the sign of a strict and loving parent. If only they knew how loving.

Lolita convinces Humbert to allow her to be in a school play by granting him more sexual favors. The play is by a man named Clare Quilty, who says that he saw Lolita’s acting and was inspired to write the play. However, on opening night, Humbert and Lolita have a fight and Lolita says that she wants to leave town again. When they leave, Humbert feels like someone is following them; he’s suspicious that Lolita is conspiring against him to leave him. She claims that she’s ill and is taken to a hospital while Humbert stays in a nearby hotel. When he goes to visit her, the hospital staff tells him that Lolita’s uncle has checked her out.

Uh oh.

Years pass, and one day Humbert receives a letter from the now 17 year old Lolita. She writes that she’s married, pregnant, and in desperate need of money. He meets with her, and she tells him that Clare Quilty was an acquaintance of Charlotte’s, and he checked her out of the hospital and attempted to make her star in one of his pornographic films; when she refused, he threw her out. She worked odd jobs before meeting and marrying her husband. She claims that her new husband knows nothing about her past and she intends to keep it that way.

Humbert, always the lecher, asks Lolita to leave her husband and return to him. He promises that it’ll be different this time! We’ll have a good life together! She refuses, because she has at least half a brain. Humbert leaves Lolita and finds and kills Quilty at his mansion. He then is arrested for driving on the wrong side of the road and swerving.

The narrative closes with Humbert’s final words to Lolita in which he wishes her well, and reveals the novel has been the memoirs of his life, only to be published after he and Lolita have both died.

Lolita gets a bad rap. If you can look past the pedophilia (which most people can’t), it is a very good book, at least in a literary sense. Nabokov was fond of wordplay and intricate details, and he uses many double entendres, puns, anagrams, and invents words throughout this book (nymphet is one example). He uses allusions to other authors, specifically Edgar Allan Poe (the name of Humbert’s childhood love, the use of doppleganger that occurs with Humbert and Clare Quilty). Many literary critics and scholars have found deeper meanings in the work, including interpretations that the book represents totalitarianism from Nabokov’s native Russia or the idea that the novel is about discovering your own identity when it has been taken over by someone else.

Nabokov was also a synesthete. That has nothing to do with the book, but it’s interesting anyway.

Comment » | modern

76. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

January 6th, 2011 — 3:04pm

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark was first published in The New Yorker magazine before being published as a novel in 1961. It takes place at a school in 1930s Scotland and is told through the eyes of the female students under the tutelage of Miss Jean Brodie.

The novel takes place at the Marcia Blaine School and focuses on a group of six girls who are assigned to Miss Brodie’s class. The “prime” of the title refers to Miss Brodie declaring that she is in the “prime of her life.” The narration switches between the chronological story of their schoolhood and a series of flashforwards. The girls are influenced by Miss Brodie, who believes that she is obligated to teach them more than the curriculum. Lessons range anywhere from history to politics (specifically the goings-on of Europe and Spain) to her love life. The flashforwards reveal that one of the girls betrayed Miss Brodie and was a catalyst to the termination of her job, but she never finds out which of the girls it was.

The girls are Sandy Stranger, who is famous for her vowel sounds and “insight but no instinct”, Rose Stanley, who is famous for sex (and in contrast to Sandy is told that she has “instinct but no insight”), Monica Douglas, who is famous for mathematics and her anger, Jenny Gray, who is famous for her beauty, Eunice Gardiner, who is famous for her gymnastics and glorious swimming, and Mary MacGregor, who acts as Miss Brodie’s scapegoat and meekly accepts the blame for whatever is going on.

Throughout the novel, Miss Brodie carries on affairs with two of the male teachers at the school, the singing teacher, Mr. Lowther, and the art master, the handsome, one armed war veteran Mr. Lloyd. Mr. Lloyd is a married Roman Catholic man with six children. Oops. Both of the men profess that they love Miss Brodie, while she reveals that she only loves Mr Lloyd. Miss Brodie never acts on her love for Mr. Lloyd except once to exchange a kiss with him, which is witnessed by Monica, one of the students. She decides that a bachelor makes a more suitable mate, as a wife and six kids tends to get in the way, so she carries on a sexual relationship with Mr. Lowther. Sandy, one of the main points of view in the story, begins to become disillusioned with Miss Brodie.

The girls move on to the Senior school, though they still stick together and identify themselves as “the Brodie set.” Miss Brodie keeps in touch with them after school hours by inviting them over as she used to do when they were her pupils. Meanwhile, the headmistress, Miss Mackay, tries to break them up and compile information gleaned from them into sufficient cause to fire Miss Brodie. Miss Mackay had more than once suggested to Miss Brodie that the latter seek employment at a “progressive” school; Miss Brodie declined to move.

Before the Brodie set turns sixteen, Miss Brodie tests her girls to discover which of them she can really trust, ultimately settling upon Sandy as her confidante. Miss Brodie, obsessed with the notion that Rose should have an affair with Mr. Lloyd in her place, begins to neglect Mr. Lowther, who ends up marrying Miss Lockhart, the science teacher. Mr. Lloyd has taken to inviting the Brodie girls to sit for him to paint their portraits, but each of their faces looks like Miss Brodie. I don’t think there’s a single teacher in this book who maintains a proper student/teacher relationship. Urging your student to have an affair with a man that you love is just creepy.

Another student, Joyce Emily, tries to join the Brodie set but the girls aren’t really having it. Miss Brodie takes Joyce Emily under her wing separately, however, encouraging her to run away to fight in the Spanish Civil War on the Nationalist (pro-Franco) side. She does, only to be killed in an accident when the train she is traveling in is attacked.

