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.]

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Are you a logophile?

As a writer, broadcaster, radio commentator and editor of more than 20 years, Charles Harrington Elster has made his profession out of mastering the essence of communication- words. Perhaps a writer of reference books may not immediately attract your attention, but in a thoroughly amusing manner, Elster creates a catalog of people’s most bizarre questions about words.
In his most recent book, “What in the Word? Wordplay, Word Lore, and Answers to Your Peskiest Questions About Language,” Elster explores his love of language through chapters about the history, myths, pronunciation and usage behind the words of the English language.
His knowledge of words is outstanding, and in his 286 page book, Elster fills every page with answers to questions that have commonly plagued readers and writers of every profession. For instance, did you know that there is a word for the vertical groove that runs from the nose to the upper lip? It’s called a philtrum. Other entries include the real story behind the phrase “peeping Tom,” the word for a person who loves to read in bed, why we call the bathroom a john and the origin of the commonly used word okay.
The chapters are also filled with word games, curious brainteasers, fascinating quotes, interesting facts and expressions all related to words. Even if you do not normally use a dictionary or thesaurus, this book has been tediously written and complied to interest and entertain any reader.
His thoroughly impressive vocabulary and knowledge along with his ability to write comically yet concisely will never cease to attract readers. You may not be a logophile- a lover of words- or even a lexicomane- a lover of dictionaries- as Elster is, but nevertheless this enjoyable read truly reveals the art of language.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

"The story with animals is the better story"

Last Friday, I finished Life of Pi by Yann Martel. I had been reading this novel for a couple weeks, but it was not one of those books that I could spend a whole hour reading. The longest period that I read was probably 30 minutes. Nevertheless, I enjoyed it and as it progressed, I became more curious about the conclusion of such an outrageous story. It is a tale of a young Indian boy who finds himself alone on a lifeboat with several zoo animals that survived a shipwreck. His family was moving their zoo from India to Canada when the boat capsized. The premise of the book appears absurd and unrealistic, yet it enhances one's imagination and stretches boundaries. Pi, the narrator and protagonist, provides the reader with his background in the first half of the book. This prefaces his later discussions of morals, beliefs, and of course, God. The book does not draw conclusions for the reader, but it presents opportunities and situations to challenge the reader to take more from the tale than the simple enjoyment of Pi's adventure.

The story of Pi contains stories within the stories. It is tale that encourages belief. It is a tale that provokes optimism. Despite the raw and realistic descriptions of Pi's desperate survival, the story begs for the reader to hope and believe. But, it is more than the belief in good and survival. I wanted to believe in Pi. By the end of the book, I wished I could hear his story firsthand as he fought to survive and how he found strength and comedy (despite some of the absurdity) among his experiences on the small boat with a Bengal tiger.

My favorite thing about the novel is that it is written in first person. I love that Pi is the narrator of his own story. I do not think that the story would have the same impact or poignancy if it had been told in third person. Pi's methodical mind is important to his survival. His choice to use his mind over strength is an important factor. He knows immediately that he is in charge of his own survival. His family and every creature on the boat have disappeared. Pi is alone at sea and left at the mercy of the sea, whatever it may bring. To add a twist to the story, he is trapped on the boat with an orangutan, a hyena, a zebra, and a tiger. It is an unlikely and anxious crew. When Pi and Richard Parker (the tiger) are the only two that remain on the boat, Pi worries about how he will survive on the boat with the 450 lb carnivore. He considers many plans about how to rid the lifeboat of Richard Parker (ways to kill him), and when none seem probable, he chooses his final plan (Plan Number Six: Wage a War of Attrition). He will survive with Richard Parker by letting nature run it's course. All Pi has to do is survive longer than the tiger. But, as the story unfolds Pi's survival and morale depend on his relationship with Richard Parker.

Another obvious aspect of the story is the notion of time. It is an obsession of humanity that is valued, scrutinized, saved, lost, regretted, and some times disregarded. As Pi is telling his story, he recognizes that time has no meaning on the boat.
He says, "Time is an illusion that only makes us pant. I survived because I forgot even the very notion of time. What I remember are events and encounters and routines, markers that emerged here and there from the ocean of time and imprinted themselves on my memory. The smell of spent hand-flare shells, and prayers at dawn, and the killing of turtles, and the biology of algae, for example. And many more. But I don't know if I can put them in order for you. My memories come in a jumble."

