"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened
and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you
and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse,
and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was."
Ernest Hemingway

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Dante Club

Random House
The Dante Club
Matthew Pearl

The Summary
"Boston, 1865.  A series of murders, all of them inspired by scenes in Dante's Inferno.  Only an elite group of America's first Dante scholars - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, James Russell Lowell, and J.T. Fields - can solve the mystery.  With the police baffled, more lives endangered, and Dante's literary future at stake, the Dante Club must shed its sheltered literary existence and find the killer."

The Good
I was hooked by the premise of The Dante Club:  a crazed killer haunting the streets of Boston, preying upon seemingly unrelated individuals, mimicking the horrible and grotesque tortures of Dante Alighieri's Inferno.  It combines literature, history, mystery, drama and suspense.  Matthew Pearl's novel has a little bit of everything, weaving together these different facets to create an intriguing and beguiling story.

Although I am a fan of Longfellow and I liked the literary characters that Pearl recruited, I have to say I liked Nicholas Rey the best.  As a detective, Rey was critical to the novel.  His side of the story, which ran parallel to the investigation prompted by the Dante Club, helps piece together clues to the puzzle, shows the actual police investigation (even if his police department isn't exactly the most reliable organization).

I also liked Rey because he was unceremoniously dismissed by his superiors, faced a level of adversity that the members of the Dante Club did not encounter and managed to perform his duties as an investigator.  You see, Rey is an African-American, and he is the first African-American investigator in his precinct.

Unlike Longfellow, Holmes, or Fields, who can travel where they like and speak to who they wish, Rey is not given that luxury.  His superiors often disregard or ignore him; his peers mock him; his city appears to see him as little more than a gimmick, a stab at diversity and equality that they don't honestly believe in.  He's blocked at every turn by the color of his skin and the deeply entrenched racial prejudices of his era.

And yet he still manages to do his job.

Rey is one of the most driven, the most competent and intelligent (if not the most) character in Pearl's novel, and he is by far my favorite.  Oh, you could argue Longfellow is a genius - and he is, like his colleagues - but Rey faces a level of adversity that the Dante Club does not and he still manages to piece together clues from a puzzle he doesn't readily understand.  To put it simply, he's great and he should never be underestimated.

The Bad
Pearl is a graduate of Harvard University and, honestly, it shows.  Don't get me wrong, I'm not criticizing his education.  I respect his education and I respect the great lengths to which he went to create a novel of such historical and literary depth; rather, I'm remarking upon the fact that The Dante Club can get a bit dense.  Verbose may be more accurate.

Pearl has created an exceptional novel, but he doesn't balance the depth and breadth of his research with ease of reading.  Wading through The Dante Club takes some time for the simple fact that you might not always understand the material he brings into his work.  If you don't have any prior knowledge of The Divine Comedy, if you don't know who Longfellow is or his importance in the literary field, then you might flounder a bit as you try to piece together the story.

It's a bit of a deterrent when you can't understand exactly what the characters are talking about.

The Ugly
The Dante Club is about a serial killer, first and foremost.  It's about a man who creeps through Boston, who systematically attacks and butchers people according to the cantos of Dante's Inferno.  It's a tale riddled with blood and gore as Longfellow and his colleagues, along with Nicholas Rey, attempt to uncover the identity of a depraved killer and stop him from murdering again.

Going into the novel, I expected carnage.

However, I will point out that I didn't expect Pearl's insight into the lives of individuals who survived the Civil War.  I grasped the social and historical context of the novel, but I didn't realize the detail the author would put into his work.  Pearl takes a long, hard look at the soldiers who survived the war and sheds unexpected light on the horrors that plagued the United States during this tumultuous time - and what he shows you isn't pretty.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Postscript: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Alfred A. Knopf
My copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had an interview with Roald Dahl.  In his interview with Todd McCormack in 1988, Dahl answered a number of questions, including how he creates such interesting characters and, more importantly, how he manages to avoid terrifying his young readers.

