Sunday, October 10, 2010

Same Kind of Different as Me

It would be inaccurate to deny that this book pulled at my heart. I firmly believe there are perfect times in life when a certain book will have more of an impact on you than other times. The place and season of your life will affect your reading. When you read a book, you become part of the story. As you read, you begin to know the characters. As you progress through the book, the story becomes part of you (at least for the duration of the book). No matter whether it takes you a day, week or may be a couple months, each time you pick it up time has elapsed in your own life and molded your attitude and feelings. But the great part is, the story is still there. The characters are alive just the way you left them. You can jump back into the story without altering it by your own life. But there are times in our own lives when a song, dance, performance or story draws out a deeper experience in us. The expressions in art are meant to captivate, inspire, convict and move us beyond what simple speech cannot complete. I have a great respect for art and it's ability to bring us outside our own world. This book brought me to that place.

Honestly, I was not expecting this from this book. I've wanted to read it for over a year, and I've had multiple people recommend it. It is a story of "a modern-day slave, an international art dealer and the unlikely woman who bound them together". I have picked it up several times in bookstores and seen the pictures of the authors, Ron Hall and Denver Moore. They are two men who had nothing in common: an art dealer from Fort Worth and a homeless man who migrated from Louisiana. I grew up around Dallas and lived in Texas for 21 years. I've lived in Colorado for only a couple months, but reading this book took me back to the DFW metroplex. Reading about the landmarks of the area that I was so familiar with gave me an extremely personal connection from the beginning. I know the land of Texas and I know Texans. First, this book caused me deeply to miss home. It examines the two types of relationships I find most powerful: friendships and marriage. While I have no experience in the second field, the first is extremely vital to me. The importance of relationship in this book is evident on every page. Denver describes it this way, "I heard that when white folks go fishin they do somethin called 'catch and release....I just can't figure it out. 'Cause when colored folks go fishin, we really proud of what we catch, and we take it and show it off to everybody that'll look. Then we eat what we other words, we use it to sustain us. So it really bothers me that white folks would go to all that trouble to catch a fish, then when they done caught it, just throw it back in the water... So, Mr. Ron, it occurred to me: If you is fishin for a friend you just gon' catch and release, then I ain't go no desire to be your friend."

This is a powerful memoir of three people who meet unexpectedly and change the lives of people beyond their own circles of friends. It is a story of a marriage and a family rocked by the worst of life. It is a story of the power of kindness and compassion in one community. It is a story about a legacy that motivated and transformed a mission to help feed the homeless. But ultimately, it is a story of God's grace and love.

It is a books that made me stop and wipe tears from my eyes because I could not see the words on the page. I highly recommend this book and pray that this story may reach your heart as it did mine.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Now we know. Too much?

Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire. It was not what I expected. I picked up the book because I was in the mood to read something completely opposite of my favorite genres. Fantasy and science fiction are never my first choice, but after a wonderful course in college in the these genres, I really began to appreciate it and the authors in a whole new light. In that course, we studied JR Tolkien, CS Lewis, George MacDonald and a few other pioneers in the field. I enjoyed most of the books and excerpts that we read, but I benefited most when we discussed it in class and I was able to grasp exactly what the writers were writing about. Believe it or not, they usually create other worlds and lands and languages for a reason other than entertainment. That being said, I quickly realized how politically charged the novel Wicked is as I found myself deeper into the book.

The premise of the book was actually the first thing to attract me to it. Like most other people growing up, I have seen The Wizard of Oz multiple times and am familiar with the story. Unlike most people I know, I have not seen the Broadway show of Wicked. You could say that my approach to the novel was unbiased in the sense that my only preview of it came from the back cover and rave reviews about the musical. Novels dive into the gritty parts of stories that are not always portrayed on stage or film. You will read every word in a book and let it sketch the story for you rather than the music and costumes and expressions that weave an impressionistic painting of the story. I will not argue whether one is better than the other, as I can definitely defend both and all art forms (as it relates to literature). In this instance though, I feel as if the musical would have won my vote though I still yet to see it.

