28 July 2014

More like a little match

I've been a slight fan of Dan Brown since the whole Da Vinci Code nonsense back in the day. Loved Angels & Demons, Digital Fortress & Deception Point. I loved that his novels all took place in a 24 hour period (as unbelievable as that was at some points) because it created a sense of immediacy to the story. There was no time for getting things wrong or falling in love (both invariably happening) because there was a mystery to solve and the world to save!

I wasn't overly thrilled with his last book,The Lost Symbol. (Plus, those of you who read it, that part near the end? That wasn't even creative storytelling! PLEASE!) But when Inferno came out I thought, "Well, I didn't really care about the Masons or the Illuminati, but Dante is a little bit more in my area of interest. It can't be too bad, right?"


Okay, it wasn't THAT bad…but it also wasn't great. Remember that sense of immediacy? Yeah, totally missing. I cared for a little bit and then things got confusing. Don't think I can't handle a complicated plot. I am reading Game of Thrones. I read Lord of the Rings. (AND I can keep the movie information separate from the book information!) I can do complicated.
Maybe this story wasn't complicated; maybe the storytelling was just lazy. A couple of characters were double and triple crossing loyalty lines and again, Dan Brown, that wasn't a "plot twist" or a slight surprise. That part felt like lazy story telling.

Robert Langdon wakes up in a hospital in Italy with absolutely no memory of how he got there. Sienna Brooks, a doctor at the hospital, tries to help him make sense of what has happened to him. A woman storms into the hospital and shoots the other doctor who was assisting with Langdon's care. Sienna tries to carry a half sedated Langdon out of the hospital to safety. And honestly for the rest of the book, you feel half sedated.

The initial plot is interesting: one man thinks that the world will soon be overpopulated and will drain the world of all natural resources. In order to prevent that from happening, he takes a page out of the history books for the best way to fix overpopulation: plague. I mean what other way can you appropriately cull a portion of the world?
(By the way, even Brown's solution to overpopulation feels like a cheat. I am running out of different ways of expressing how disappointing this book was.)

At this point in his life, Langdon (world class symbolist from Harvard) just sounds like a pretentious prat. "Well, I DID write the definitive work on Christian symbols in the Islamic world." Nice. Through this book, it's more like, "In my lecture series that was sold out, I spoke about ALL the things we need to know to solve this mystery! Let me flash back to that series to remember that information..." And I'm not even kidding about the flash backs. I mean, come on.

I hesitate to finish this post because I realize that there is no way I could write a 400 page novel laced with historical references and visual descriptions of iconic vistas with any kind of ease. That isn't my skill. So I do pause before I seriously rip into someone who seems to have a gift. Or, at very least, has gotten a publisher to get the manuscript past the slush pile. But I was not thrilled with this book. Like I said, I liked some of his older stuff but the new stuff…I don't know. He's missing something. Maybe he is trying to weave too many things into one plot. Maybe he feels locked into the 24 hour things and is finding it more and more difficult to execute the idea properly. I don't know. I can say with almost 100% certainty that this will be my last NEW Dan Brown book. Sorry buddy. Two duds in a row and I'm out.

(That is, of course, until he comes out with some kind of thriller about Shakespeare. I'll be all over that one.)

21 July 2014

15 out of 50: Wonder

As I've mentioned before, this year's reading challenge is not going too well for me. I've just finished my 15th book of the year last week but I am still way behind my reading schedule for the rest of the year.  I have been making more of an effort to read and have been trying to read books I am actually interested in, but it has still been pretty slow going.

I finished Wonder by R. J. Palacio last Tuesday and I loved it. August Pullman is starting 5th grade at Beecher Prep, but unlike the other kids in his class, navigating a new school isn't the only thing that has him worried about his new school. August was born with a facial deformity that required many surgeries just about every year since he was born, preventing him from attending public school. 
Palacio lets August tell most of the story, but throughout the school year, we see events through the eyes of Summer (the girl who befriends him at lunch on the first day of school), Jack Will (the boy who gives August a tour of the school at the request of the principal and later befriends August), Via (August's older sister), and Miranda (family friend). I love that Palacio gives each character a unique voice and a different writing style when they take over the narrative. 

Yes, it's a coming of age story. I mean, what YA/teen book isn't? That is half the reason why I love the genre. The characters are always learning something vital about people, growing up and life (and of course, by extension, you as the reader learn those lessons as well).  But is so much more than just a coming of age story. It addressed the problems that disabled people face every single day. It holds a mirror up to society and shows us that even when we think people can't see us react, poke fun or otherwise be rude human beings to other human beings, WE ARE WRONG. They know. And to go a bit further, they are fully aware of who they are and how they look. August describes how people react to him a couple of times in this book as the "look-away thing": when they look at him, notice his deformity and quickly look away. He hates when people do that. 

As a society, I think that is all we do. We look away from people who look or act differently than we do. I think, partially, we think we are being kind by not staring, as if we are can ascribe dignity to someone by ignoring them. We are embarrassed, sometimes, for the person with a disability. Why is that? Maybe it's because they don't look normal. Okay. But that begs the question, what is normal and why is it the golden standard for living? 