His interview was enlightening as it showed his process for fabricating stories, revealing his best tips and tricks for keeping up one's momentum, uncovering where he gets his ideas and why.  I found it fascinating to see how he worked, to find out why he did what he did and why he created what he created - and it was nice to get a glimpse into his creative capacity.

So how does Roald Dahl create such interesting characters as Veruca Salt and Grandpa Joe?  Well, for one, he refuses to write ordinary characters:
"When you're writing a book, with people in it as opposed to animals, it is no good having people who are ordinary, because they are not going to interest your readers at all.  Every writer in the world has to use the characters that have something interesting about them, and this is even more true in children's books.  I find that the only way to make my characters really interesting to children is to exaggerate all their good or bad qualities, and so if a person is nasty or bad or cruel, you make them very nasty, very bad, very cruel.  If they are ugly, you make them extremely ugly.  That, I think, is fun and makes an impact."
Exaggeration certainly does make an impact in reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  It makes characters much more memorable.  Furthermore, it sets distinct lines between "good" and "bad" - that is, it emphasizes the good qualities of characters (like Charlie, and Grandpa Joe) and the bad qualities of characters (read:  Veruca Salt, Mike Teavee, etc.) and makes them more likable or despicable.  It makes them unique and, like Dahl points out, makes it fun.

Moreover, I would think that the reader finds it easier to bear when bad characters meet an equally bad ending.  When horrible characters meet a horrible end, it isn't always a tragic event.  However, Dahl takes the added step of making horrific events less - well, horrific:
"You never describe any horrors happening, you just say that they do happen.  Children who got crunched up in Willy Wonka's chocolate machine were carried away and that was the end of it.  When the parents screamed, "Where has he gone?" and Wonka said "Well, he's gone to be made into fudge," that's where you laugh, because you don't see it happening, you don't hear the child screaming or anything like that ever, ever, ever."
His argument makes sense.  When left up to the imagination, it's hard to envision that Augustus Gloop would ever be made into fudge - it's impossible, right? - and it's even harder to imagine Violet Beauregard turning into a blueberry and being juiced.  These events are never described in detail:  you will find no gore, you will find no real violence; rather, you will see the effects much later - you know, after you realize his characters are indeed still alive.

And, I suppose, that makes terrible things - Augustus Gloop being made into fudge, Violet Beauregard turning into a blueberry, Veruca Salt falling down a garbage chute to the incinerator, Mike Teavee getting shrunk to the size of a person's thumb - easier to stomach.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

In Progress: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Completed)

Alfred A. Knopf
Having finished Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and realized there were indeed no fatalities recorded), I feel confident saying I enjoyed Roald Dahl's novel.  I don't believe I'll change my mind about Willy Wonka.  He's still wickedly brilliant and he's incredibly devious, more so than I ever thought possible; moreover, he's attempting to groom a successor to run his chocolate factory, which I find rather unnerving if I really think about it.

But, regardless, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has a happy ending.  The terrible children who disobeyed the rules and disregarded all parental authority suffered the consequences for their actions; Willy Wonka found a successor to ensure his factory would remain intact and safe; Charlie Bucket and his family are given a new home and they will no longer starve.

All's well that ends well, right?

By the conclusion of the book, I can't help being happy for Charlie Bucket.  As it turns out, Willy Wonka is harmless (more or less) and he's kind enough to leave Charlie a lasting legacy, giving the boy a brand new life:  Charlie will never go hungry again!  I realize that must be an incredible thing for a little boy who has only ever known poverty, uncertainty, and hunger.

And it seems incredibly important that Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ends with Charlie reassuring his family that their fortune has changed, that they will no longer starve.  It essentially brings the story full circle, taking it back to the issue of hunger under rather more auspicious circumstances.

Additionally, I've realized that Willy Wonka is only looking out for the best interests of his factory and his Oompa-Loompas.  If he is unforgiving of the other children who either disregard his authority or ignore his warnings, I suppose he has the right.  I mean, I understand why he doesn't feel the slightest bit of remorse for Veruca Salt being thrown down the garbage chute.  I never liked Veruca much either, so it's almost a relief when she gets her just desserts for her disobedience and petulant attitude.  Same with Mike Teavee:  you're  glad to see him gone.