Gregory Maguire is wonderful writer, and his ability to develop a rich story is evident in Wicked. To be honest I am hesitant to pick up another one of his books though. Perhaps it's not my style. I am glad I read it because I believe that it expands my knowledge of literature and writing and I hope some day to draw from his techniques, but I would not place it on my "favorites" shelf.

If you enjoy imagination and fantasy fiction, I would recommend you read Wicked. Please be aware that although green women, princes with blue skin, and talking Animals do not exist in our world, they most definitely exist in Oz and human nature exists as well: murder, hate, sex, scandal, and love. This is not a child's story, and Maguire's themes are adult, political and relevant. And because of this I am not surprised that his novel has been transformed into a musical. He is a powerful writer and very deserving of recognition as a novelist.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Against Medical Advice

"As the agitation gets worse, I plead with my mother to make it go away. She tells me to try to wait it out, and I curse at her because she won't help me. I curse at my mother? There's another person inside of me, taking over."

Against Medical Advice is written by James Patterson and Hal Friedman. Hal's son, Cory was diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome at age 5. For that point, life drastically changed for the entire Friedman family. I have never know anyone with Tourette's, and I've actually only seen it portrayed on TV. This book reveals the depth of pain and frustration of this disorder from a first hand account. It the diary of a mind that cannot control the body. It is a fight for Cory. It is a fight for his family. Between doctor's visits, numerous prescriptions, psychiatrist's visits, school meetings and advice, the family's fight to overcome the disease is a battle that forges through Cory's high school graduation.

I believe in the importance of reading non-fiction for many reasons. It challenges me to learn about something I do not know much about. Usually, I choose to read nonfiction memoirs or biographies because I find firsthand accounts more engaging and personal. To know someone's story is to learn about humanity in a new light- the pain, the love, the struggle that we all go through.

I highly recommend Against Medical Advice for any reader. I cannot fathom a mother's role in her child's struggle with Tourette's. I respect any mother, father, sister or brother who live with their family through the terrors described in this book. More than anything else, this book is hope.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Help

Voices. This entire book is about perspectives and the voices of the characters. Each section contains a couple chapters from the view of each of the three women. For a writer, this has it be difficult. Each section must have it's own dialect and sound. Each character has different language and speech. For the reader this mechanism is highly effective in portraying contrasting perspectives.

The Help by Kathryn Stockett could be compared to another southern writer, William Faulkner, and his novel The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner also divides his novel into sections depending on the storyteller. While Stockett's novel moves chronologically, Faulkner's novel does not, as it instead pieces together the story by recounting the character's memories. They both employed first person point of views for each of their characters because the issue of voice was directly related to the story's theme. While I enjoyed Faulkner's ability to create his characters, I struggled to organize the story itself. Thankfully I studied his story in a classroom and was able to appreciate his writing through discussion and my professor's notes.

In The Help, the perspectives of each of the characters is part of the Stockett's theme. At the end of the book, she gives a little background to her story of growing up in Mississippi. She writes that her favorite line in the book is when Skeeter comes to realize what writing the book with these women was really like, "Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize, we are just two people. Not that much separates us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought."

The strength of these women is incredible. I cannot put myself in their shoes because the time and place that I live in is drastically different from Jackson, Mississippi in 1962. Not only that, but much has progressed since then. Today people do discriminate. People today judge unfairly and criticize each other. People today are stubborn and prideful. But the problems of today cannot be equalized with the issues in society in the South in the 60s. It was a part of the southern culture that should not be overlooked.

Beyond that, what I love most about this book is how real each of these women is. One is a daughter, another a mother, and the third is a mother and matron of her community. They each hold a different role among their peers. Each takes a big risk in agreeing to work on the project of telling their stories with a white woman. They are honest and it becames an inspiration among each other as well as the other readers in their own church.

