Monday, August 18, 2008

The List Continued

16. The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

Once again, I remain convinced that Weir should stick to history and forgo fiction. This book just came out this year, soon after her only other novel about Lady Jane Grey, which I read last December. Her main character is far too precocious at an early age and, very surprisingly, this book took some large liberties within technically historically accurate parameters. The author's note at the end of the book actually defends all of the choices Weir made that I disagreed with, which shows that she realizes the problems even though she feels justified. Ironically, that made me feel more justified with my criticisms since Weir is such an accomplished historian! The way she writes just doesn't work for a story however. She includes details, but all of her dialogues and descriptions of characters' thoughts and feelings feel so stagnant and contrived. I don't get a feeling of Elizabeth's true character even, passionate or guarded, deceptive or forthright, until the last couple sections. Elizabeth's sister Mary shifts suddenly from sympathetic to cruel and back. Actually, maybe that characterization is accurate, but the way she shows it is awkward. The last couple sections, with Elizabeth under Mary's reign feels much more realistic than the rest, but the crazy suggestions earlier on just make me balk at the work as a whole.One thing that interested me is Weir's Elizabeth is much more kind and honest while still being strong and clever than any Elizabeth I have met in fiction before. The Virgin Queen tends either to be portrayed as brilliant and heartless or heedless and passionate. but that's my SIP [Senior Independent Project] talking. I might come back to this book if I do any further studies on Elizabeth's portrayal in fiction, but otherwise I'd let it and its sister-book alone, and go read Weir's histories.

17. Trapped Inside the Story by Leslie Cohen

My grandfather saddled me with this book because we're supposedly related to the author. Which is probably as likely as us being Kohein but I digress. The author writes the Holocaust memoir, as told to her, of a Jewish girl, Sonya Hebenstreit, who survives in Nazi occupied Poland. She is 12 when the Germans invade and is the only survivor of her family of five. Sonya's story is different from many others I've read, she does not survive the camps or being shut up in one place for years. Instead, she lives in the ghetto hiding from roundups, buying and selling on the black market, and eventually moves around living with different people and pretending to be a Polish girl whose papers she obtains. At first, I wasn't very impressed, but as I got further, I became more and more involved with the story. It is written in the present tense which is at first awkward and noticeable, but ultimately adds to the urgency of the character's situation and atmosphere. Sonya is a very sympathetic creature and I'll admit to tearing up at points.

It's funny, I went through a stage around eight or nine when I read Holocaust memoir after memoir. My parents didn't like it and I had to hide the books from them. I've avoided those books in the past few years though, with the exception of Night, and they upset me more easily now. I feel so connected to the characters, I always did. They are me. I have had dreams and delusions where I've thought the Holocaust did or has happened to me. It did happen to members of my family. My father's father and his parents and brother were on the last ship out of Germany accepted at Ellis Island. We know there are things they never told us, and very recently we found something my great grandmother had written about Kristallnacht, when their shop was burned and her husband was taken. But it's even more real to me than that. In every generation, you shall say to your children, I was a slave who came forth from Egypt, the Haggadah tells us, and that is how I feel about the Holocaust.

Continuing with this particular book, there is a running gimmick of stories Sonya has known since childhood and her imaginary conversations with the characters. It was sort of interesting, but more could have been done with it or it could have been left out. I don't know if I'd recommend this exactly, but well, why not? I hate to depress people, but maybe you should read this if you feel in need of getting a grip on what's really important or balancing yourself in a world that's not nearly as nightmarish as the character's.

18. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

This is actually my first re-read of this epic conclusion. I've read books one-four more times than I can count, and the fifth and sixth a couple of times each. I went in to see how valid the criticisms I had the first time I read it were and of course to see what else I could get out of it. I find I'm generally kinder on a second read than the first, perhaps surprisingly.