However, I still find the Oompa-Loompas songs rather disturbing.  That has certainly not changed with further reading.  Even if I don't much care for Veruca Salt or Mike Teavee, I do feel a little bad for their plight.  Veruca is just a spoiled child, she doesn't deserve to reach the incinerator; Mike Teavee is disobedient and arrogant, he doesn't deserve to spend the rest of his life as the size of an ant.  The Oompa-Loompas would disagree:
"P.S. Regarding Mike Teavee,
We very much regret that we
Shall simply have to wait and see
If we can get him back his height,
But if we can't - it serves him right."
Yes, I suppose it serves him right, but I might still feel a twinge from my conscience.

Monday, March 23, 2015

In Progress: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Continued)

Alfred A. Knopf
As I'm reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, I've had a sudden and startling realization that Willy Wonka is a complete and utter psychopath.

Oh, I've shared similar realizations after watching both the 1971 film with Gene Wilder and the 2005 remake with Johnny Depp.  Wilder captures a darker side of Wonka, emulating his flagrant disregard for safety - and, let's be honest, the lives of his guests - while Depp portrays a particularly loony side of the renowned chocolate-maker.  After watching (and re-watching) the movies, I think it's safe to say that I know Willy Wonka is positively batty.

I love that he vacillates between sardonic and manic and pleasant and grim and silly.  There's something about him that's immediately intriguing, like he's having a laugh at the world but the world doesn't quite know it, like he has a secret to share and only those closest to him can be privy to such information.  Truthfully, I like Wonka for his eccentricities.  He's entirely crazy (or, at the very least, brilliantly unhinged), but that's what makes him interesting.

However, I never realized that Willy Wonka seems almost predatory.

I don't know if predatory is exactly the right word - criminally negligent, possibly?  Callous?  Careless? - but I find it does fit in some capacity because, you see, Wonka (and his Oompa-Loompa work force) is rather terrifying.  I mean, think about it:  Wonka has lured children and their parents to his chocolate factory, secluding them from the rest of the world, systematically playing upon their faults and weeding out the weak, greedy, irresponsible and stupid.  He isn't just some silly inventor of candies and sweet treats; he's an evil mastermind who preys upon other people.

And he's done it more than once.

After Augustus Gloop falls into the chocolate river and, subsequently, gets sucked up a tube to the Fudge Room, he tells his remaining guests not to worry:  "And please don't worry about Augustus Gloop.  He's bound to come out in the wash.  They always do."

They?  This has happened in the past?  Is no one else alarmed or, at least, discomfited by the notion that this has happened before?  I mean, Wonka could merely be referring to stains in general, using a vague "they" to refer to chocolate stains (working with chocolate every day must make him a bit of an expert on stain removal), or he could be implying that Augustus Gloop is a stain and he'll be forever changed after his experiences at the chocolate factory.

But, honestly, I find it more likely that Wonka actually means what he says.  (I'm guessing the poor Oompa-Loompas have gotten the raw in the deal seeing as how they're always his guinea pigs.  Honestly, he's probably referring to one of the Oompa-Loompas falling into the river and coming out clean later.  It wouldn't surprise me.)

And let's not forget Violet Beauregard, the girl who gets turned into a blueberry.  I'm not going to lie and say she didn't deserve it:  she did seeing as how Wonka clearly told her not to eat the gum and then she proceeded to disregard all advice contrary to her own desires.  However, I was a little perturbed by the little ditty that the Oompa-Loompas sang:
"And that is why we'll try so hard
To save Miss Violet Beauregard
From suffering an equal fate.
She's still quite young.  It's not too late,
Provided she survives the cure.
We hope she does.  We can't be sure."
First, they sing a song about Miss Bigelow, a lady who chews so much gum and chews so ferociously that she finally chews off her own tongue and, eventually, loses her mind; next, they sing about Violet in the hopes that things go well because, you know, it's entirely possible that she might just die from her unusual condition.