All in all, I enjoyed Pi's tale. Martel created a strong and fully developed character in Pi. When Pi is on the boat in the Pacific, the colors and smells and tastes bring the reader to ocean. Martel's story is deeper than a boy's comical account of a lifeboat survival. It is a piece of fiction that stretches the imagination while confronting one's ability to believe in God.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

A chronicle of my readings

As a child, my sister and I would each get to pick a book to read before taking our afternoon naps with my mother. We would climb up in her bed and hide under the covers with our books. I would try to lay so flat and quiet that she couldn't hear me under the covers. Of course, my mother always knew we were hiding under there, but she would calmly pretend we were not there yet. She would call for us down the hall to hurry with our books, and we would happily pop up from under the covers and "surprise" her. Then, she would read our books. Sometimes she would read both of them, sometimes we had to pick one. We had Berenstain Bears, Amelia Bedelia, Curious George, Where's Waldo?, Blueberries for Sal, Corduroy, and more. My mother loved the illustrations in children's books, and our library was often full of books by author/ illustrators. The drawings and stories of Eric Carle, Leo Lionni and Jan Brett instantly take me back to my childhood. My favorites were the adventure stories like Harold and the Purple Crayon, The Big Hungry Bear, or If You Give A Mouse A Cookie. The pictures were big and the colors were bright. I remember wishing my world could be like the worlds that these characters lived in. I wanted to have the purple crayon like Harold and draw my own adventure. I do not have any memory of learning how to read, but I do know that once I did, I found the library so much more exciting. I could imagine and explore the places these books talked about instead of just flipping through the pictures. The stories were more in- depth and detailed.

But, before we could read, it was the pictures that made the stories come alive. My sister and I would curl up on either side of the mother closely listening and following along as she turned the pages. We had to keep an eye on her because she would drift off sometimes, and her words would slur or turn into a mumble. The hardest book for her to read was the Book of Virtues, though not for it's content or length, but for it's weight. As a child I never realized that the naps we took were actually for the purpose of my mother's rest, and when we chose the big Book of Virtues, my poor, tired mother had to hold that heavy book and read the stories until we (or really, she) feel asleep.

Shel Silverstein’s Where the Sidewalk Ends is a memorable book to me. I remember picking it up time and time again just hoping to find some poem I had missed. And I’ll never forget the title, so creative and visual. Silverstein writes with an energy that is sincere and completely childish in a most desirable way.

Where the Sidewalk Ends
There is a place where the sidewalk ends
And before the street begins,
And there the grass grows soft and white,
And there the sun burns crimson bright,
And there the moon-bird rests from his flight
To the cool peppermint wind.

Let us leave this place where the smoke blows black
And the dark street winds and bends.
Past the pits where the asphalt flowers grow
We shall walk with a walk that is measured and slow,
And watch where the chalk-white arrows go
To the place where the sidewalk ends.

Yes we'll walk with a walk that is measured and slow,

And we'll go where the chalk-white arrows go,
For the children, they mark, and the children, they know
The place where the sidewalk ends.

It was around the fifth grade when I discovered my love of Nancy Drew. This mystery series captured my attention faster than anything else. I practically idolized Nancy. She was an amateur detective who was intelligent, cute and of course, very clever. She had loyal friends and a wonderful beau, Ned Nickerson. It was everything a young adolescent could hope for. The mysteries were fascinating, and I loved how they took me to different places. I read all 64 books in the series, and I owe my love of mystery and intrigue to the inspiring writing of Carolyn Keene.

In ninth grade, my friend introduced me to Francine Rivers' trilogy, The Mark of the Lion. It is Christian historical fiction and follows the life of Hadassah, a young slave girl in Rome. This was one of the first books where I could attach and relate to the characters. More than the story itself, I was drawn into the lives of these people and what they were experiencing with each other and the world around them. Rivers creates her characters as real people searching for truth in a tormented and broken world. A Voice In the Wind, the first of The Mark of the Lion series, was only the first of Francine Rivers books that I read.

I could not begin this blog properly without introducing my favorite book. Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers changed my view of life and introduced me to the power of God’s love. She tells the story of Hosea and Gomer from the book of Hosea in the Old Testament, but this story is set in California during the Gold Rush. The story is about Angel, a woman sold into prostitution as a child. Through hurt and pain but ultimately redemption, her story reveals the power of God's unrelenting love. It is the one book I highly recommend without hesitation.

These are a few of the beginnings that whetted my appetite for books. I have come a long way since Berenstain Bears and Nancy Drew, and thankfully my choice in books has widened and grown in variety. I read fiction and non-fiction and I am always eager for good recommendation. I keep a book journal, list and record book. Please know that any comments, questions, or criticisms are welcome on this blog.