Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Parable of the Sower

7. Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Parable of the Sower has been on my reading list for a while and I picked it up recently at Capitol Hill Books, a used bookstore near Eastern Market in D.C. that really does seem to have everything.

Fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina lives in a walled-in cul-de-sac in a suburb of Los Angeles. The few times she has been Outside, her father, a Baptist minister and other adults from the neighborhood have escorted the children in an armed group. Although her small community helps each other, attends church together, and grows their own food, outside their wall lurks a constant assault of increasingly desperate, homeless, and drug-addicted people. Money and jobs, not to mention water, are scarce and the federal government is all but defunct. State borders are heavily patrolled and the incompetent police are only available for exorbitant fees. No child has a hope of a life better than their parents, who still keep insisting 'the good times will return.' But Lauren has a dream. She invents her own religion, Earthseed, and she believes she can build a community that will be drawn together through a common goal of one day inhabiting planets light years away.

The premise of Butler's novel feels shockingly, darkly real to me. The problems of her world, caused by overpopulation, economic breakdown, global warming leading to water shortages, gas shortages, and all kinds of horrific drugs, seem extremely plausible from the vantage point of 2012. My generation is the first in decades where there is no reasonable expectation that we will achieve more than our parents did. While it may seem melodramatic in my case, I related to Lauren's insistence that it is not possible to wait for "the good times" to return. We cannot sit back and hope that the economy will resolve itself. Her "God," as she puts it, is Change. She planned for survival, for going Outside, and achieving her dreams despite the obvious danger and comparative safety of her home. While I did not find the religious verses that accompany each chapter particularly inspiring, Lauren's attitude and self-reliance I did find incredibly admirable.

Butler does not stint on realism at any point in the novel. She is all too aware of the horrors that people are capable of and how survival works in desperate situations. Nevertheless, Lauren does find others sympathetic to her, those who are worthy of the type of community she wants to build. This is a combination of post-apocalyptic/dystopian novel, survival novel, coming-of-age journey, and religious text. I wish everyone in the world would read it today and work together to prevent a world like that from happening.

Monday, February 27, 2012

King of the Murgos

6. King of the Murgos by David Eddings (Book 2 of The Malloreon)

I read Guardians of the West (Book 1 of The Malloreon) a few months ago, but it's actually been a bit of a challenge to find these books on Bookmooch or at the library. I might have to give in and just buy the set, but not yet.

Garion and Ce'Nedra of The Belgariad are now King and Queen of Riva. Garion slew the evil god Torak and settled the conflict between the Dark and the Light forever-or so we thought. Now, Garion and Ce'Nedra's son, the infant Prince Geran, has been stolen by Zandramas, the new Child of the Dark. The pair and a group of companions, new and old, has set out to recover the child and destroy the Dark once and for all.

Unlike the original series, which featured the same crisp writing, compelling characters, and classic Hero's Journey structure, the gap between Dark and Light is not as clear. Some of the companions' new members are of deeply questionable loyalties and even our old friends can surprise us with decidedly less than moral decisions. The boy Errand becomes the young man Eriond, and it is his power and good heart that makes those difficult but upstanding moral decisions that we expect from our heroes.

The Malloreon
also develops compassion for the reviled Angarak race, whom our friends have heretofore regarded as little better than Orcs. The eponymous King of the Murgos, Urgit, may have something to do with that, though he is not whom he seems either. This series features more of Silk, or Prince Kheldar, and whetted my appetite to learn even more about the "rodent-faced man." It's hard to imagine Garion as a grown-up, but except for more violence, he still seems like a boy. And Polgara and Durnik still warm the cockles of my heart, though I wish there were more moments with them.

Eddings is pure fun, engaging fantasy and I know I want to read the rest of The Malloreon and will probably keep going down his oeuvre. Seriously, if you like fantasy, go check him out.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Top Ten Books I Would Save If My House Were Abducted by Aliens

My house is being abducted by aliens? Sweet! Let me grab a notebook and pen, and I'm all ready for my new life among the extraterrestrials.

When I was little, I always used to think about which books I'd save in case of a fire. I felt obligated to go for my Torah and Siddur and kept them on the shelf closest to my bed. Next closest to my heart? My father's copies of Lord of the Rings, which I brought into my room for safekeeping. Unfortunately, the family's copies of the Complete Works of Shakespeare and Pride and Prejudice were stored downstairs, so I despaired of saving those.

1. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

Specifically, my father's old paperbacks from the 1970s, but I have multiple copies...

2. The Torah

I have a nice copy and if I needed to start a new civilization or educate aliens about human society, I'd want this.

3. Siddur (prayer book)

See above. Also, got this for my Bat Mitzvah.

4. A Tangled Web by L.M.Montgomery

I can read this book over and over again, for whatever reason, it's my go-to comfort read and it would be like a security blanket for me on an alien planet.

5. Trixie Belden mysteries by Kathryn Kenny

I have 5 or 6 of these old hardcover books that belonged to my mother's mother. I guess they're kind of heirlooms at this point.

6. Harry Potter books 1-7 by J.K. Rowling

I have all the original American hardcovers. These are the books I read from 2nd grade to 12th grade, read to my sister, read to my brother, and waited in ridiculously long lines for.

7. Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

I begged my mother to buy the box set for me at the school book fair and read them over and over till they're literally falling to pieces. Priceless.

8. The Complete Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I have the fancy gold-edged hardcover =)

9. The Source by James Michener

My grandfather bought this for me because he really liked it and I'm so glad I got to read and discuss it with him.

10. Elizabeth I by Margaret George

My beautiful hardcover copy is SIGNED by Margaret George!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Top Ten Books That Broke My Heart A Lot

Today's topic at the Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten Books That Broke My Heart A Little Lot. The change is mine. I dare anyone to read Where the Red Fern Grows and NOT cry. The final three books are Holocaust memoirs, I went through a stage of reading those as a kid, I would highly recommend all three of these to anyone interested.

1. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls

2. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

3. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

4. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

6. My Antonia by Willa Cather

7. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

8. Night by Elie Wiesel

9. The Diary of Anne Frank by Anne Frank

10. I Have Lived A Thousand Years by Livia Bitton-Jackson

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Top Ten Books I'd Hand to Someone Who Says They Don't Like to Read

Honestly, this week's topic for the Broke and the Bookish often stumps me. Because anyone who knows me knows I am a huge bookworm, I am often asked to recommend books and sometimes to people who say they don't like to read.

I don't know what it feels like not to love reading. I have always loved stories and was read to even before I could read. I remember the mechanics of learning to read were difficult and I recall struggling with it, but that's the only disincentive to read I remember. And I still wanted people to read to me. I have a lot of sympathy with kids (or adults) who are learning to read, and especially with kids I've worked with and known personally, reading a fantasy book with them, such as Harry Potter or The Hobbit or even Eragon, has inspired them to want to read or read more.

But for adults who don't like to read? It's complicated. Some look down on fantasy or science fiction, refuse to read on principle or just have no interest. Some will read "trashy" romance or mystery novels, for the thrills and suspense. Others refuse to read anything but nonfiction, because they consider themselves above all that. (Well, no wonder they think reading is boring*).

Recommending books to someone who doesn't like to read is all about that person's individual tastes and what they will tolerate. I don't think there are universal books that everyone will like. Like I said, kids seem to be a little easier to get into reading than adults. I'm going to list 5 books that are tried and proven to get kids into reading and my 5 best guesses for adults, but again, these are books that I've liked that I really don't know if the average adult would be into.

Top 5 Books for Kids Who Don't Like to Read

1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling-and on from there.

2. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

3. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis

4. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine (Sadly, probably only the girls will go for this one).

5. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

Top 5 Books for Adults Who Don't Like to Read

1. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

5. The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (Sadly, probably only women will read this).

*Kidding! I know not all nonfiction is boring.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Winter Palace

5. The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

Eva Stachniak has single-handedly restored my faith in historical fiction. The praise on the back quotes C.W. Gortner, "This novel is literary sable." I could not have formed a more appropriate description. Stachniak's lush imagery carries the novel, though it owes much to its subject, the opulence of the 18th century Russian court, as well.

Varvara Nikolayevna, a bookbinder's daughter from Poland, is left orphaned at fifteen under the patronage of Empress Elizabeth of Russia, daughter of Peter the Great. Varvara becomes a spy or "tongue," which is Stachniak's cleverest move (I'll explain why later). After a year or so adjusting to her new duties and girded with a fresh awareness of her surroundings, Varvara is invited to befriend a new arrival at court, Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst. The Empress wants to know everything about the potential betrothed of her nephew Peter, whom she has adopted as her heir. Varvara becomes devoted to the princess, who converts to Russian Orthodoxy taking the name Catherine, and leaps through a series of hoops to land the coveted position of bride to the foolish and pockmarked Peter. Through Varvara's eyes, we come to know the royal family and courtiers intimately. With her, we watch Catherine's complex rise to power.

Varvara's position as a spy allows the intrigue of the plot to revolve around spies, gossip, and politics, and unlike other recent historical fiction, gaps are not needlessly filled in with sex to keep things interesting. In fact, for a story that involves so much sex (as both the women Varvara serves, Empress Elizabeth and the future Catherine the Great were known for their sexual appetites and numerous lovers), there is surprisingly little explicit. Sex takes the background to a political and personal foreground, a much more solid move for a novel of literary import. Unlike other spy novels, Varvara lacks the usual level of cynicism and detachment. She allows herself to trust and get close to Catherine, inverting the usual story of a spy who distrusts everyone till proven wrong. The true love in this story is not between men and women, but between women. There is a natural arc and ending place in Catherine's ascendance to the throne, the crux of Varvara's story is a little more ambiguous, but no less interesting in a character that many readers will identify with.

I found it interesting to discover that, like Varvara, the author was born in Poland, and her fondness for her homeland is evident in her sunny representation of it. While she recognizes it is less sensually impressive than imperial Russia, she deftly works in Poland's democratic election of kings, in a time when such elections were rare or unthought of (though the French Revolution would soon change that). The author currently lives in Toronto, and I am thrilled to report, is working on a sequel. Recommended to fans of historical fiction everywhere-get your head out of the Tudor gutter, let's move East.