I suppose what makes it worse is the short exchange between Willie Wonka and Violet Beauregard during their trip to the Inventing Room:
"They passed a yellow door on which it said:  storeroom number 77--all the beans, cacao beans, coffee beans, jelly beans, and has beans. 
"'Has beans?' cried Violet Beauregard. 
"'You're one yourself!' said Mr. Wonka."
In the movies, you get the sense that Willy Wonka knows more than he's telling, he knows much more than he's letting on that he knows; however, you never really know for sure.  He either cleverly hides behind a veil of sarcasm or disregards the notion entirely, but, in the book, I find it highly unlikely he doesn't know what has and will happen in his chocolate factory.  I mean, Wonka is probably just insulting Violet when he calls her a "has been," but I can't get over how it foreshadows events in the future.

That's why I used the word predatory, because it's entirely possible that he's a patient, meticulous planner who manages to not only predict his guests behaviors but to create individualized traps to ensnare them.  Subsequently, that's also why I called him a compete and utter psychopath.

Why on earth did I ever wait to read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

In Progress: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Alfred A. Knopf
As a child, I never once picked up a book by Roald Dahl - not The BFG, not Matilda, not Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - and, as much as I read (as much as I have read), I feel as if I've missed out on something great.  I've watched "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Matilda" countless times on VHS (I even think I still own the VHS), DVD, and TV.  I can even recite lines along with the movies.

But, admittedly, I've never read the books.  Which is a shame since I picked up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory yesterday and, honestly, I love it.

I'm only a few chapters into it, but I love how weird and zany it is, I love how it alternates between absurd and serious, and I love how Roald Dahl creates such intriguing characters.  Sure the other four children are rather terrible (oh, who am I kidding?  They're beastly, as Grandma Josephine aptly puts it), but they're such crazy caricatures that I find them interesting and, truthfully, they make Charlie Bucket shine a little brighter.

Although I've enjoyed reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory immensely, I never realized that Dahl actually portrays rather horrific events in his novel.  For instance, I was struck to the quick when I realized how terribly poor Charlie and his family is.  I mean, I've watched the movies and I've surely realized that the Bucket family is impoverished; however, I didn't realize that Charlie Bucket was literally starving:
"And every day, Charlie Bucket grew thinner and thinner.  His face became frighteningly white and pinched.  The skin was drawn so tightly over the cheeks that you could see the shapes of the bones underneath.  [...]  And now, very calmly, with that curious wisdom that seems to come so often to small children in times of hardship, he began to make little changes here and there in some of the things that he did, so as to save his strength.  In the mornings, he left the house ten minutes earlier so that he could walk slowly to school, without ever having to run.  He sat quietly in the classroom during recess, resting himself, while the others rushed outdoors and threw snowballs and wrestled in the snow.  Everything he did now, he did slowly and carefully to prevent exhaustion."
Those words hit me like a punch in the gut.

I never went hungry during my childhood.  I was lucky to have parents who had the means and the opportunity to provide for me, so I never experienced hunger like Charlie Bucket does in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  In fact, hunger - more accurately, starvation - isn't something I regularly confront in my reading.  It's such a foreign experience to feel such desperate, visceral emotion when I'm reading, to recognize something tragic unfolding within what I once considered a happy story.

It's surprising and it's heartbreaking.

Luckily, I've gotten to the part where Charlie finds the Golden Ticket (I'm not spoiling anything, really.  I mean, it wouldn't be Charlie and the chocolate factory without him winning a Golden Ticket to enter the chocolate factory), so I find tragedy is balanced with a heaping dash of fortune.  It's hard not to be happy for Charlie when he finds the fifth and final ticket.  If anyone deserves such an amazing opportunity, it's Charlie Bucket.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Bonus: Juliet, Naked

Riverhead Books
Juliet, Naked
Nick Hornby

The Summary
"In a dreary seaside town in England, Annie loves Duncan - or she thinks she does, because she always has.  Duncan loves Annie, but then, all of a sudden, he doesn't anymore.  So Annie stops loving Duncan, and starts getting her own life.