This book is inspiring. It shows a woman who chooses to pursue what she wants and knows she can do. She may be discouraged and frustrated when she loses friends and approval, but nevertheless she values her purpose and the project more. She is not afraid to ask questions about why things are the way they are even though they had been that way for so long. She knows she will feel rejection. She knows that she may stumble and fail. She realizes that nothing is guaranteed to her and which could mean that all her time and effort is for also for nothing.

I find the character of Miss Skeeter inspiring. It is not that I want to be exactly like her, but rather that I could have the courage that she had to ask for the stories. This may mean failure, and Miss Skeeter realizes that but keeps going. At times she second guessed her choices, but in the end she always knew what she had to do.

I highly recommend this book. If you did not grow up in the South and have not studied Southern Lit, this is a good read because it portrays the culture quite vividly through the lives of these women and their families. I appreciate the author's work and her realization in the (attempted) understanding of this subject. It is an engrossing read packed full of descriptions and intriguing characters. Enjoy!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Vintage Crime (Random House)

Originally written in Swedish by author Stieg Larsson, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a gripping novel of mystery, tragedy, politics, journalism, family matters, and of course, love. This book first caught my attention when I was working at Barnes and Noble over a year ago. I'll admit that it was the neon yellow green cover that caught my eye (the other cover not pictured here). Along with the title and the author's name sprawled across, the book looked quite foreign- which made me even more interested. (I believe mystery and suspense is the most fun genre to read.) Regardless of the cover, it was deemed a "wildly suspenseful....utterly engrossing thriller" and other reviews from my fellow readers had relayed it as a good read.

What I was most excited about was the fact that it was authored by a non-English speaker and it's setting was in Sweden. I love how this novel spans time and place. And if I can't travel, I will at least read about other places. The names are different, the landscapes and weather create a unique setting, and the speech is native to the land, not just English.

Larsson is a terrific writer. I applaud his ability to pace the story while writing at a vivid yet coherent level. His descriptions are clear but not overly drawn. The reader can picture the characters not only as he decribes them but also through their words and reactions. I felt like I could pick out any of his characters on the street if I just overheard their conversation.

As far as content goes (no way I'm going to ruin this for you), I was impressed at the stories he wove into the novel. He kept his main characters central to the story, but he did not leave any side story untouched. It is a quick-paced mystery with many names and places. The reader must pay attention in order to follow the protagnist, Mikal Blomkvist, as he searches for the truth behind the Vanger family. Other than the overly graphic descriptions in a few places, the novel was very exciting and well crafted. Larsson has produced a rich and suspenseful tale, and I cannot wait to read his next one, The Girl Who Played With Fire.

(It's a great, curl-up-on-the-couch, cold-weather read! Enjoy!)

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Never shall I forget that night.

The story in Night is narrated by a young boy named Eliezer who tells his difficult journey from his home in Hungary to Auschwitz. It is not a memoir, though it is told from the author's own experience; it represents the lives of Jewish families who were forced from their homes into Nazi concentration camps. From the beginning it is not expected to have a happy conclusion, but the book reveals a close look into the lives of the Jewish prisoners during the war.

Elie Wiesel, the author of Night, was a Hungarian Jew in 1944 when Germany invaded, and the Jewish community of Hungary was deported and dispersed. Wiesel's father, mother and younger sister all died in the Holocaust. Wiesel vowed silence for 10 years after the Holocaust, but he eventually wrote the first manuscript for Night. He wrote it in Yiddish and later condensed and translated it into French. Further translation into English produced the work published today as Night.

Wiesel's story is brief, but he distinctly describes his surroundings for the reader. Although it is not a factual account of Wiesel's own experience, his story is personal. Reading the book felt like I had stumbled on a man's diary of the event. One memory that the narrator recounts are the words other people said and his own reaction to it,
“Where is God? Where is He?” someone behind me asked. ..
For more than half an hour [the child in the noose] stayed there, struggling between life and death, dying in slow agony under our eyes. And we had to look him full in the face. He was still alive when I passed in front of him. His tongue was still red, his eyes were not yet glazed.
Behind me, I heard the same man asking:

“Where is God now?”
And I heard a voice within me answer him:
“Where is He? Here He is—He is hanging here on this gallows. . . .”
The narrator is a young boy watching senseless death around him. Before the invasion of Hungary, Eliezer was a diligent student. He is searching for answers and explanations. He is learning about humanity and life from the things around him. The author did not have a childhood that was innocent of death and hatred. He did not have a chance to see God without the death around him. The boy in his story is forced to survive in this place and make sense of the things he learned about God while surrounded by the terror of the concentration camp.

