Review: The Giver

Giver, TheLois Lowry, The Giver

Eleven-year-old Jonas lives with his parents and sister in an idyllic place called simply the Community. The Community is governed by a set of Rules covering all aspects of life, which results in a peaceful, orderly society. Everyone has a specific role to play in the Community, with the Elders evaluating the children on their twelfth birthday in order to determine how they will serve the Community as adults. Jonas is looking forward to his Ceremony of Twelve with great excitement, wondering which job he’ll be assigned to perform. But when the fateful day finally arrives, Jonas is stunned to learn that he’s been chosen for the most prestigious and mysterious job of all: he will be the Community’s new Receiver. At first Jonas doesn’t even know what being the Receiver entails, but he soon learns that it will isolate him from everyone he knows, even his family. And as his training with the former Receiver (now called the Giver) continues, Jonas realizes that the supposedly benevolent Community is hiding some very dark secrets.

Despite the fact that this book came out during my childhood, I somehow never read it before. So I was a bit nervous that I wouldn’t enjoy it, reading it for the first time as an adult. Fortunately, my fear was groundless — I thought this was an absolutely fantastic book! Of course, some of the more sinister aspects of the Community will be unsurprising to adult readers, who have presumably encountered other dystopian novels and can guess what’s coming. But Lowry does such an amazing job of peeling back the seemingly perfect facade of the Community bit by bit, slowly revealing surprising tidbits of this allegedly ideal world. I also really loved the character of Jonas, who reacts to his new discoveries in such an understandable way. I practically got chills at the scene where he gets his list of Rules for how to be the Receiver — it perfectly encapsulates the confusing new world he’s been thrust into. Finally, I liked the ambiguity of the ending; Jonas decides to take a stand, but the outcome of this decision remains uncertain. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes dystopian novels!

Review: Lexicon

LexiconMax Barry, Lexicon

Emily Ruff is a teenager living on the streets of San Francisco, subsisting on the change she earns by fleecing people at cards. So when she is approached by a mysterious organization that wants to send her to a special boarding school, all expenses paid, she jumps at the chance without asking too many questions. When Emily arrives at the school, she learns that its purpose is to train poets, an elite group of individuals who can use words to “persuade” people to do anything. Emily learns that people can be divided into segments based on their personality type, and each segment responds to a unique set of words. The poets want Emily because they have ascertained that she is more than usually persuasive. Meanwhile, Wil Parte is on the run, accompanied by a renegade poet called Eliot — but he doesn’t know who he’s running from or why they’re looking for him. Both Emily and Wil must eventually face violence and impossible choices as the connection between their stories becomes evident.

I picked up this book because I loved the premise, which is essentially that words have power (something book lovers already know!). Max Barry has imagined a world in which the masses can be controlled by an elite few with words alone — a world that is frighteningly close to our own. For me, the book’s biggest strength is how plausible it is; with our private lives increasingly made public through the Internet, it’s very easy to imagine governments and other powerful groups using that private information for their own ends. The book also reads extremely quickly and is chock-full of action. However, the book was a little too graphic for me, in terms of both sex and violence. And more importantly, I feel like Barry missed a great opportunity to explore some interesting philosophical questions in the novel. Clearly the poets are to some extent sinister, and the villain of the book is quite obviously the villain; but even the so-called heroes do a lot of morally questionable things, and their behavior is never really called to account. The book has a happy(ish) ending, and I just don’t think it’s justified. Still, this is a fun read if you’re interested in the premise, but I’d recommend getting it from the library rather than buying.

Review: Asleep in the Sun

Asleep in the SunAdolfo Bioy Casares, Asleep in the Sun (trans. Suzanne Jill Levine)

Lucio Bordenave is a fairly ordinary, contented man who lives with his wife, Diana, and an old servant called Ceferina. His life is not without problems, however, and most of them center around Diana, who is very high-strung and always seems to be unhappy about something. Lucio protests that he loves his wife and is generally happy in his marriage…but when a doctor from the nearby sanatorium suggests that Diana might benefit from a short treatment there, Lucio finds himself agreeing. Diana accordingly goes to the mental hospital, and when she returns, she is joyful, loving, and contented. At first, Lucio is pleased with Diana’s “cure,” but eventually he begins to feel that something is not quite right. But when he attempts to get more information from the mental hospital, he is propelled into a nightmarish state of confusion that culminates in his learning the shocking truth.