This time, the wandering around in forests didn't bother me as much, I remember thinking that dragged on way too long. I really don't like the opening chapter with the Death Eaters at all. She's already done the whole "view from the other side" thing in opening chapters before, this just feels gratuitous. Kreacher's transformation from evil to wonderful is still too abrupt. in general, I just feel like she focused on a lot of the wrong things. I wanted to see Umbridge die or at least be defeated, I want to know more about what went on at Hogwarts earlier in the book, and I want more testimony to Snape's brilliance and innate goodness. Snape just wasn't exonerated enough for me, which is a shame, because I really want to like him more than I do. And his death is just pathetic. However, I do after all like the way she portrays the difference between Harry and Hermione's intelligences. Harry does figure out a lot on his own without Hermione's help, even despite it, in this book, and he becomes likable again after being a brat in the fifth and still a little whiny in the sixth. Last time I thought Hermione just knew way too much, all of a sudden, and was too organized, even for her, but now I can kind of see most of it working. Plus, the whole Ron/Hermione ship does build for most of the book, so it's not random when they kiss, although it's such an awkward time...I still think she killed too many people unnecessarily. Fred should have lived, naturally, and at least Tonks as well if not Lupin. The epilogue is still kind of silly and I will always wish it was Harry/Luna instead of Harry/Ginny, but maybe Luna is too cool for Harry. Even though I'd read it before, tears still came to my eyes for Fred and I still did an involuntary fist-pump for Neville slicing off Nagini's head. I understand better the whole scene with Dumbledore when Harry's "dead", and it just fits with the epic tradition and this time it did seem to me to be more about Harry figuring things out on his own and projecting Dumbledore rather than a visit with the "real" Dumbledore. I still agree with my opinion before that there are just some things about Dumbledore I didn't want to know, but after all he did become a genuinely wonderful person and teacher.Overall, I just care about all of these characters so much and obviously that's a great achievement in itself. The plots are largely, but not completely, predictable, but Rowling's world is just so full and vivid that I honestly do think Harry Potter is a classic for the ages. I hope it stands the test of time, and yes, they're not the greatest or best written books ever, but they are the books our generation will remember forever.

19. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

I started at midnight, couldn't put it down, and finished in the wee hours. I'm tempted to call this novel "cute," but the author would probably find that demeaning. It's obvious she was trying to create a meaningful story about female power and the racial tensions of the 1960s. Lily Owens is a girl who lost her mother in a terrible accident, and the book begins with the accident and other exciting events in quick succession. Then the book calms down, and in my mind, remained mostly serene from then on. I wasn't really expecting that, but it was a nice break from heavier books I've just been reading. "Bad things" happen later on, but for some reason I got this sense of peace with it, probably due to the almost insensibly sanguine character August Boatwright. This woman just seems to take everything in, accept it, and make the best of it. She's not very realistic in that sense, but it works for this book, which has an underlying mysticism. One of the recurring motifs is the Black Madonna or Virgin Mary, but August as much as says at one point that it's not even about Mary really, just the sense of something watching over you, that can come from within. My only criticism would be that it's not very realistic and things work out too neatly, but even that's not really a criticism because it gives you a sense of hope. The truth in this book comes from the hopes of people at that time and in our time for people of different races and genders to finally accept each other.


20. The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams

This is probably one of the best posthumous collections I've ever read. I also just learned that I pronounce 'posthumous' wrong, probably because I've never had much cause to say it aloud. Douglas Adams is the wonderfully hilarious author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame, and who passed away in 2001 at the age of 49. I also learned that he has a daughter who is now just 13, which makes me very sad. In one of those serendipitous connections (or perhaps not, I learned Adams was also friendly with the likes of Paul McCartney and Michael Nesmith), he was good friends with the brilliant biologist and notorious atheist Richard Dawkins. I knew this, since The God Delusion was dedicated to Adams, but it's brought up many times in the collection so I just thought I'd mention it. The collection is very well organized, in my opinion, for a bunch of random articles and stories. A few of the articles are by friends and contemporaries about Adams, but the majority of the book are examples of Douglas' wit and imagination. It really gives a feel for the kind of person he was in the eyes of himself and those who knew him. "The Salmon of Doubt" was supposed to be the title for the book he was working on when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack. I would recommend this to anybody who loved "Hitchhiker's Guide," but really it's so funny and light I'd recommend it to anyone. You can't help but be interested in Douglas Adams and his quick, glib, out-of-nowhere humor. In other news, I shamefully admit that I must read the rest of the Hitchhiker books.

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