Palacio makes the distinction part way through the book that August has a facial deformity but is not "disabled, handicapped, nor developmentally delayed in any way." I think too often people assume that if one part of a person is "broken," the rest of that person is broken too. August is a bright child. He does well in all of his classes. He isn't stupid. We make these assumptions about people with Autism or people who are deaf, I think. Even if people are any of those things that August is not (disabled, handicapped or developmentally delayed), they are so much more than just the disability. Maybe that is the point Palacio is trying to make with this book. People are people, first and foremost. Past that, they might be short or tall, fat or skinny, average or developmentally disabled. People are the sum of their parts, not just a single thing. 

Let's get away from generalities. I am guilty of this thing that August hates: the look-away thing. I couldn't tell you why. Maybe it is an effort not to stare, maybe it is more than that. This book has challenged me to see people for the whole, not the parts. It has helped me understand, as far as the author was able to represent the perspective of one child with a facial deformity, the struggles that people with physical disabilities/deformities face every day. It has revealed my small minded view of people who look different than me and has challenged me to view other as whole beings, humans who have been created uniquely for a purpose.

Mr. Browne is the English teacher at Beecher Prep. Every month, he writes a precept on the board and challenges his students to understand it and apply it to their lives. If the lesson of this book could be summed up in a single sentence, I think his precept for September would be the sentence I choose: When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind -- Dr. Wayne W. Dyer.

Have you read Wonder? What did you think? What book have you read recently that has challenged the way you see the world? 

15 July 2014

Reading Rainbow: How I Fell in Love with Romance Novels

When people ask me what kind of books I like to read, I end up having a major existential crisis. If you had asked me 15 years ago, I would have told you that murder mysteries were my favorite and that I was (probably) currently reading an Agatha Christie book. My dad was really into Agatha Christie then so we had something to talk about. Also, Agatha Christie was in the Adult section of the library and well, my reading skills were obviously better than other 11 year olds who were still in the Young Adult section. Amateurs. (And let's not forget to mention the feat that was reading Gone with the Wind in sixth grade--just because it was over 1,000 pages. Yeah. I have a problem.) 

If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said fantasy. I read a ton of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien one summer. Like not just the books they wrote, but books about their lives. I remember being really upset when the book on Tolkien I ordered interlibrary loan didn't come because it was a university book and they wouldn't lend to a public library. 

In the last 3-5 years, my love has been Young Adult fiction. I blame this, of course, on skipping them when I was trying to grow up too fast. I hope that I have a greater appreciation for them now and I often find myself wishing I had read the book when I was younger. I often wonder what my life would have been like if I read Looking for Alaska when it was published (the end of my junior year in high school) or if I had been able to read Paulo  Coelho's The Alchemist after both high school & college graduations. 

But I never say that I like to read romance novels. Ever. Never ever. I don't know when this started. I try my hardest to never read Nicholas Sparks novels. Occasionally, as I've confessed on this blog before, I do read/try to read one of his book, but with limited success. I don't read Harlequin Romance novels. Those novels are all the same, aren't they? One character is moneyed and privilege and one is lower class or rebellious and, of course, they are thrown together. Arranged marriages are usually involved, too. They hate each other at first, of course, but eventually actually "fall in love" and are happy. I hate that the plots are almost all the same with half-developed characters, and lets face it, mostly just about sex. So no, I don't like to read romance novels. 

What I do like to read is good stories whose characters happen to fall in love/find love. To me, that is something entirely different from romance novels. Maybe its just semantics and they really are the same thing. I don't know. But the way I see them, they are two very different things. 

Rainbow Rowell's books helped me figure out these distinctions with romance novels, I think. I picked them up at my friend Rachel's recommendation. (Let's face it, she has flawless taste in books.) I think what I love best about her books (and by the way, Landline was another home run) is that they are about real, ordinary people trying to live their lives. They aren't about a love sick teenage/adult who latches on to the first hot guy/girl they see. Actually, Rowell shows you in pretty much all of her books, that just because a person is attractive doesn't mean that they are a good person. Appearance and personality are not connected. That isn't to say of course that the only good people are ugly, not at all. In Landline, Georgie is constantly commenting on how her husband, Neal, is attractive and the little things she loves about him and the way he looks. By contrast, her writing partner (I have since lent my copy of the book so forgive me for not remembering his name…is it Scott?) is the quintessential adorable frat boy who has a new girlfriend every couple of months and becomes successful at everything he does…but is kind of a prat in normal life. A sincere prat at times, but still a prat. 

And before I make every reason I love her books about style and the mechanics of her plots, let's be real: her books make me happy. Watching, as it were, two people meet, argue, date, break up, get back together, work problems out and, of course, fall in love, makes me ridiculously happy. All readers connect in a very intense way to the protagonist; when they fall in love, you, as the reader, do too. And that is something that will seem like magic to me.

What do you think about romance novels, friends? How do you define them and how do you decide what to read? 

Currently Reading:
Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo (yes. still.)
Wonder by  R. J. Palacio (I am LOVING this book!)