This is my first book by Bioy Casares, and I’ve read almost no South American literature, so I honestly had no idea what to expect. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised by this weird little novel. I really liked the narrative structure: Lucio is the narrator for most of the book, and the first page reveals that he is writing to an old acquaintance for help — so you know right away that something has gone terribly wrong. The framework also inevitably raises questions about Lucio’s reliability; is he lying, or has he possibly gone mad from worrying about a perceived difference in his wife that doesn’t really exist? An interesting ambiguity is maintained for most of the novel, but in the end — fortunately, from my point of view — the truth is revealed. I’m not opposed to ambiguous endings in certain circumstances, but I’ll admit that in general, I prefer to have some level of closure. I also want to note that most editions of this book have HUGE spoilers in the cover blurb; the NYRB edition is an especially egregious offender. For this reason, I’d encourage people to avoid plot synopses as much as possible and go into the book “blind”; I promise you’ll enjoy it more that way!

Review: Un Lun Dun

Un Lun DunChina Miéville, Un Lun Dun

Zanna and Deeba, two seemingly ordinarly pre-teen girls, are suddenly thrust into an unfamiliar world when they follow an umbrella into a dark London basement and emerge in Un Lun Dun. Un Lun Dun is an “abcity,” part of a universe that parallels our own but has many significant differences. (For example, giraffes aren’t exactly harmless herbivores in Un Lun Dun….) At first, Zanna and Deeba only want to go home; but they soon learn that Un Lun Dun is under attack by the evil Smog, and Zanna is supposed to be the “Schwazzy,” or chosen one, who will fulfill an ancient prophecy and defeat it. The girls are willing enough to help, but when their first encounter with the Smog goes terribly wrong, it’s up to Deeba, rather than the chosen Zanna, to save the day.

This was my first encounter with Miéville, and I’m thinking it won’t be my last. If you enjoy detailed world-building and clever puns, this is definitely a book for you! The world of Un Lun Dun is wildly inventive, from the trash-can warriors known as “binjas” to the flying buses to the “extreme librarians” who populate the abcity. You may think the book sounds a lot like Gaiman’s Neverwhere, what with the alternate London setting, but I was actually reminded a lot more of Jasper Fforde. The plot itself is rather predictable, but it’s still a fun ride to follow Deeba as she figures out who her real allies and her real enemies are. Some may find the book a bit preachy on the issue of environmentalism — the villain is literally called Smog, after all — but since this book is aimed toward younger readers, I suppose the message shouldn’t be too subtle! All in all, I found this book very entertaining, and I’m interested to try some of Miéville’s adult novels now.

Review: The Glass Menagerie

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee WilliamsTennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie

This classic American play centers around the Wingfields, a lower-middle-class family living in the Midwest. The mother, Amanda, is a former Southern belle who is desperate to prevent the family from sinking into poverty. The daughter, Laura, is a fragile young woman with a slight physical deformity that has made her morbidly self-conscious and shy. The son, Tom, works in a warehouse but dreams of being a poet and living a life of adventure. When a “gentleman caller” comes to dinner, Amanda pressures Laura to make a good impression on him, but the evening doesn’t go according to plan.

I haven’t had much prior experience of Tennessee Williams, but I quite liked this play and can see why it’s considered a classic. I was definitely invested in the story and felt particularly sympathetic toward Laura. Amanda, on the other hand, drove me crazy; she reminded me of Mrs. Bennet in her pushy eagerness for Laura to attract an eligible husband. And Tom was actually the least interesting character for me, because it seemed like he was nothing more than a spokesman for the author. Though he’s fairly artistic about it, Williams definitely uses this play to express his views on the flaws in his society. I would be interested in seeing the work performed, as there are a lot of very specific stage directions, but it also “reads” well. Overall, I’d say it’s worth reading, even if it’s not destined to become one of my favorite plays.