"She sparks an e-mail correspondence with Tucker Crowe, a reclusive Dylanesque singer-songwriter who stopped making music twenty-two years ago, and who is also Duncan's greatest obsession.  A surprising connection is forged between two lonely people who are looking for more out of what they've got.

"What happens when a washed-up musician looks for another chance?  And miles away, a restless, childless woman looks for a change?  Juliet, Naked is a powerfully engrossing, humblingly humorous novel about music, love, loneliness, and the struggle to live up to one's promise."

The Good
Juliet, Naked is an enjoyable novel.  It doesn't contain a particularly incredible adventure, it isn't very romantic, but it isn't tragic; rather, I think it falls more into the slice-of-life category than anything.  Seeing as how it takes a small cross-section of stories from Annie Duncan and Tucker Crowe, following their lives as their paths inadvertently cross, I think it fits nicely as a slice-of-life piece of fiction.

However, I was incredibly pleased with Nick Hornby's characters.  He fleshed out his characters and created intriguing personalities within them, which I enjoyed.  You felt for them as they struggled with basic human problems.  You hoped for them as they tried to change what they could and be the decent people they hoped to be.

I liked that Tucker Crowe was flawed, that he was struggling with his past decisions and learning to forge a stronger bond with his son, Jackson.  I liked that Annie Duncan was taking a serious look at her life and questioning her career choices.  I liked that they were constantly changing, constantly making personal realizations and attempting to reconcile who they were with who they wished to be.

I liked that Hornby was able to give his characters of life of their own, give them human qualities that made them recognizable on an almost instinctual level.

The Bad
I recognize the resolution of Juliet, Naked for what it is:  a pivotal moment of change, a feeling that a door has opened for her and she has new possibilities standing before her.  Call it for what it is:  hope.  Annie has hope, and you have hope that things will change.

However, I will admit that I was mildly disappointed by how Hornby's novel ended.  I mean, I recognize that Juliet, Naked ended on a happy note.  I get that, but I just can't get past this sinking feeling that nothing was really resolved for Annie - or Tucker, for that matter - and I find that disappointing.

I remember an earlier line from Juliet, Naked that essentially sums up the entire novel:  "The truth about life was the nothing ever ended until you died, and even then you just left a whole bunch of unresolved narratives behind you."  That's it, I suppose.  It's an ending, one ending, but it's not really the end.

It's life.

The Ugly
Duncan's obsession is a bit strange.  Tucker's life is a mess.  Annie's caught in a slump and questioning her entire existence.  That's life for you, I suppose:  it isn't always very nice or very pretty, so brace for some confusion and heartbreak along the way.

C'est la vie, you know.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

The Dial Press (Random House)
Tell the Wolves I'm Home
Carol Rifka Brunt

The Summary
"1987.  The only person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus is her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss.  Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can be herself only in Finn's company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend.  So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June's world is turned upside down.  But Finn's death brings a surprise acquaintance into June's life.

"At the funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd.  A few days later, she receives a package in the mail containing a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn's apartment, and a note from Toby, the strange, asking for an opportunity to meet.  As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she's not the only one who misses Finn, and that this unexpected friend just might be the one she needs the most."

The Good
Simultaneously heart-wrenching and heart-warming, Tell the Wolves I'm Home is one girl's story as she puzzles through her adolescent years and a loss that has rocked her world.  June's story is bittersweet, mingling loss and love, prejudice and acceptance, revealing a candid story about her feelings for her uncle and his boyfriend, about her future and her relationship with her sister.

At it's core, it feels like a coming-of-age story; however, Tell the Wolves I'm Home is much more.  Yes, it's about June Elbus and it's about her struggles to acclimate to high school, to impending adulthood, but I found it contained so much more when it broached the subject of her Uncle Finn's disease and her acceptance of Toby.