Although this book was short, it was not an easy read. It was painful to read the descriptions of the people in the camps that Eliezer confronted. It was difficult to grasp that this actually happened. I wanted to convince myself that humanity is not capable of such a thing. But, this is why I read. This book was able to take me out of my comfortable home and away from my easy life. It abruptly reminded me that history happened and lives were destroyed. Wiesel's first transcript was apparently more angry and vengeful toward the Nazis. How could it not be? How could bitterness and hatred not be an outcome of such an event? It would only make sense that a survivor would question their faith in God. Personally I do not have the ability to relate to this because I have not experienced an event so severe and painful as the Holocaust.
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed. Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky.
Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever.
Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.
The tone in this passage bitter. He denounces God ("murdered my God"), but then compares his memory lasting as long as God, thus acknowledging the presence of God. It is a vivid, harsh description that tells how the Holocaust left a deep imprint on his heart. Today, I wonder how Elie Wiesel perceives the events of the Holocaust and how he believes in God. His book is a treasure that gives a valuable and personal look into the gruesome reality of the the Holocaust. It is something that should never be forgotten.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Please, always and forever... Handle With Care

You cannot read a book by Jodi Picoult without feeling your heart ache. Although this is only the second of hers that I have read, she has a reputation of tackling controversial and emotional family issues. I could spend this blog diving into the moral and ethical issues that arise in Handle With Care, but instead I intend to tell you how this book affected my view of life.

First of all, Picoult handles all her characters with care. Her characters are round and developed. They must be full since they are closely related to each other. Family members see each other in a light different from any other relationship. This becomes immediately clear in her books. Constantly she stretches, challenges, and even breaks the bonds of the family. The relationships of father to daughter, mother to son, sister to sister, and husband to wife are stirred and ultimately rocked by the circumstances within the family. Events outside their control come into play, but often they are confronted and challenged by their own choices. Reading this book, I found myself angry with certain characters, hurt by their actions, and distraught by their reasoning. I also sympathized with certain characters. I could have cried for some of them. I want to scream and help some of them. Picoult vividly writes a story that puts you, the reader, right in the middle of it. Each of her chapters is written from the point of view of one of the characters. (This cannot be easy, switching tones and moods so often, but she executes well). In each of the chapters, you can hear the narrator's feelings in their voice.

The way that she writes each chapter from the perspective of each character is what draws the reader into the story instead of leaving them as an outside observer. She leaves out the main character, Willow, and each chapter is written as an explanation to the things that happened in her life. It's a mother explaining her love through her controversial actions. It's a father loving his daughter, and family, in the simplest way he knows how. It's a struggling sister trying to be noticed and loved in a family that has been torn apart by each other. It's a close friend trying to make sense and cope with a distroyed friendship.

Picoult doesn't downplay even the smallest emotions. She lets every small thought and action surface. She draws you into the family. I began to feel responsible for the actions of the characters. Imperfections were exposed, and by the middle of the book, I felt I could predict the actions and words of certain characters just by knowing them from the beginning of the book. I spent a lot of the book hoping that the better side of each character would step up and redeem the broken relationships. That didn't happen. Just as life doesn't always allow full resolution.

It was a heartwrenching read. This book deals with people and relationships. It's about life, and what drives humans to love. It's not all black-and-white. I appreciate how Picoult approaches the dynamics of a family. Personally, I appreciate how it depicted each character's convictions toward love in a family.

[Read the book. I did not want to give away the events of the story, and most of the story is in the characters anyway.]