Review: A Handful of Dust

Evelyn Waugh, A Handful of Dust

This novel, set mainly among the leisured class of 1930s England, follows a small group of social acquaintances and sheds light on their shallow approach to life. Brenda Last is married to Tony, a traditional English gentleman who is devoted to preserving his estate. Bored and lonely in the country, Brenda decides to spend more time in London. She soon enters into an affair with John Beaver, an idle young man with no job and not much money, whose greatest talent is lunching at other people’s expense. Tony is oblivious to what’s going on until a shocking tragedy forces his failing marriage into the limelight. As the Lasts try to cope with the fallout from Brenda’s infidelity, they both hope that striking out on their own will bring them happiness, but their efforts are ultimately doomed to failure.

I’m the kind of person who tends to enjoy books with happy endings and likable protagonists. I figure, why read a book that’s just going to depress you? But this book is the antithesis of the qualities I just mentioned, and I still thought it was excellent. Most of the main characters are horrible, odious people, but they’re like a train wreck that I couldn’t look away from. I did sympathize with Tony quite a bit, especially because of one truly heinous thing that Brenda said (don’t want to spoil, so unfortunately I can’t be specific). The whole time, I was hoping that things would somehow work out in the end, even though I knew it was extremely unlikely. I’m also a fan of Waugh’s writing style: he mocks his characters mercilessly, but you can’t really fault him for it because they truly deserve it! So I would definitely recommend this book to fans of classic literature, even those who prefer more lighthearted literature.

Review: Year Zero

Year Zero: A Novel by Rob ReidRob Reid, Year Zero

Nick Carter is a midlevel associate at an intellectual property law firm. His biggest problems are lack of job security — if he doesn’t get on the partner track soon, he’ll most likely be fired — and his crush on the hot girl in his apartment building. But things get a whole lot worse for Nick when two aliens suddenly appear in his office and announce that Earth is in serious trouble. The aliens explain that Earth’s music is the most popular in the universe and that various alien species have been pirating the music at an alarming rate. Due to Earth’s copyright laws, the aliens owe us a whole lot of money — and they’re not happy about it. Can Nick use his legal knowledge and bluffing ability to save the world?

This is an extremely clever sci-fi novel whose success really depends on its premise. If the idea of aliens getting all worked up over copyright infringement appeals to you, you’ll most likely enjoy this book. Personally, I thought it was a funny and entertaining read. The satire of U.S. copyright laws and their total inability to deal with the Internet is pretty spot-on, but the book mostly focuses on silliness rather than social commentary. I loved the musical in-jokes, which mostly focus on classic rock (“year zero” to the aliens is 1977, the year in which they were first exposed to Earth music). Gotta love a universe where aliens will be reduced to a state of quivering ecstasy by hearing a Simply Red song! Anyway, as I said, if you like the premise, this one is worth a read.

Review: Alice Adams

Booth Tarkington, Alice Adams

This novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, tells the story of Alice Adams, a young woman who is determined to rise in society. Her father is kind-hearted and hardworking but content to be merely an employee at the factory of J.A. Lamb, the (unnamed) city’s most prominent businessman. He makes a decent salary, but it’s not enough for Alice to be able to mix in high society. Alice and her mother therefore continually badger her father to go into business for himself, which he eventually does — with disastrous consequences. Meanwhile, Alice meets the well-to-do Arthur Russell and immediately determines to marry him so that she can finally be the fine lady she’s always wanted to be.

I found this novel fascinating for several reasons. First, the plot manages to be suspenseful despite the ending’s inevitability; you know things are not going to end well for Alice, but you can’t help turning the pages in horrified fascination. Especially toward the end, when I could really see where things were heading, every terrible decision the Adamses made caused me to squirm. At the same time, I couldn’t help pitying Alice, her father and even her mother. They’re not bad people; they just think they’re entitled to a better lifestyle than they’re used to, and they don’t quite know how to get there. Alice is an especially interesting character. On the one hand, she’s basically a gold-digger, but she at least has enough self-awareness to realize that she’s being shallow. So I did enjoy this book, although in my opinion it’s not as good as Tarkington’s other Pulitzer-winning novel, The Magnificent Ambersons.