As Brunt points out in an interview with Elin Hilderbrand, she didn't think of her novel as coming-of-age story until much later.  Furthermore, she says:
"I saw it more as an unlikely friendship story between June and Toby.  Since June is fourteen, and the events of the novel are life-changing, the novel automatically becomes a coming-of-age story.  [...]  If the same events happened to a slightly older narrator, the book would just be called fiction.  I actually had to go back and make the coming-of-age elements more apparent because it really wasn't a big part of my way of thinking about his novel."
Tell the Wolves I'm Home has much to offer in the examination of human relationships - for example, June and Greta's relationship, June and Finn's relationship, June and Toby's relationship, or even Danni (June's mother) and Finn's relationship - and human emotion when reflected with both personal loss and social issues.

The Bad
Admittedly, I struggled to read much of this novel.  Don't get me wrong, Brunt is a very talented writer and June is a candid, thoughtful narrator, so I have no complaints about the writing style of and character quirks in  Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

However, June's story is sometimes confusing and awkward and embarrassing and despairing - and, occasionally, it's difficult to feel so many of those volatile, teenage emotions that make you feel so inadequate, so uncertain.  You feel what June feels, you see the world as she sees the world, good and bad, black and white and gray, and it's a heady mixture to take in when she lays bare every real, raw emotion.

The Ugly
Prejudice.  HIV/AIDS.  Loss.  Love.

Pick one.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner (Maze Runner Series #1)
Delacorte Press
The Maze Runner
James Dashner

The Summary
Thomas has no memory of who he is or where he was before he reached the Glade.  He knows only his name, Thomas, and he knows he was meant to be a Runner in the maze that surrounds them, protects them, and, ultimately, traps them.

But, shortly after Thomas arrives, someone else is delivered to the Glade:  a girl, the first girl ever to arrive to the maze, and she has a message to deliver.  The world as they know it will change.  Forever.

The Good
The Maze Runner is a quick, suspenseful read.  It poses enough questions, throws out enough action and leaves enough bread crumbs, to keep you interested as you search for answers along with Thomas.  Furthermore, James Dashner certainly creates an intriguing concept:  a maze, a group of intelligent and self-sufficient adolescents seeking freedom from the Glade, and a number of sinister creatures known as Grievers.

The Maze Runner falls into the vein of The Hunger Games, pitting young individuals against seemingly insurmountable odds; however, it also calls upon William Goulding's Lord of the Flies.  It's an interesting blend of survival-horror and science-fiction and dystopian-apocalyptic, so it's something that might be worth perusing at least once.

The Bad
I wanted to enjoy The Maze Runner.  I really did try, but I just couldn't seem to sink my teeth into Dashner's novel like I originally hoped.  I mean, I enjoyed it - well, parts of it - but it just couldn't seem to hold my attention for very long.

Moreover, I found too many unanswered questions (yes, I realize there are still three more books in the series, including a prequel, so maybe I'm jumping the gun with such a complaint) and too much bloodshed for so many mysteries to linger.

And the conclusion just felt so peculiarly familiar to me.  I feel like I've read something similar.  Oh, wait, I have:  Lord of the Flies.

I'm not saying The Maze Runner is identical, but I thought it strange how Chuck was like a mirror image of Piggy (and, yes, they do share similar fates), how Chuck's relationship with Thomas seemed to parallel that of Piggy and Ralph.  To be honest, I found it a little eerie - and, confidentially, disappointing.  After a while, it started to feel like a remake of Lord of the Flies set in a post-apocalyptic future.

The Ugly
The conclusion.

Don't even talk to me about the concluding passages of The Maze Runner.  I can handle cliffhangers, I can handle tragedy, and I can handle disappointing conclusions, because I've had extensive experience with all three; however, I cannot seem to overcome my disappointment for how The Maze Runner ended.

For some reason, it just seemed to rub me the wrong way and I was disappointed in the worst way.  I'm talking the kind of disappointment you find when you finish the series finale of Dexter, or season 4 of The Glades on Netflix (and realize there's no season 5).

Let's just say, I was not a happy camper.