The Brodie set, now seventeen and in their final year of school, go their separate ways. Mary and Jenny quit school before graduating, Mary became a typist and Jenny pursued a career in acting. Eunice became a nurse and Monica a scientist. Rose lands a handsome husband. Sandy has an affair with Mr. Lloyd the summer after she graduates, while his wife and children are away on vacation.

After the summer, Sandy ends the affair with Mr. Lloyd, but she adopts his Roman Catholic religion and becomes a nun. Before she becomes a nun, she meets with Miss Mackay and blatantly confesses to wanting to put an end to Miss Brodie. She suggests Miss Mackay try accusing Miss Brodie of fascism based ont he conversations she had with the girls, and this tactic succeeds. Not until her dying moment will Miss Brodie be able to imagine that it was her confidante, Sandy, who betrayed her.

Sandy, who is now known as Sister Helena of the Transfiguration and the author of “The Transfiguration of the Commonplace”, maintains that “it’s only possible to betray where loyalty is due.” One day when an enquiring young man visits Sandy at the convent because of her strange book on psychology to ask what were the main influences of her school years, “Were they literary or political or personal? Was it Calvinism?”

Miss Jean Brodie (Maggie Smith) in the 1967 movie

Sandy said: “There was a Miss Jean Brodie in her prime.”

The way the narration is set up is rather unique — you know from the beginning of the story that Miss Brodie is betrayed, even though sequentially it happens at the end of the girls’ school years. The novel also doesn’t attempt to hide the flaws of any of the characters, making them appear more human. There isn’t a definite hero to the book.

The affect that teachers have on students is at the centerpoint of the novel. Miss Brodie claims that she is a teacher who states that if she is given a girl at an “impressionable age then she is mine for life.” In fact, she does go on to influence the girls beyond the realm of the classroom, both when they are in school and when they are living their lives. Sandy particularly feels the reach of Miss Brodie beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. She becomes a nun and shuts herself down to anything Brodie-esque, which shows that she is still affected by Miss Brodie. Miss Brodie draws the girls close to herself as Calvinists believe God elects few to salvation, as Sandy observes. This leads Sandy to publicly reject Calvinism in place of Catholicism. A few of the girls die as a casual result of Miss Brodie’s influence on their lives.

I can’t think of any teachers who have had that sort of an effect on me, and I certainly can’t think of any students whom I’ve affected. Influence is a funny thing. Things that you wouldn’t assume to be influential can sometimes emerge later as a large reason as to a significant life choice. However, the major moral of the story : if a teacher tells you to have an affair with someone, just say no. And ew.

Comment » | modern

55. On the Road by Jack Kerouac

August 19th, 2010 — 10:04pm

This is my first week back to work after my two and a half month long summer vacation. I spent a majority of those months in the car, visiting friends and having local adventures, which is probably why I gravitated to this book for my next voyage into the book list.

On the Road is a pivotal book from the Beat Generation. There is an apocryphal story of Jack Kerouac’s coffee-and-amphetamine fueled conception of the book, in which he taped together several typewriter scrolls in order to write without the pesky interruption of having to stop to reload. The original scroll manuscript has gone on a tour of college libraries throughout the United States and Europe and was published as On the Road: The Original Scroll in 2007. The stream of consciousness style as employed by Kerouac was used to showcase his semi-autobiographical novel about the adventures that he and his friend, Neal Cassady, had on the road from 1947-1950.

The names of Kerouac’s characters have been analyzed by literary scholars since the book’s publication in 1957. Kerouac based the novel on actual events and subsequently had to change the names of his friends who appeared as characters.

Neal Cassady (left) and Jack Kerouac (right).

The novel begins with Sal Paradise (Kerouac) introducing the concept of Dean Moriarty (Cassady). Sal was obsessed with the idea of the human condition, which included his friends, the jazz scene, the United States outside of New York, and most importantly, women.

They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Dean arrives in New York and changes everything for Sal. When Dean first arrived, he met Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg), and they bond together and feed Sal’s fascination with eclectic and unique personalities.

In July of 1947, Sal decides that it is time for him to venture to the West Coast, and he hits the road with fifty dollars in his pocket. He travels to Chicago, San Fransisco, and Los Angeles, meeting women and different eccentric personalities along the way. Dean spends some time in prison for stealing cars, which cements his transition into an epic hero in Sal’s eyes.

“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”

As their sojourn around the country continues, Sal becomes more and more disillusioned with what he finds on the road. The people that he encounters are from the more poverty-stricken end of the spectrum, including elderly African-American men and Mexican prostitutes. The sense of Sal and Dean’s heroism begins to falter as their lives and experiences turns into a series of failures.

Sal’s final attempt at finding a solution from the road leads him to Mexico City with Dean; they embark on a marijuana-fueled adventure through bordellos with mambo music and prostitutes. But while in Mexico, Sal develops dysentery and becomes feverish and hallucinates. Dean leaves Sal while he’s ill, which gives Sal the realization that Dean is more pathetic than he let on, and that the attributes that Sal originally admired in him were actually symptoms of his insecurity and existential crises:

When I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes.

Sal returns home and ends the novel sitting on a pier facing west, reflecting on his friendship and adventures.

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

I love this book. I first read it when I was fresh out of high school and had a lot of grand notions of what my life was going to be and I was convinced that my best friend and I would be Kerouac and Cassady but with less drugs. The stream-of-consciousness style helps to convey the frenetic energy and the passion with which the characters, both fictional and their live counterparts, lived their lives. Reading On the Road or poetry from Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti makes me feel cooler than I actually am, which is what the Beat Generation authors were all about — experiencing their lives through means that allows them to become more than they are. The movement got its name from the religious theory of beatification as well as the slang term of being beaten down. The Beat Generation was beaten down, but they were looking up.

Comment » | modern

Back to top